ALEC HOGG: It’s Thursday October 11 2012 and in this Boardroom Talk special podcast, Steve Wozniak, Woz, as he’s better known, the co-founder of Apple, is having a chat with us on a visit to Johannesburg. Have you been to South Africa before, Woz?
STEVE WOZNIAK: I have been here before, I’ve been to Darwin a year or two ago to speak for the government and I was here on a couple of vacations 20 years ago, back in the Apartheid days.
ALEC HOGG: So I’m sure you’ve seen lots of changes?
STEVE WOZNIAK: Well, I couldn’t get around hugely this time, one time I actually got to ride the Blue Train to Cape Town and saw Cape Town. So I can’t really compare it that well, it just seems like everything that I’ve encountered here seems to be working, getting fairly modernised.
ALEC HOGG: It will be lovely to see you back some time in the future. But really just to go into the meat of this conversation, many people in South Africa have read Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs, your partner, your school friend, one-time best friend, how do you interpret it? Some people think that maybe he was a little rough on Steve but from your perspective?
STEVE WOZNIAK: Well, I didn’t read it because I kind of was there. Steve always gave that impression in many different ways around the company and it’s actually well known, it’s like historic but this book was written with a very sense of deep honesty, in other words Steve. I know Walter, I [UNCLEAR 1:25] very closely and Steve really made it a point that he wanted people to talk about him in the real terms and he didn’t want to get in and edit it and fine tune it and explain things. He really wanted to come out rough reality and I appreciate that, I like things when they’re genuine, so it’s a high sense of honesty. Steve just had this way of (a) being very bright but always wanting to see himself as the brightest one in the room and everybody else…it was easy to discredit others but he liked people who stood up to him too.
ALEC HOGG: And you did?
STEVE WOZNIAK: No, I was really peaceful, I just did my engineering great, so I didn’t go into running the company, I didn’t want to from day one, we actually had discussions about it, we defined our roles. But I’m not that happy Steve did it, I think we could have had the great, great products that make my life wonderful that some of which I was responsible for starting the company with a great culture. But Steve Jobs was so deeply responsible for some of today’s great products and I’m very thankful for them but I don’t think he had to be that rough and rude with people, he could have been a nice guy and accomplished just as much. If you have a brain you can get the right things done regardless of how you do them.
ALEC HOGG: Perhaps he had different influences, again looking over the book ahead of this discussion, your father, Jerry, who himself was a brilliant engineer, must have had a big influence on your life?
STEVE WOZNIAK: My father had the biggest influence on me of anyone, not only in terms of electronics, which he taught me some when I needed, had questions, how does a transistor perform a decision-making function and he would go on a whiteboard and show me that stuff. But more in terms of values of life, everything for how do you consider different things and his method was more as a teacher. I became a teacher secretly for eight years, no press or anything because I’d always wanted to, I believe so highly in teachers. But his approach was present all the sides of an issue educational and let a person think for themselves to come to their final decisions. In other words, don’t enforce your values on others and I’m very, very thankful for that, everything that I am in life I can think back to discussions and words that I heard from my father that fit the way I think.
ALEC HOGG: One of those values, according to Isaacson anyway, is never lie, be extremely honest.
STEVE WOZNIAK: Yes, he was like that to all the kids in our family and to the neighbourhood. He wasn’t like a super hard demanding tyrant or a dictator, he just explained that that’s who you are and that’s the most important thing in life. I wound up really weird thinking out life for myself at a later point in time, coming from a different point of reasoning to the same conclusion that honesty was the apex of all that is good and that’s how you should judge good by. Now, later in life, past when I was 20 years old, sometimes it’s very, very hard to get to what is the real truth.
ALEC HOGG: They were an amazing generation, weren’t they, that group. Again, another biography that gives us an insight into that is Warren Buffett, who speaks about his father in a similar tone.
STEVE WOZNIAK: Yeah, my father worked at Lockheed, which was a very important thing during (a) the Cold War with Russia and the need to be able to launch nuclear weapons from submarines and somebody had to design these kinds of missiles. Then we got into the Space Race with the Soviet Union and everything that went into rockets. So Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale, California was a real big place but it was the type of thing going on. Now, an awful lot of the engineers there developed characteristics of just being…they had to be very secretive about what they did at work, my father could never really tell us what he was doing, it was very common for them to become drinkers and alcoholics and be a little rough and mean on occasion around the home.
ALEC HOGG: The other thing that he taught you, again according to the biography, was an aversion to extreme ambition. Do you think if you’d been brought up differently you might have played a different role at Apple?
STEVE WOZNIAK: I don’t really think that my father taught me an aversion to extreme ambition, he did teach me things about, well, it was better to do things on your own and not have to have a lot of credit, pay for things with the money you have, kind of a little bit of a conservative financial thinking that way. As far as ambition, oh my gosh, no, he was a great engineer, he’d moved up, he was very highly respected and well paid at Lockheed. I came to my own conclusion and it was really sort of inspired by I grew up in the counter culture movement days and the Vietnam War and thinking out right and wrong became very much a pacifist and became very much against politics as a result but it was very independent thinking. So I didn’t see politics as really the best solutions to life. For example, do I think that the president of the United States is the most powerful person in the world? No, I think the CEO of Apple Computer is because the president will do something and nobody agrees whether it was good or bad for the world and history hundreds of years later you can’t really agree it was good or bad for the world but every single thing Apple does is good and takes people to a better place in life and moves steps forward.
