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Advice to Engineers from Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple

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I was looking over some old books that I have and I came across this paperback:  “iWoz – Computer Geek to Cult Icon; How I invented the personal computer, co-founded Apple, and had fun doing it by Steve Wozniak.  As you might know, it was the “Two Steve’s” that created Apple – Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.  iWoz was published a couple of years after another book: iCon Steve Jobs: The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business. So, the title of Wozniak’s book is a nice play on the title iCon – the book about the other Steve.  Significantly, iWoz was written by Steve Wozniak.  iCon does not claim any authorship by Steve Jobs.

So, I went flipping through the book and there it all was mostly as I remember reading it several years ago.  It’s a quick read.  If you know the history of the personal computer revolution (or, if you were there to experience it, first hand) then much of the book is a fond remembrance.

Personal observations by Woz on happiness, life, and the world

But there is much more in this book than the history of the personal computer revolution and the founding of Apple.  This book, written by the Woz himself, is filled with personal observations on many things – the goal of life, women and marriage, starting a company, and what he thought of large companies in general and Apple in particular after the Apple IPO when it became a “real company”.

The last chapter in the book is entitled: Rules to Live By.  This chapter is advice to young engineers.

Advice to Engineers

The chapter is fascinating in that it gives an insight into the mind of an engineer – or at least one type of engineer.

Here is a short summary of the advice to engineers  from Steve Wozniak

  1. Believe in yourself.  Don’t waver.  Think out of the box and think out of the constraints of everyone.
  2. Work alone.  “You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you are working on your own.  Not on a committee.  Not on a team.”
  3. It’s hard to predict the future.  Woz relates the experience of seeing the first GUI at Xerox PARC.  “It’ so rare to see the future like that.  I can’t promise it’ll happen to you. But when you see it, you know it.  If this ever happens to you, leap at the chance to get involved.  Trust your instincts.  It isn’t often that the future lets you in like that.”

So I looked at item #2 and wondered if this was good advice to engineers in 2011 and beyond.

Deep insights into the mind(s) of an engineer

The book iWoz is a deep insight into the mind of one type of engineer.  It is critical to acknowledge that the sentiments advocated by Woz in this book is only one way for an engineer to look at the world and a career.  To not acknowledge that there are other avenues available to engineers may be to one’s detriment. The worst case is for new engineers to get caught up in peer group pressure that acknowledges that the recommendation of Woz is the preferred way to go.

Woz represents that group of engineers that generally do not fit well into a corporate cultures.  He acknowledges this himself.

The larger question, if the goal is to, “design revolutionary products and features” are you best able to do this outside a corporate environment?  Or even, can you even accomplish this at all by going it alone?

How to Change the World

There are many counter examples to Woz’s recommendation to “work alone”.

One only needs to look at folks like Bill Hewlett and David Packard.  Bill and David are a couple of electrical engineers  that built a company from the ground up – HP.  Jack Welch, long time CEO of General Electric started out as a chemical engineer.  Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel was a chemical engineer.  Ed Zander, former CEO of Motorola was an electrical engineer.  What about Steve Jobs?  CEO of Apple (twice) and NeXT, worked side by side with Steve Wozniak.

One could go on and on showing that Wozniak’s recommendation to engineers to “work alone” is only one path or best path.  That Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started out together but each took a very different path and had very different outcomes is a clear demonstration that an interest in electronics (“being an engineer”, “doing the work of an engineer”) can lead to being a CEO of a company like Apple at one extreme or being an engineer, working alone, at the other extreme.  Would Steve Jobs recommend “working alone”?  Doubtful.

If you were asked this question,  who was successful in the long run designing revolutionary products and features – Steve Wozniak or Steve Jobs?  What would be the answer?  Which one created the iPod, iPhone, and iPad?  Which one revolutionized the music industry?  Which one was responsible for the revolution of the movie industry in the context of Toy Story and computer-rendered full-length movies?  Today, who is admired as a visionary with the ability to bring new innovative products to market at an incredible pace.  If you were an investor, with which Steve would you entrust your financial resources?

