Steve Wozniak

hacker and humanitarian

Designing a Life

Man is still the most extraordinary computer of all.

John F. Kennedy

You know you've arrived when you can go by a single name like Madonna or Cher. Among early personal-computer owners, Steve Wozniak (age forty-two) is simply known as Woz. His name is associated with the magic and romance of the Apple I and Apple II because he and Steve Jobs are the legendary "two guys in a garage" who started Apple Computer.

Three people were responsible for Apple's early success: Steve Jobs, Mike Markkula, and Woz. Jobs was the charismatic leader who came up with the idea of selling preassembled, ready-to-use computers. Mike Markkula, a rich and semiretired investor who made his millions at Intel, never worked for Apple but provided capital, credibility, and industry know-how. Woz was the engineer. He liked to build cool computers to impress the members of the Homebrew Computer Club, an eclectic group of renegades interested in microprocessors and computers.

This chapter is about the early days of Apple and choosing your life's work. Woz and I met for this interview in his offices in Los Gatos, California. Lab would be a better way to describe this facility, because it is jammed with Macintosh computers and printers as well as audio and video equipment. Almost anyone's mom would faint at the disarray here, and just about anyone's dad would faint at the cost of the equipment lying around.

The Start of Apple Computer

When Woz was designing the Apple I, he never thought that the product would launch a multibillion-dollar company. He was just having fun-applying his engineering skills to build gadgets for himself and his friends.

Apple was a total accident of history. I was building projects like terminals for Hewlett-Packard and heard about a club starting up. I designed the Apple I in a closed room in my lab at Hewlett-Packard and in my apartment in Cupertino. I just built it for myself and started showing it off at the Club [the Homebrew Computer Club] by passing out schematics. It was like a science project I was showing off to friends. It wasn't done to be a product to be sold.

Steve Jobs came to one of the club meetings, and he saw that people were interested in my schematics. He came up with an idea-he had worked in surplus-electronics stores-Why don't we make a PC board for $20 and sell it for $40? I didn't know if we would make our money back, but I finally went along with his idea. When you are young, it is a neat, thrilling idea that you could have a company. It didn't have to be for money.

We never knew exactly what the next step was. What was right in front of you was obvious, but you could never look three, four, or seven steps ahead. We thought we were going to sell PC boards for $40, and maybe we'd make $1,000 back. We wound up getting orders for $500 computers right away, but it was a total surprise.

All the designs and all the software for the Apple I were my ideas. The electronic features-how many chips did what and right down to how many slots-were all my choices. What the computer looked like, how it would be sold, and how it would be presented to people were Steve's. Working with Mike Markkula, he came up with ideas to make the Apple II a salable device.

Why did Woz and Jobs cause the birth of the most important industry since automobiles, while other companies missed it? Maybe it's because Woz and Jobs were beatniks and hippies-trying to start a revolution, not build an industry.

Apple came about from a couple of kids with an idea of building a little cheap product, trying to hawk it, finding sales, and stepping into magic. I came from a group that was what you might call beatniks or hippies-a lot of technicians who talked radical about a revolution in information and how we were going to totally change the world and put computers in homes.

If people who were smart in business had looked at us in the category of small computers and thought Apple was going to become a huge company, they would have started something inside their companies. Mike Markkula told us a company like Apple-a brand-new, little company that is just starting up-can get in and hold on to a certain amount of the market and grow with the market. He turned out to be right, but at first I thought he was just making up the hugest number possible.

Woz and Jobs were not completely alone in their dream of creating a computer revolution. Two companies, Imsai and Altair, created computers at about the same time as Apple.

Altair and Imsai approached the world as if there were a lot of technical people that would buy kits of parts because they know how to solder them together. It was so easy for Altair and Imsai to put a bunch of chips in a bag and not have to learn how to manufacture a computer.

Stores wanted a product that they could sell a lot of. A lot of people-even technicians-would walk in the door and want to buy a completely built Altair, so the store would buy an Altair kit, build it in the back room, and sell it at an already built price. We paid a local company $13 per computer to solder all the parts for us. Why should we give a kit to a customer who is going to make mistakes and force him to spend twenty hours soldering everything together when we can do it for $13?

With the Apple II, we went a step further and told people they didn't even have to plug in transformers or keyboards or monitors. It came as one complete box, and the only problem was hooking it up to a TV set. There was a second company that had a product to do that.

That was when the terminology started going toward personal computer. Personal meant one computer for one person, but there was also a difference between hobby computer and personal computer: a hobby computer was a kit, and you had to be a technician. It had a bunch of weird binary lights on it. A personal computer had a keyboard that you could type on, and the output went to your TV set.

Building the First One for Himself

Woz designed the Apple II to be a computer that he would like to own and could afford to buy. Experience has taught him that this is one of the best ways to design any product.

There was no market research-nobody asking how many characters you should have on the screen or if you should have this mode of color. My approach was to look at the chips that were available and gut-feel the set of features and the compromises as I went along.

Cost was a real issue because I was building the first one for myself, and I had to be able to afford it, so it had to be low-cost. I like things with very few chips because I consider that good design. It came out much tighter than if I had been given a set of specs, because then I would have just designed by brute force by adding on circuitry.

Shortly after Apple was founded, Commodore and Radio Shack introduced ready-to-use personal computers. But they, too, soon failed. (Don't worry about the jargon Woz uses in this section-the message is to build flexibility and longevity into products.)

