Steve Wozniak is an American inventor, electronics engineer, and computer programmer who single-handedly designed both the Apple I and Apple II computers in the late 1970s and co-founded Apple Computer now Apple Inc. with Steve Jobs and Ronald Wayne. When he came to Nigeria, he discussed, among other issues, how the country can innovatively explore new technology frontiers for life and business with Bemingho Awala. He also talked about how making good grades out of school does not necessarily translate into being innovative.
What are your first impressions about Nigeria?
This is my first time here. My first impressions are based on what I have seen out of my window. I have been meeting with a lot of people and I am very impressed by the people at MTN, the thinking and the belief in the importance of technology and its role in our lives and for the future. I think it is the future really. Because if you look at the quality of life, in developed countries across the world, that is where Africa is headed, they have gained massive points of development, using technology. There are so many things we used to do physically – with our arms and legs; they are now done with machines. And we love these machines, because they give us so much power as individuals and that should be the future for everyone.
As an innovator, when do you know that you have created a very good product?
I am not so much a business man that knows the market so well. Steve Jobs was my best friend and of course, he had a good sense of what people really wanted, how to judge what was good and bad. I just knew what was good for me. So I was a market of one person. If I build something, I am building it for myself and I know it will do the task that I want it to do in my own life. It just turns out that usually that generalises to things that other people want as well. This is something you see in many great products all the time. Even the Macintosh, I think the person who built it was building it for themselves. Another example is the automobile. Even the guys who built Facebook did it for themselves. When you are building for your own needs and life, so many decisions about the business model as well as the technologies come from one person. Ultimately the result is supreme and excellent coming from one person with a strong mind.
How important is it for innovators and inventors to work like artists in terms of product development as against team collaboration?
Both forms are relative and innovation can happen both ways. Now would you say that Einstein worked in a team? Or that Isaac Newton worked in a team? Would you say that Shakespeare worked in a team? Not necessarily. So a lot of the very well-known innovators and inventors who view their thinking and innovation as art tend to do an awful lot of it alone. This is partly because they excelled above others around them and also partly because one mind solving an entire problem, doing all the disciplines to one solution can come up with a better solution than a lot of cooks in the pot.
On the other hand, the reality is that nothing can really get done all the way without collaboration. Look at myself and Steve Jobs – even when I had just developed a little terminal device, he would make a PC board and go down to sell it to a company to get us some money. When we started Apple, somebody had to think about a whole product – what does it look like, what are the screws that hold it together, what about the parts, where do we get sales from, where do we get places to build it and all that – I was just a pure engineer. So you see, it’s not enough to have some great thinking, some great ideas, and build a great product. Such a product can’t do any good unless it reaches the world. And it could reach the world now on the internet where you shoot and publish great ideas. And they go viral and they get out there and affect a lot of people for free. That can happen now but it sure couldn’t happen back then. You really have to work with a lot of partners in different areas.
When you start a company, nowadays, the business of technology is so big and huge in terms of the capital requirement that usually there are few start-ups like Facebook that just come out of young people feeling that something is good or an idea that’s good. These days, you start off by setting up a company, then you get some sales. You get some money, and before you know it, you are confronted with stiff competition. You’ve then got to start acquiring and merging with other companies in order to be the best in your category; to hold your position. That’s another type of partnership that’s critical.
In your book, iWoz, you talked about two approaches to innovation: the step by step and logical process and the point when you see the complete solution in a flash, without going through all the steps. Are these two very separate processes or do they sometimes go hand in hand in helping you innovate?
Well, this is kind of tricky. I was one type of innovator that wasn’t like your typical engineer. A typical engineer has studied ways to design things, he is given an assignment by a company and he goes out and designs it. However, I would always set a goal of something I wanted, a finished product, and I knew that I could create the steps to get there. I had never studied them; I had never learned them or seen them in a book. But then I could create them – I call that writing the book yourself.
The best innovators are the ones who can write the book and find the best way for an individual product that didn’t come out of a book they were taught. This is an authentic way to create things as it is their own answer. When it comes out of a book – you get good grades in school; they tell you that you are intelligent but you are intelligent for having the same answers as everyone else. And that’s not your answer because it’s out of a book.
You have been quoted as saying that in the early days of Apple, a lack of money and resources forced you to think differently. Is having limited resources one of the keys to creating original and authentic solutions? And how far can it take you?
