Steve Wozniak Answers Tech Questions at Trace3 Evolve 2016

FEB 08, 2016

As a follow up to our “Ask the Woz” campaign, below is a transcript of the Q&A portion of our main stage session with Steve Wozniak.  Lance Smith was the moderator.  He’s the CEO of Primary Data and I thought he was terrific.  The below picks up after Steve Wozniak was asked about flying from Oslo to NY to Las Vegas to take the stage at our event.


Lance: You do hold the World’s Record for the fastest Segway right?

The Woz: Yes. The Segway came out. This is an interesting technology story. It came out with keys that had chips that told it how fast it was allowed to go. So if you gave somebody the slow key, they would only ride slowly on your Segway.  Of course I went online and got the speed codes and the encryption format and I played with spreadsheets and got it figured out.  Then I designed and built a little microprocessor controlled key burner that could read one key and then burn out new copies for your Segway with its key code, but any speed you wanted.  Because you know I am so safety conscious, I wanted to slow my Segway down.  People are surprised because I’ve actually taken my Segway 108 miles an hour without a helmet

…in the back of my car.

(Audience Laughter)

Lance: That’s fantastic.

The Woz: People usually start walking away from me when they hear that story.

Lance: So you and I have been working together for a long time. I think this is our second company now, right?  Primary Data you have joined again as the Chief Scientist.

The Woz: Good to be here. Good to be with you. Well we met with Fusion IO.  You know the reason I joined (Primary Data) was all the smart people…that thought differently.

Lance: So here we are at Evolve. You know one of the things about Trace3 that they are constantly looking for innovation in start-up companies. The interesting thing about coming up with these clever ideas, it does require a culture.  From your point of view, when you see these start-ups, talk to them, and see this kind of innovation, what kind of things do you think make a company successful in innovating?

The Woz: Every idea of innovation will do something useful for somebody. But which ones will actually become successful?  It’s largely a guessing game.  A friend of mine recently went and visited a famous author who was famous for two or three of his books and when my friend was there he saw fifty books on his shelf.  There were fifty books that that author had written and he said every one of them, he thought, when he wrote it was just as good as any other one.  You just toss them out and you don’t know which are going to be the ones that make hits.  The same thing is true of games and technology products as well.  You can have great products that make so much sense by any reasonable numbers of folks.  But oh they just came in the wrong year.  People weren’t looking for that thing that year.  They’re heading off in one direction and another opportunity goes around the corner.  So it is very hard to predict successfully which innovations will stick.  I like the ones that are different than the way you operate and use them or people used them before.  I don’t like just saying oh my gosh we innovated, we used this new technology, a new kind of chip and we made it ten times faster.  Well, that’s good, that’s like engineering, but it’s not like inventing new things.  So I like the inventing.  Things that are so strikingly different.  You say oh my gosh I would have never thought of that or how did they think of that.  Those are the sort of things that attract me all the time.

Lance: Do you think companies can lose sight of this innovation over time?

The Woz: Almost every company is worried about that.  Almost every company says how do we innovate so we don’t get interrupted.  We want to be the disrupter.  My solution is you should have a CDO, a chief disruption officer that is isolated, independent thinking, not under control of even of the CEO, division in another city, far away.  Think independently and study all the trends that might come in the future. What might disrupt us and how can we be prepared or how can we be the disrupter and start some little side projects that might become the future.

Lance: Yeah, yeah.  It’s like skunk works projects.

The Woz: Yeah, like skunk works.  But you have to be a large enough company that you can afford a little side project going on.  It has to be very secretive.  They’re working on their own and they are not really responsible to anyone but themselves and get some really brilliant people to be in there.  For innovation, a lot of companies worry about, we got to keep turning the crank that brings in the money for our companies.  We’ve got to keep things rolling the way they are and we’ve got to have engineers improving things and keeping up with the changes in the market and our competition and we have to handle marketing and sales as well…but the real disruptions don’t come about necessarily that way.  It’s hard to say “oh we are going to divert some of our resources to look at doing whole things differently” and saying “even though we invented this technology and we really understand it and we know how to use it, it really needs to change”.  There might be a different way that is a lot easier and we don’t have to do as much thinking.  You don’t want to give that up.  I’ve been at companies where the existing company culture gets in the way of evolution and innovation.  Hewlett Packard calculators, handheld scientific calculators was a good example.  The only reason they used what was called reverse polish notation, a strange type of mathematics known to computer scientists, they thought it would make us more powerful.  We are using computer science.  The only reason they did it was they didn’t have enough memory on the chips in those days to program natural form mathematic formulas the way we are taught in school.  So of course when Texas Instruments came out with a calculator that used normal mathematics, we laughed at it and said it’s a toy. They won’t be able to do the complicated calculations because every kid in seventh grade is taught to write the equations that way.  Actually it was an easier improvement where you didn’t have to think and manage how you were going to solve the problem, like you did on the HP calculators.  But nobody saw it.  You need a skill.  You’re taught a skill and you’re good at it you don’t want to give it up and say something is better.  So you miss things, especially when they are easier.  Then you say what a relief I don’t have to think about this anymore.  It’s just there and it works.  You don’t want to give it up when you’re in the position of having the skill.