The value of large technology company to an engineer is the huge financial and intellectual resources it can muster to innovate, design, develop, and bring to market great products.  This is the goal that Woz is after, design revolutionary products, but he recommends to do it alone, not on a committee, and not on a team.  Is this even possible as technology advances at an incredible pace?  Can you do it alone?

The Take

Even thought iWoz was published in 2007, Wozniak’s recommendations to engineers seems dated.

What is missing from Wozniak’s recommendation is any idea of collaboration,  Again, “You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you are working on your own.  Not on a committee.  Not on a team.”

The millennial generation of engineers that grew up digital with world-wide global communication may see things differently.  Perhaps the only way that new products and services will come market will be through extreme collaboration.  How about Linux?  Linux is a prime example of a product, competitive with Microsoft, that was created by the global collaborative work of software engineers.  Working alone?  What about the Wikipedia?  The Wikipedia only exists because of massive global collaboration.  There are many other examples.

Woz is a very special type of engineer because of his personality

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me – they’re shy and they live in their heads.  They’re almost like artists.  In fact, the very best of them are artists.  And artists work best alone – best outside of corporate environments, best when they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee.  I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been designed by committee.  Because the committee would never agree!

There is a lot in here – working alone, desire for absolute control, neglect of consumer/market preferences (market demand), and the idea that a group of people could never negotiate a common vision, strategy, or methodology and then agree to support it – despite differences of opinion  – and move forward

There are a lot of folks like Woz in corporate environments and they don’t fit in.  To not fit in is to decide to not fit in.  To decide to not fit in is a personal choice and it might be perpetuated by peer pressure of other engineers that also “don’t fit in”.  Is this really a good choice to listen to these folks as if this was the only option?  Engineers that “don’t fit in” to a corporate environment, or a committee, or a team is the bane of executives (read more and even more) in just about every corporation.  To not “fit in” is a choice.

To not acquire the skills to “fit in” is a choice and personal decision.  Bill Hewlett, David Packard, Jack Welch, Andy Grove, Ed Zander – those engineers of Wozniak’s generation – made the choice to “fit in”.  In fact, more than fit it.  These folks made the choice and had the ambition and tenacity of will to build or lead technology corporations.  These corporations not only provide engineers with jobs but also provides investors with a return on financial investments and delivery to market products or services for just above everyone.  Working alone?

My bet for the future is that there is a new generation of engineers, born into the age of the Internet and global collaboration, where one’s best work will be on teams, committees, and through global collaboration.  Further, the idea of working alone, as Woz recommends, would be considered somewhat antiquated as demonstrated by what can be achieved by each approach.

We need more engineers like Bill Hewlett –

As I look back at my life’s work, I’m probably most proud of having helped to create a company that by virtue of its values, practices, and successes has had a tremendous impact on the way companies are managed around the world.  And I’m particularly proud that I’m leaving behind an ongoing organization that can live on as a role model long after I am gone.

William R. Hewlett, cofounder, Hewlett-Packard – (passed away in 2001 at age 87)


Bill and Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World’s Greatest Company
Bill and Dave’s Memos
garage at 367 Addison
Shrine to Hours of Tinkering in a Garage on the Ground Floor of Silicon Valley

Written by frrl

July 5, 2011 at 5:02 am

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One Response

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  1. I would agree with Wozniak on working alone to a certain extend. I mean look at the beginning of pc. It all started with him creating something. He create something that will be a revolutionary product and he did it alone. Only later when the apple co-founders get together and refined their product to mass produced them that they get into a team and worked on it. The same goes to Linux. It’s all started with Linus Torvalds doing his personal project alone. Then Linus shares his project to the world and the project grew becoming a better Linux. But it all started with a person who did things on their own. Just my two cents.


    October 20, 2016 at 5:38 am

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