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Published 26 September 2012 11:50, Updated 26 September 2012 13:57
Not having a degree means you get to write the book yourself, says Apple co-founder and geek shaman Steve Wozniak. Photo: Rob Homer
Steve Wozniak does a great impression of a big friendly bear being dragged unwillingly into the spotlight.
But as the surviving member of the duo who set up the corporate wonder that is Apple, there is no doubt that there is a brain inside that affable demeanour that calculates at lightning speed.
Wozniak gave a keynote speech in Melbourne today at the Horizon 2012 convention for the human resources industry and spoke about how he grew from a tongue-tied geek into an inspiring leader.
He has some advice for managers who hope to unearth someone like him: give employees space, resources and freedom to be able to create things on their own, even if their personal projects have little to do with what they are supposed to be working on.
For parents: let your children be self-directed in their passions. Let your kids tell you what they are interested in and then enable their passions as much as you can.
Wozniak’s journey to making corporate and engineering history follows what has now become a well-worn path.
There’s the curious, obsessive child, the encouraging parents and teachers, the early opportunity to practise (thanks to a company allowing him to experiment on its computers), and a partnership with a savvy business person (former CEO Steve Jobs).
Then there’s a fair degree of luck and great timing.
Wozniak’s family was by no means wealthy but his father was an engineer who would try to find books to help explain things to his son.
“I wanted a computer and my father said it cost as much as a house and I stomped my feet and said: ‘I’ll live in an apartment’,” he said.
Because he could not afford the components to build things, the young Wozniak amused himself by designing devices on paper, continually refining them to make them more simple.
“When I was young, I was one of the kids that wired up houses with house radios and ham radio,” he said.
“Thank heavens, when you are young you have a lot of free time. And when you are a nerd, you don’t have a lot of girlfriends to take that time.”
The expertise built up over years of scribbling on paper in his bedroom wasn’t for the purpose of doing well in school or college or to get a job at his eventual employer Hewlett Packard (now HP). He did it because it was the most fun he could think of having.
And that is another ingredient in the recipe for outrageous success. Wozniak was doing it for the love of it.
“Every time I got a description of a computer, I had to shut my door for a couple of days and had to design that computer. You don’t get a grade for that,” he said.
However, his proficiency meant he was able to score a job at HP without having attained a degree.
Of his passions, he said: “These weren’t things that would appear on my CV to get a job … but they made me distinctive.
“I fell in love with electronics and engineering because of little accidents. It was nothing that was measured or could be put on a resume.
“I learned that stuff and it got into my heart. I knew this is going to be my pastime – my hobby for life.”
Wozniak also believed that in getting a job at HP, he had a corporate home for life. He was designing things for engineers, such as a a scientific calculator. He was as happy as a pig in mud.
However, when he went home at night, he would watch Star Trek, eat a TV dinner and then start inventing things … that his friend Steve Jobs kept finding ways to sell.
“I would design something for myself and Steve would say: ‘I know where we can sell this’. And we would end up getting money for it.”
“Steve Jobs was a very different person then, his personality was still forming. He would always pursue the top people in companies.
“He was never a designer, never really wrote programs. He was outgoing, I was shy. That was combination that helped us create the company.”
When Wozniak produced the plans for an affordable computer, he was wrestled away from HP by Jobs to start their new company: Apple.
“We knew we had a hot product. Sometimes you know that from the get-go. Its like going viral.”
A member of the audience today asked Wozniak if there was anything that HP could have done to stop him from leaving.
Wozniak says he would never have done anything to endanger his job at HP, but the company had turned him down five times when he tried to get it interested in his plans for a personal computer.
“They would have blown it if they had said yes,” he said. The company did not have the right culture to make a product that would be exciting for anyone other than other engineers.”
Wozniak says that probably the only thing his former employer could have done was set up a skunkworks so that exciting and experimental projects could be done without being dragged down by HP the existing HP culture.
Wozniak says the reason that so much innovation has come from people who, like him, did not have university degrees is that these people have spare time and have not been inculcated with other people’s ideas.
“You are able to think differently. They have a lot of time to think about something that never existed at all and can show it off to their friends.
“Those who actually build things when they are young are the most capable workers and inventors.”
The engineer said he is lucky enough not to have been corrupted by success and power. He was never in it for the money – in fact, he gave away his schematics for the Apple I computer to the 550 members of his computer club.
“It wasn’t obvious it was going to make a lot of money,” he said.
In fact, Wozniak says he wanted to be a teacher. Secretly, at one stage the computer mogul took eight years out of his career to teach young people.
He also went to university (enrolling under the name of Rocky Racoon Clark) to get a diploma.
Wozniak says that, sometimes, being hard-up can help the aspiring inventor: “Being low on money and resources can be a great idea. You can write the book yourself.”