I was very lucky. When I worked for Hewlett Packard, they had a policy that an engineer could take spare parts out of the store room for something of their own design if their supervisor approved. Their thinking was it would cost a little money for parts but if an engineer designed something for themselves, their brain power goes up and they become more valuable as an employee. Also HP felt that it was a lot less expensive than paying to send engineers to a university.
What a country like Nigeria could take out of that kind of thinking is to take young people and somehow find ways to get especially chip making companies and all to provide parts – little Raspberry Pi boards and Arduino boards so that kids have those hardware resources they can’t afford. They also need to provide the tools with which they can test their own designs and make things. But if these young people had some little electronic boards, some wiring things and enough parts to build little amplifiers and motors, while building metal making equipment – they can make little robots that might do an effective task for a human being.
And it’s not very expensive to put that kind of value in, but schools are never going to have that kind of money because this technology is never considered a part of school. Schooling is – you teach the same thing that has always been taught for a hundred years because the teachers learned it. But the teachers don’t know technology. It’s very difficult to bring technology – the kids understand the things that the teachers don’t. When I went to school, I felt that every one of my teachers knew more about everything than I did. Now, if you go to schools, most kids know more about computer and games and all this technology stuff but we have to give them the resources. But schools are unfortunately, severely resource-constrained. The kids don’t get counted in the allocation formula which allocates money to schools.
You have summarised your life as a lucky one. How strongly do you hold luck to finding the right people, organising processes and creating great solutions for life and business? How big is luck?
I can’t give you a number for how big luck is, but I can look at a lot of cases back in time. Was it lucky that Mark Zuckerberg started working on Facebook and said “this is a thing that people really wanted”? It was luck, he kind of stumbled into it but he was also a builder, which means that you need to have certain elements in place, a certain discipline.
I was going to build the Apple II computer for myself, the day that I found an affordable method to do it. It turns out in that particular point in time, due to prices of electronics and things, it was going to become valuable to other people and solve important needs in life which they could not do with pencils and paper. I was just lucky that the year I decided to build the great computer was the year it was important to the world. I would therefore go on to have all this notoriety in starting Apple Computer and starting the whole personal computer revolution. But I would have built a computer for myself that year no matter what, even if it wasn’t useful to anyone. So I was luckily, in the right place at the right time you might say, but I hope to be a good inspiration to other people.
What are you currently working on?
Currently I am involved with a company that is changing hard disks into chips and I favour that because I am electrically oriented. But the reason I am with that company, it’s called fusion i-o in Salt Lake City, is that they are changing the data centres of the world. They have made a huge impact. Interestingly they were a start-up about five years ago. But I joined them because everybody else was going in one direction and they went in a totally different direction. All the other companies, like Intel and Micron, big companies like Samsung said “you are doing it wrong; we are doing it our way.” It turns out now, three to five years later that they are all coming and doing it our way because we were right. We had an approach, much like when I design things myself; they cost less money, run faster and very easy to maintain and understand.
What are the ingredients to excelling as an inventor?
I will look at my own case and my own answer because I excelled a lot. Obviously, it helps if you are good at building things but you have never built them before. Companies tend to want to hire people who already have a lot of experience on the exact products they are working on. But I say it is much better to find very smart people that are able to look at a new thing they have never worked with before and write the book themselves rather than reading the book on how it is done. So my advice is write the book on how it is done and you will come up with better answers.
What lessons do you think that Nigeria can learn from the Silicon Valley, especially since you grew up in Silicon Valley and had access to many technology firms?
It is difficult to say because you can’t really duplicate Silicon Valley. You have got to be what you are on your own, maybe Lagos Valley. What happened was, Silicon Valley developed over many decades, a lot of decades and it really goes back to the invention of the transistor. Sometimes you have a seed of a certain technology, this technology is called the transistor and that seed leads to other parts. The transistor led to chips with more than one transistor and those led to chips system which led to more than 10 million transistors. So everything we have in our lives – be it electronic, whether it is portable or a computer and digital, still uses a transistor to this day.
Silicon Valley got started because one of the inventors of the transistor set up his shop there, his shop and labs and this led to several spin-offs. Other engineers were attracted and started companies of their own, and became successful making transistors. With time, there was critical mass, a high density of people who were knowledgeable about silicon engineering and other electronics related to it. So Silicon Valley had a lot of engineers who were doing the same thing in the same area.