Lance: Right, right.  Well let’s go down that path of these handheld devices and data mobility.  So there are many folks that are in this audience who have to manage their IT organization at enterprise or suggest solutions for IT and you’ve got this environment of bring your own device.  A lot of data mobility.  Now, folks we have been traveling together for many years and I have to tell you that if you get in line with the Woz…in the security line…get in front of him.  Because when he brings out his bags of toys that he plays with, you’re going to be waiting.  I’m telling you he has enough electronics equal to the ten people that are behind him.  Why don’t you give the folks an idea of what you carry along day to day because I know you are a gadget guy but a lot of it is very useful.

The Woz: Well, let’s give the background behind this. Why do I carry a lot of electronics and gadgets in my backpack?  Well first of all I am not going to put it in checked luggage because that’s the thing that gets stolen.  The one time I did it, I was actually at a Fusion IO event in Salt Lake City, I was tired that night, I didn’t think.  I had two new precious iPhones that you couldn’t buy.  You couldn’t get them for four months and I didn’t put them in my backpack, I put them in my checked bag.  By the time I got to Valencia, Spain, my bag was the only one that didn’t arrive.  It came the next day missing two iPhones, no TA card.  They arrested a guy a couple months later.  Putting bags aside and stealing things when nobody was looking.  So I put everything valuable to me, my electronics, my chargers, my adapters, my cables, my battery packs, my sound jams, all that stuff.  Put it in my backpack, so yeah it’s really full.  But I like to experiment with new technologies.  I like to say, what are people developing today because that gives you insights as to what people have done good.  Might even get you thinking about what they might even do in the future that is better and your own judgment of it.  Doesn’t necessarily lead you to…you know in the days when I was actually real active as an engineer.  Woah, I’d think of ideas and implement them right away.  Now I more just get to observe them.  But that’s the fun part of life.  If you aren’t out there looking for what’s new and what’s exotic and what’s neat.  So I carry some android phones and I carry some iPhones of different sizes.  And I have all four carriers in the U.S. Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon.  So I can always compare things, and you know in cost and performance and all that and I always need a lot of backups.  And still I go on a cruise and I get no bandwidth at all.  You know and I’m sitting there fighting and the local SIM cards.  They might work great for two hours and then a big ship with six thousand passengers comes in, of the younger type, and all the cellular goes to nothing.  You know, you learn these things.  I like to see the fun things they do on products.  Of course, Apple makes important innovations in our life like Apple Pay made it so easy compared to what I used to do with Android phones.  For about three years, I would buy the one phone you could buy that you could go into seven-eleven and pay with your phone.  After you turned on the phone, unlocked the phone, found the app and ran it, typed in a pin number for your credit card, then you could pay.  Apple Pay you just walk up, double click your watch and you pay and it’s so easy.  Apple does things like that, but I like sometimes getting an Android phone and saying oh you just wipe your hand across the screen.  It takes a screen snapshot.  Or when your taking a selfie, you hold up a hand and it starts the timer.  You know these little things are kind of cute.

Lance: They’re clever right?

The Woz: Yeah, yeah.  I mean features aren’t essential any more in choosing your platform, you know platform traces I think…we’re so far along.  It’s, what have I used before?  What am I familiar with?  What do my friends use?  What do people say about this and that?  And also what do I want to feel like you I want to feel?  Do I want to feel like the prestigious Apple iPhone user?  So a lot of it’s psychology.

Lance: You just mentioned a number of points.  You have a lot of data, across a number of devices.  Have you been using the cloud or do you just carry along a hard drive with you?  What do you think about the cloud?