ALEC HOGG: Was that what you decided, maybe go back a bit because often those who start companies remember the early days as the best, as the most fun, most adventure and indeed the ones they’d like to recapture.
STEVE WOZNIAK: I remember not only those early days of Apple but I remember my entire electronics history, coming up and building little projects on the side that had no reason other than to satisfy my own desire to have certain things and to show off to others, very shy. Steve Jobs found many ways to turn my designs into money, one after another after another. The Apple II, which really built Apple Computer into the great company it is that really was the sixth time that I just developed something because I felt I wanted some joy in my life and wanted to build something neat. I never wanted to pursue it in the sense of a business and figuring out how to charge people money for it. I was so shy, I could never in my life – partly my ethical upbringing from my father – I could never be accused of taking advantage of somebody for money. So I really didn’t want to sell things and if I wanted to sell them I’d rather give them away or sell it at a very, very low price. So I’m not the businessman, I’m the engineer, the inventor, who wants to go in the laboratory and create the things.
ALEC HOGG: And Jobs was awed by your engineering ability and you on your side, as you’ve just I guess reiterated, awed by Jobs’ business acumen?
STEVE WOZNIAK: His business acumen was not really…he was like a young 20 year old when he started Apple, we were in our young 20s, we had no business experience but Steve had this personality where he would try to involve himself in every key major decision going on in every part of the company, every discipline, every department. He just wanted to be there up at the top, even if he didn’t have a title of CEO he wanted to treat himself as that way, the founder was that important. Me, on the other hand, I felt it was better to not pretend I know how to do parts of a company that people have been doing for 20, 30 years, they know how to do it so well, why am I going to open my mouth and say let’s paint the box red instead of green. I decided to keep my mouth shut and be thought a fool rather than open it and leave no doubt because if I did the engineering I knew that I was so skilled, nobody could beat me at it and I was essential and I could accomplish what I set out to do, I was really goal-oriented. So I could never fail being in engineering and I just decided…actually when we started Apple we had those discussions, I would remain in engineering only, I did not want to go up the org chart, I did not want to run a company and it was really I didn’t like the politics of having to tell people bad things and fire them. So thank God for Steve Jobs and I’m very thankful in my life, especially when he got the maturity when he came back, in those early days of Apple he was just floating around trying to be like in charge of things but we had failure after failure after failure after failure except for the Apple II. Really we didn’t have a huge success to now grow the company and the capitalisation beyond the Apple II days until his return when he came back very mature about how to run a business, how to organise and deal with all the different departments and to hire good people and watch inventory and all the things you have to do to make a business successful. That’s really what led…plus he still had that brilliance and that eye for what is good in life, what products are good, luckily he wasn’t an engineer. It was lucky he was around me because I was so good an engineer he would never try to be one, he would never try to write any code after that. But he always looked at the world and the products from the point of view of somebody who is not technical and is afraid of not being as good as others at it and that’s 90% of us.
ALEC HOGG: Woz, it was interesting reading about your early days and how you loved practical jokes and there are a whole bunch of them in the book that I’m sure when you looked at them again you had a quiet chuckle. Did you ever do that to Steve Jobs, particularly at the time just before you left in 1985, it sounds like Apple at that time with Sculley around and Jobs just about to leave himself was not a terribly nice place to work?
STEVE WOZNIAK: I’m not sure what the question is?
ALEC HOGG: You seem to be a guy with lots of fun in your life and in ’85 at Apple maybe it wasn’t that much fun.
STEVE WOZNIAK: At Hewlett Packard and Apple, oh no, no, having fun, playing jokes every day, thinking up practical joke ideas, talking about them, laughing, whether you did them or not that was a huge part of my life. Engineering is tough work, you sit there for 16 hours straight just thinking deep, deep complex thoughts, you have to have a break, you have to have a release and it’s in jokes. Now, I picked certain targets for jokes or practical jokes that liked them and get along with them and laugh and Steve, after we started Apple, wasn’t so much as a laughing, joking guy, so he was not the one that I would really target with jokes. Although when we introduced the Apple II computer I did a huge joke with thousands of give-aways of a fake product that compared itself to Apple and it was only 12 years later at a birthday party I gave Steve a gift and it was a framed copy of that, he’d never known I did it because I didn’t talk when I did pranks. So it sort of had gotten him too and he laughed and laughed and I hadn’t seen him laugh like that in a while.
ALEC HOGG: When he came back you say he had clearly a lot more maturity for his second stint at Apple, did you see much of him then?