We didn’t have the benefits of modern day entrepreneurship but still we developed a venture capital community that looked at the ideas and funded the lines that they knew that the people would be successful with. Silicon Valley grew up over a lot of decades, so if you’re thinking, how can we duplicate that in five years, it’s probably impossible. I think it starts slow but it has to come out around strong tactical universities and has to be up there and of a certain level. In the Silicon Valley, once we had Stanford, Berkley and a few other schools with those two being particularly outstanding contributors to the engineering community, companies like Hewlett Packard, just spun right out of Stanford, themselves.
So what are those values that have shaped your work ethic?
One of them is if you create something in your work as an engineer, go back and look at it and say “is there somewhere I could have done it better?” Come up with ideas, start developing methods in your head, new ways by which you could use fewer curves for instance, or be cleaner, or use fewer parts to get the device to do what it does. This was always very important to me because it helped to turn the entire process into something of a game. Everything I ever designed was a game.
The underlining question was – can I possibly do it any better than any other engineer in the world? As such it becomes a personal motivation for doing things. Personal reasons will motivate you and get much better results out of you than other rewards like salaries, titles, awards, grades and scores. Those types of rewards are kind of phoney. The one that matters to you, that’s when you do your best.
You have achieved so many things. What would you like to be remembered for most?
I want to be remembered for being a good engineer. People don’t see that today, people say this computer is just so important in my life that I started Apple Computers but engineers can go back and look at my designs and read the software that I wrote and say whoa! This was incredible stuff, it’s not just normal engineering.
That means the most to me because all my life, I wanted to be a great engineer more than anything else. The trouble is I also wanted computers, so the Apple II computer is certainly an incredible invention and really, it is one of those steps like I said, the transistor started everything. Somewhere along the line came personal computers, eventually came the internet, then our mobile devices, cellular phones and things like that. Personal computer was a big step in time because everything on the internet was really based on having that personal computer.
To a lot of young people, you are a hero and a role model. Who did you look up to while growing up and while you were at Apple?
My father was my greatest mentor. When I asked questions about computers and how do you build certain things, he would pull out a blackboard and teach me. He was very patient as a teacher. He influenced me to have positive feelings for education. He influenced me about my values, life, peace and war in the world, justice and how we achieve it, things like that. I wish he was still alive so badly.
I had a hero, my electronics teacher in school. He wrote his own lessons. He was the only teacher in the entire high school that wrote his own lessons. He had a better laboratory than many of the local colleges and a better course. So when I taught for eight years, because I had always wanted to be a teacher, even after Apple was successful, I went and taught ten to twelve year old children every single day of the week. I did it that way, I wrote my own lessons.
I had fictional heroes, like Tom Swift, Jnr. He was a hero in books and owned a company with his father. When there was a problem in the world, he would sometimes go into his laboratory and work for two weeks and he would come out with something that he had built that solved the problem. That was probably my greatest fictional hero of my life. I would read a book where someone solved the problems of kidnapping and they caught the criminals and they did it because they were smart about electronics and they knew how to send signals as amateur radio operators. And so, I went and got an amateur radio licence. I wanted to be a part of that.
If you had one advice for entrepreneurs, what would you be saying to them?
We have moved into a world where the entire future, how we live our lives is totally different from what it was before and this is due largely to mobile internet devices. Having access to the internet is much closer to a brain than anything we have ever built in electronics because it attaches to all the information of the world and even attaches to what other people are doing, affects search engines and the results that they bring back. And that is sort of how our brain wants to work but it is much more powerful than that. So get into technology, the devices of the day, be a part of the future. Don’t hold back and say, I’m just going to live life the old way because it worked in the past. You’ve got to be a part of the future, if you are going to change it and affect other people’s lives positively. It’s much less important to invent devices, and start companies like Apple computers, it is much more important to be a good person, who cares about other people – if you see a young child who needs his shoe lace tied; you will help them tie their shoe lace. That’s the strongest statement any man can make in my opinion.
What are you taking back home with you about Nigeria?
I will be taking back home with me memories for a life time. I have never been to a place like this, a part of Africa that isn’t South Africa. The intelligence of the people which comes out in their questions is amazing, so also is their pursuit and interest in technology from a lot of the people I have met in my very short time here.
I will take back a lot of the other images driving in the car, a lot of the third world look but I like a lot of that. I used to visit those sort of places for vacation. I certainly hope to return here and I hope that this country really finds the formulas to really get rid of a lot of the poverty and equalize things a lot better and get corruption out of the way.