The Woz: Well I came from the old school background where you do everything yourself and you have your own hard disc and your own personal computer.  And nowadays on the personal level  almost everything kind of winds up going to the cloud.  And sharing between devices when you’re carrying about seven iPhones and MacBook Pro computer and your trying to keep everything consistent and synchronize with each other.  The cloud is a really good solution but I do a lot of manual back ups too.  I don’t know…I remember the time I had an iPhone 4 in my car and I could push that button and say call Janet and it would call Janet.  And then we came out with Siri.  I push the button I say call Janet and I’d wait and I’d wait and wait and a message would come up.  Your not on the internet and I was on the internet.  A series of computers were busy.  So I like local solutions when they work, if you can’t get to the cloud.  I travel so much I’m off on off the cloud.  I live in a house that doesn’t have broadband.  Yes it take 7 hours to download an iTunes movie I’m in the one little part of Silicon Valley that all my life has had a lousy phone company.  This phone company is my only option …it’s a monopoly, and they’re my only source of broadband to me, so I don’t get it.  And people wonder… about 4 months ago I drove down 5 minutes from my house to the Apple store in Los Gatos.  I drove down at midnight and I sat till 6:30 in the morning downloading different data and localized maps to my iPhone.

Lance: Hooked up to their wifi?

The Woz: Yes.

Lance: Fantastic.  Hey, let’s sort of switch topics.  So interesting enough Trace3 has done a lot of planning for this event.  And one of the things they did on the front of their website was they gave the opportunity for the audience and for other folks to ask the Woz some questions.  So we’ve got a few questions that are…some of them could be a little left field, but we’ll try and get some insight on you and your life and what you’ve accomplished.  The first one is an interesting one.  They said, okay with everything that you know and all the things you’ve experienced.  Today, if you were to go into the field of information technology.  Is there one area of IT that you find interesting, that you would take a job on?

The Woz: Very difficult question.  I think I would still be down at the maker end and my starting days and developing days when I’m young.  But I would also look a lot at probably personalize, consumer type products like robots that do tasks for us and machines that kind of think.  And I really am glad that we’re getting closer and closer…artificial intelligence I think it’s the big field.  Machines that sort of think for themselves and figure out, they don’t follow one specific set of instructions but they’re taught to analyze and learn and adapt to the situation.  And that applies to everything from self-driving cars to you know eventually…I mean even the machines that we talk to on our cell phones.  It’s just becoming a very strange world.  Machines are becoming much more like humans and better helpers to us.  So I don’t know one particular task I’d be doing.  I probably still be…maybe I love hardware so much in my life, I’m going to assume I’d still be at the hardware level.

Lance: So the data center architecture side?

The Woz: Yeah. Architecture.  One thing…one principle I came up with in my life that never ever have I found any way to disagree with it.  When I was in high school designing computers on paper, just to learn, how to teach myself how to do it, no instructions or anything.  I discovered through one computer that came out, the Data General Nova, very different architecture than all the other computers.  Architecture of what instructions can do and where data can be stored.  It was so different and it was logical.  One long instruction of 16 bits…a couple of the bits meant one of the arguments, then another argument.  Three bits meant what operation do you do.  Another meant do you shift left or right or whatever.  And in the end they all added up to the instructions that a computer needed, but it took about half as many chips to make.  So what I came up with was this philosophy, always try to design the architecture based around chips that exist.  Then you can just connect wires very simply.  And when things are simple they’re easier to understand.  Yes, it takes a lot of brainwork to develop that way but…so I think architecture that really is based around the building materials is good.  One architect will come out design fancy building, if its a hardware…you know if it’s a building architecture, a fancy building and say we’ll just hire the people to make it this way.  But a real good architect is broader and knows the building materials and designs things around very…it’s going to be very inexpensive to build and yet be just as good.

Lance: Alright.  The next question that we got is…they wanted you to look back in your career and, whether good or bad, what was some of the most important decisions that you had to make?

The Woz: Yikes…  You know what in the real highlight, the ten year period of my career when I was just spewing out designs the way Bob Dylan spewed out songs, I don’t recall that being an issue at all.  I was just…I was so well skilled, and I wasn’t skilled because I was really bright.  I was you know good in math, but I had spent so many hours trying to teach myself these skills and trying to teach, come up with tricks that were better than other humans would think of.  I spent that my whole life that it became very natural.  So I didn’t really ever have any in that time frame.  I never had a project I started that I couldn’t even complete or that failed or I was on the wrong track.  Everything was A+ and golden.  So it’s a very difficult question to be answered because everybody like to say well here were my failures.  Well my failures were only that I love building fun things that weren’t worth money and companies.  But they progressed my brain towards the next project, yeah.  And I think that applies to everybody, everybody anywhere.  If you’re working on…especially if you have a motivation, I taught school for 8 years and I learned that it’s less important the material that I taught…more important that it made it motivating that the students wanted to learn.  And I was lucky that I was outside of the public schools because the public schools don’t have that freedom.  They can’t go back and make sure you learn something and I could.  And well whatever.  Let’s go on.

