An evening with The Woz


Steve Wozniak

I specifically attended yesterday’s Fuzenation Technology & Music Summit in Kitchener, Ontario to hear Steve Wozniak (a.k.a. The Woz) speak.

In short, he’s the co-founder of Apple, and the engineer who created the Apple I and Apple II computers. The Apple II was the first successful, mass-produced personal computer, and as the Woz points out, the “first one that could play arcade games in full colour” (I still have an Apple II that I use to play arcade games like Donkey Kong).

More importantly, most people in technology fields view the Woz as a role model (myself included). He is a talented engineer, creative thinker, prolific teacher, playful jokester, and wonderful person with strong moral values. In other words, he is what we all want to be.

So, when I found out that he was talking only 15 minutes away from my house, I had to go.

I always go to events an hour early. One reason for this is to get a good seat where I can see everything, but I also like to observe the other people that pour into the event. There were people from all walks of life! There was an old guy in a suit carrying an original Mac 128K computer (I wonder if he realized that the Woz had nothing to do with the creation of the Mac ;-), as well as hipsters, creative startup vultures with crazed expressions on their faces, rich trendy people, people who were brave enough to venture out of their parent’s basements, young brats, and so on. It was glorious for a people watcher like me.

Woz’s introduction was this video: that showcased the 1982 US Festival (a massive music festival that the Woz put on because “he could and no one else would”).

After the video, he came on stage to a big round of applause, and within seconds you realize that you can’t help but like the guy. His body language and spoken language are 100% genuine, and like many people who actively think on the fly, he talks fast. He answers questions without pausing to think, and his replies seem to start off-topic, but beautifully coalesce into a solid and satisfying answer or story (much like a good joke).

Woz said that he always wanted to be an engineer and a 5th grade teacher. After Apple, he taught for 8 years straight as a volunteer teacher, and wrote all of his own lesson plans for each class. His teaching experience showed during the talk - when he responded to questions, he simplified nearly every topic to a level that anyone could understand. This is a trait that I’m good at as a teacher (students always want to be in my class), and a skill I can quickly pick out in other people. It takes time, creativity and practice to do it well, and the Woz does it well. The only downside is that, with him talking fast, I imagine it was a bit of information overload for those in the audience who weren’t technically inclined ;-)

Although much of the information and stories that Woz shared at the event were also in his 2006 autobiography iWoz: it was much nicer to hear them in person, and often with a different spin. Here are some snippets that I specifically recall from last night’s talk:

  • He said that when he was 20 years old, that he had a eureka moment where he decided that he was just going to be happy for the rest of his life. His formula was Happiness = smiles - frowns. Later on he revised it to Happiness = F^3 (food, fun, friends).

  • Apple being started by two guys in a garage is not true. There was never any garage in Apple (that was long beforehand), and it was actually three guys (Mike Markkula had an equal share in Apple and basically showed them how to be successful).

  • The movies glorifying Steve Jobs are almost entirely fiction.

  • Jobs only had very basic technical/electronics knowledge - he was no engineer.

  • Woz got Jobs hooked on Bob Dylan music, and got Jobs to see computers as something that would change the world by taking him to his homebrew computer club meetings and other events/people (back then, Jobs didn’t think much of computers).

  • Job’s greatest achievements were the aesthetic improvements he brought to each problem and product at Apple.

  • Jobs never introduced a computer that was commercially successful at Apple (such as the Lisa and the Mac). The iPod was his first successful Apple product.

  • Woz believes that the iPod was Apple’s killer product, and the one that started making Apple a healthy profit margin. He sees Apple’s other killer product as the Apple App Store (which he calls an “open” feature of Apple because it involves 3rd party apps).

  • His biggest influences were his father (and engineer who never pressured his kids to do go into any particular field) as well as a teacher of his in grade school.

  • When it comes to the things that an Apple II could do, he was very impressed by the alphaSyntauri music synthesizer keyboard for the Apple II, which could be used to create and record music. It was originally developed at Apple, but Apple had no interest in marketing it, so the guy who made it created his own company to bring it to market.

  • What he considers his greatest / most memorable moment at Apple was the 1984 introduction of the Mac by Steve Jobs, which included the famous 1984 commercial: (it was the “think different” philosophy that he found so inspiring).

  • He is optimistic about artificial intelligence, and was very impressed by Siri (which Apple bought after it was an app in the Apple App Store). A few days prior to the talk, I just downloaded Mac OS X 10.12 (Sierra), and I spent hours in awe at how much I could get Siri to do for me on my computer simply by talking to her - as a result, I related well to what Woz said during this part of the talk!

  • He looks back on some of the ingenious innovations he made as magic because he can’t imagine doing similar things today. He believes that everyone has a time period in their life where they produce their best work “magically”, much like a musician who has a time period where they release their best music.

  • He believes that the average joe working in a restaurant is just as important as a CEO running a company and that they should both make the same amount of money. He has given away most of his own money to people and organizations who need it more than he does (but also noted that 3 divorces is also a good way of lowering your overall net worth as well).

However, the best moment of the entire talk was just before the audience question period at the end. He explained how he runs an app on his phone that causes his car to beep at home in order to let his wife know that he has finished his talk. He pulled out his iPhone, touched a few things and inadvertently let out a delightful little giggle - it was so comical and real that the whole room laughed with him. It was an enjoyable evening well spent ;-)