What I really compare our computer to is two other computers that came out after ours, intended to be prebuilt, ready-to-run computers. They were the Commodore Pet and the Radio Shack TRS 80. Why did we win out over them? The Pet and the TRS 80 were not expandable, and you could not plug cards in them. We were expandable to 48 kilobytes of RAM [random-access memory]. Once you got to a spreadsheet program, it needed more than 8K of RAM, so it couldn't run on the Commodore Pet or the TRS 80, but it could run on the Apple II.

The reason why Apple was a big winner dates back to an earlier story-the IBM 360 computer. It's been called the most successful computer of all time. It had an architecture so that as the machines expanded, every program ever written would always run. You shouldn't tie yourself into a limit on memory that is shorter than what you could maybe see a couple decades ahead. An engineer should think, I don't want my machine to become obsolete. You got to feel like you are the owner, and this is your machine.

Changing of the Guard

In 1983, Steve Jobs recruited John Sculley from PepsiCo to be president and chief executive officer of Apple while Jobs retained the title of chairman. This was supposed to be Apple's team for the future: the brilliant, young technologist and the seasoned, professional manager. In 1985, Sculley ousted Jobs.

Steve was a great visionary, but a lot of the things that happened to us at Apple were accidents and luck, and not because we could think things out properly. The world was going to get into small computers, and we had some of the right products at the right time. I think Steve felt that a lot of his thinking had caused the world to get into computers in the year when microprocessors were going to cost $5 and RAMs were going to cost $5.

Steve's idea of running the company was to build the best technology, but the market will sometimes choose a worse technology at a higher price for reasons such as familiarity, knowing other people that are getting into it, the way the marketing is done, and sales agreements. He had his purist's ideas. Maybe he was trying to build a machine for himself at a time when we had to build a machine for customers.

Steve was very, very bright-he might have been the brightest person at Apple, but he didn't handle people well. He left bad sentiments all over the company. I think a lot of managers were upset over Steve wanting to direct what they were doing, being very rude, and talking to people in a way that didn't make them feel like they were smart and respected-like they didn't know what they were doing unless they did it his way.

All this came up to John, and I think he started having to take actions to save the company. I am sure he would have left Steve a lot of freedom to create great, great things-to do the kind of work he wanted to do-but John had to save the company and get some things done. I think Steve felt that he couldn't do the great things for the world at Apple and that he'd have to go outside of Apple.

Making It

When Apple made its public stock offering, Woz made several hundred million dollars. After reflecting upon this, however, he realized that he had "made it" long before Apple went public.

Making it financially is making it. People might say they are successful if they achieve something they really wanted to achieve, but if you were successful at achieving what you wanted to achieve and didn't have the financial success, I don't know if you could say you made it.

Maybe [changing his mind] either fame or fortune is making it. You could, in other words, be an educator and get very famous for what you are doing. You could call this making it, because wherever you go, people would say, "I heard your speech," "I heard your seminar," "I really agree with your points," and "I think you've done a great thing with this project." Maybe you didn't make money, but you could still say you made it.

I had my happiness before I had money. I had a whole big internal religion-no church or anything-but a whole line of thoughts and philosophies of how to live life and how to be happy forever. I had that down. I was a real healthy, pure person. I never used any drugs or smoked marijuana or anything like that. I never even drank wine until I was thirty.

Since his retirement from Apple, Woz has started several companies, but mostly he's been doing philanthropic things like teaching fifth-graders how to use computers, donating computer labs to schools, and providing funds for nonprofit organizations.

I am doing what I grew up being taught was right. I read books to my young children, and in all the books there are good people who are doing things for others-Goofy wins a big race over Big Bad Pete, and he gives the money he won to build a baseball diamond for the orphans. If you are lucky enough to be successful, then try to do something to help your community.

Life After Apple

Many entrepreneurs have difficulty giving up control of the companies they created-partly because their company becomes their life and partly because they think no one can do the job as well as they can. Not Woz.

It got to the point where there were enough engineers, so I was just another engineer, and I wasn't really critical. I would talk to the press more than anything, so I went to my boss one day and had him lower my salary below the engineers who were doing the real work.

Also, I had my children and a family. I've got six kids now. They are my first priority in life. There is no way in the world I could be an engineer and take all this time away from my family. Children mean a lot to me because of things I was taught as a child-about how great we were-and the good memories of what fun it was to play and be a kid.

In the sixth grade, I decided I was going to be an engineer, and then I was going to be an elementary school teacher. That's what I've done. I could have had a lot of fun in Apple and been involved in some great things going on in the world, but I really feel better about what I am doing.

It seems that Woz has life all figured out: design a product you love, make a lot of money, retire young, and do something for people.

Find something you are good at, work on it, and eventually you can succeed and make your life. Don't just slack off and think you will just go through life doing a job. You should try to do incredible things-put a lot of hours into making a lot of things very, very good.

When you are young, skip a bunch of parties and just stay up late at night working on programs and technology. If you are starting out in a company, spend the extra hours. Talk to people and get that report just right. You have a lot of free time when you are young, so put it into what you are good at before you wind up with a life with many commitments, meetings, bills, and mortgages. Spend time when you are young, and that will give you a lot more freedom when you are older.

I want to be remembered as a good computer designer who designed things with very few parts and wrote code that was very amazing and tricky and ingenious. I want to be remembered as a good father who cared about children. Every step of my life has been incredible. I have a lot of freedom. I get to do a lot of traveling and see a lot of things. I've got wonderful children. Nobody could have a life better than mine.

Copyright 1993, Guy Kawasaki. Reprinted from Hindsights-The Wisdom and Breakthroughs of Remarkable People with the permission of Guy Kawasaki and Beyond Words Publishing Inc. (ISBN: 0-941831-95-7; $22.95 suggested retail) The article is one of thirty-two chapters in the book.