Lance: Alright. The next question, it’s about data on the move.  So specifically the question asks about hypermobility and connectivity.  Especially when you’re talking about personal items like the iPhone Watch, which I know that you like to use and the internet of things and its impacting the data center.  In what ways do you see that this deluge of data, that is coming through the consumers, is impacting the data center?

The Woz: Yeah it’s hard to say data is on the move.  The data is in the data centers, it’s not moving.  The data that’s being presented to you is being assembled and calculated and analyzed in the data centers.  And you’re just fed the results to look at.  So really our own computers are always out there in the data center doing the work.  We’ve just got viewing displays now.  And I credit that a lot to people like Steve Jobs who grew up with their only understanding of computers was a low-cost computer did almost nothing because it was wired through a modem to some big computer somewhere that did things.  And turns out that’s what the masses want.  You want to relieve yourself, you want things to be virtual and to pop up and just be there, as you need them.  And it’s hard to build it into one device, that kind of the software that’s required, the hardware, just it’s inexpensive.  Today’s data mobility you mentioned earlier…bring your own device.  And it’s actually, there’s always going to be a conflict between bring your own device and we’re only going to support one platform because it’s generally easier for the support teams in IT to support one platform.  We found that in our schools but bring your own devices is more pleasing to the user’s.  Great, I don’t have to use your particular device and learn your particular ways.  I can be free, freer in my own mind.  I’m not sort of a slave to you telling me exactly how to do things.  So I think we’re going to move more and more towards the device and the connection being intuitive like a human being thinks, the human being, being more important than the technology.  That I’m not going to have to learn all the structured ways to use my device.  Eventually it’s going to become much more natural just like human speech with very little thinking.

Lance: Let’s look at some of the most successful technology companies out there.  What do you think caused their success?  Was it the right timing?  Was it the right people?  Do you think you know the management team was the right idea?  Or was it just plain luck?

The Woz: Well all those things…we’re in Las Vegas, we’re in Las Vegas right?

Lance: Just roll the dice and turn out a company.

The Woz: When it comes to almost everything in life, I always say would I rather be smart or proficient or have money, or would I rather be lucky?  Have a good scheme at blackjack or be lucky?  I’d rather have the luck, I almost always say.  But almost everything you mentioned, having right management team could be a factor…being at the right time you can make a great product that has its place.  And Apple has done this many times.  They Come up with a product line that totally just drops and fails.  Maybe it was ten years too early.  People are going to be ready for that change at a much later date.  You know even the movement to the mouse based computers you can look at that way.  So I don’t know, it depends on what are all the factors are.   It’s hard.  You can’t guarantee you’re going to be successful, as I mentioned before.  All you can do is get out there and do your best work.  And we always say, oh the products that nobody expected they’re so different, so wildly better than other things…they really do have to come from a bit of secrecy in your environment, and keep working and working to get that great of a product.  And don’t launch the first version that will make money.  But unfortunately most companies just put out the first version that makes money.  They don’t wait around for the great version of something.

Lance: Yeah, I totally agree with that.  Let’s see…there has been a lot written about Steve Jobs, but I can tell you one thing.  Steve said many times that Apple wouldn’t have happened without you.

The Woz: That’s actually true.  Because our only product that made revenue for the first ten years was the Apple II.  It existed before Steve Jobs knew it existed.

Lance: Oh really, I didn’t know that actually.  Well we’ve seen two movies now… you know about the…

The Woz: Oh they’re all wrong…they’re all wrong.  They show Steve taking me to computer clubs cause I’m a bright engineer.  My god, I was a hero at the computer club and I took him to show him what it was all about and I had already given my computer designs away to everybody there.

Lance: So what are some of the things you would like the audience to know about you?

The Woz: I’m very humble.  I’m very polite.  I’m very nice.  I didn’t ever want to ever run a business, even Apple, because I’m not the sort of person that can fire people and say bad things about people.  I just wanted to be a great engineer.  I had decided before Apple that I was going to be an engineer for life at a great engineering company – Hewlett Packard.  And “engineer” means so much to me because engineers have to make things that work or they don’t work.  You have to struggle and struggle.  Even today the digital engineers aren’t mathematical like the old analog engineers.  But whether you’re designing digital logic or your writing programs it has to tests and has to work and you’re judged by it.  And that’s equivalent to truth in my mind and I always rated truth as the highest goal of any human being.


To be continued in Part 2

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