STEVE WOZNIAK: I didn’t see a lot of him, I saw him just occasionally at Apple and when he left and before he was leaving and while he was gone. When he came yeah he would talk to me and what he said always made sense to me and he really had good insight as to where Apple was losing its money that a lot of the executives just really didn’t know, they just really weren’t on top of the company like it was a whole thing under their responsibility. He was very critical of Gil Amelio and yet aside from not having the Jobs charisma Gil Amelio really had taken a lot of great steps to get the financing in order and save Apple financially and he even hired people like Johnny Ive, the great designer.
ALEC HOGG: Something just while we finish off with the Steve Jobs side of the discussion, his sister, Mona Simpson, wrote in the New York Times when he died and I’d love to get someone who knows him close, like yourself, to give an opinion on this. She said his last words were wow, oh wow, as though there’s something really great on the other side.
STEVE WOZNIAK: Oh, I read that, I don’t know how to interpret oh wow, oh wow. I have no idea what that meant and I wasn’t there…
ALEC HOGG: Was it typical of him?
STEVE WOZNIAK: …Mona was and I can’t really fill in any blanks there.
ALEC HOGG: But is it typical of him to do something like that, maybe go out with a statement that we all think about?
STEVE WOZNIAK: Oh, I don’t know, it sounds like he was becoming very, very like personal person, some emotional thing that was in him coming out emotionally rather than intellectually but I couldn’t really tell you if that was like him, if it was unusual, if it was special, what it might have meant, I’m sorry.
ALEC HOGG: You’re 62 years old now and looking back on your life and perhaps looking ahead are there still mountains for you to climb or are you just having fun?
STEVE WOZNIAK: There are some mountains and there are always goals that you have from your past that sometimes stretch out, some of them are short-term goals and some are long-term goals. I’ve had some goals that have lasted 35 years and I don’t know how to do them, the science, the mathematics, the quantum physics isn’t there yet but we’re getting closer and I keep my eye on them. I might like to run some research projects in the future in those areas. Right now I’m actually extremely busy because of all the positive press about Apple and with Steve’s demise there was more of that and his book, so I’m very much in demand on a speaking tour and I’m hardly home these days. So it’s kind of like a touring rock star, except I don’t get to pick my cities. So I can’t really be functioning, working on those kinds of like new products or projects or pieces of software. People approach me, every day I get about five people with their ideas, they want me to see. I’m one human being, I don’t have time to see very many of them. Once in a while I go out to lunch and I get turned on, wow, here’s a new little area of software somebody’s working on or whatever. I was met up by this company Fusion-io, which had hit on a very unique way of thinking different than everyone else’s, different than the logical person, even myself probably, would have thought of and it was the way I used to think about making a product. They found the right way to replace hard disks with chips, hard disks in the servers, in the data centres, which are really doing the majority of the computation today, it’s not being done on your mobile projects, it’s being done at the other end.
ALEC HOGG: Fascinating. Woz, before we let you go, for young people in South Africa and there are many hungry minds and many hungry brains here in this country looking at technology, looking at the explosion of the internet, how do you advise someone who asks you what’s the way ahead for me?
STEVE WOZNIAK: Well, the internet has brought the world closer in a lot of different ways but as I travel around I’ll find a little group…you know what, every single great project, well, some of them, I’m not going to say every single one because to try and get into the computer market it takes dozens and hundreds of people to make, it’s kind of like making a movie. There are a few independents out there and they have some huge financial successes with some little independent movies that cost very little to make, sometimes they’re blockbusters even. Well, there’s room for that all over the world and everywhere I travel to small little outposts that aren’t known for being a centre of technology they’ll be so proud of a couple of people that developed some hardware product or some piece of software or did some research. The thing is it can be done anywhere in the world because we’re all small groups of people doing that sort of thing. It doesn’t matter where you live in the world it’s all based on intelligence and in the books and the books are the same here in South Africa as they are in the United States.
ALEC HOGG: It sounds to me like some advice perhaps would be to find somebody else who’s as good as you are at things that maybe you are not as good at, like yourself and Steve Jobs?
STEVE WOZNIAK: [Laughing] Yes, always be aware if you’re an engineer, oh my gosh, all my talents and my abilities to think out and make things like I’m a doctor with circuit materials or I’m a doctor with the code that I write, the programmes I write, the trouble is you have to realise it has to be used by somebody to have value. It has to have value to an end user, a buyer, that’s marketing and the marketing importance is so critical. Don’t think something’s good just because it took a lot of work to do it. It’s good if it really is the right product that people want, it’s the right time and the right price.
ALEC HOGG: And perhaps you also have to sell your HP-65 calculator or equivalent thereof to start a business?
STEVE WOZNIAK: We started out so poor and had no money, we had to get our computers built by getting the parts on 30 days credit to pay for them and then building the computers so fast we could get paid cash. When you’re starting and you have something great and you really believe in it take every little step you can with the little bit of money you have and do take some risks and do take some loans. Just do that little bit you can because if you earn some more money now you can develop a better product and eventually you’ll hit a home run.
ALEC HOGG: And perhaps even be the founder of the biggest most valuable company in the world. Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, was brought to South Africa by First National Bank. What a delight to have him here in our country, we look forward to welcoming him back soon.