When I was designing computers I was known as an artist, an architect, because architecture is about art really. I was known for the way I connected chips with wires and the choices I made. Well, nobody was ever going to see this invisible work except another engineer who also knew how to connect chips with wires, yet look where it led. Great art can lead to the world we have today.
In the early days it was kind of, “if you had a computer, the computer was a god,” something that made your company successful. It made you better, because only the big companies, and of course the military, had them. Then, you would almost bow down to them and that if you ever got to see a computer, it would make your life amazing. It was hard back then to find information about how they worked or how they were created.
We’re all born curious and want to explore all the things in the world that we don’t know about. We want to find out how they work. It’s built into us. Finding out things and exploring is different from taking your first step in life where you can make things different, when you can challenge the order of the day, when you can create.
We’re always taught that education is the key to our success and I believe that strongly. I was brought up with very strong educational values. There are a lot of people, especially successful people, who question whether the formal education they received in school is the type of education that led to where they are in life.
I was one of those rare, bright people at school who thought the teachers were smart too. Usually people who are bright, like Steve Jobs, would say “Oh my God, the teachers were so dumb!”
However, the definition of intelligence in school, where you learn what it means to be intelligent, is usually having all the right answers on your desk; having all the answers that are the same as everyone else. These are answers that aren’t your own, but given or read to you.
If you’re trying to be like everyone else with your answers, then you’re a follower. You’re looking for the leaders, and you’re going to follow them to get the right answers. Well, that’s not true intelligence.
I think the people that are taking companies forward and making them successful, such as Apple, really base it on a lot of other things in life.
When we’re in school there’s a lot of different types of people, a lot of different kinds of learners. Different things motivate people. We’re always looking for one formula that will apply to everyone, which is very hard to come up with.
It’s easy to come up with rules that work for yourself. If you’re a teacher and you’re working with an individual you care a lot about, you can’t be unsuccessful. With one-on-one you can never fail as a teacher. One teacher with a few students is a very successful model.
Someday I think we might have computers like humans, who act the same as human teachers, that really look at students’ eyes, their faces and expressions; will know things and talk to you like a friend.
A lot of people when I was at school were memorizing history facts about how people used to do things, how you might run the country one day if you ever had to, all based on how things have been done in the past. But learning how things have been done in the past is not really reasoning, it’s not really creating. You’re still a follower.
I was shy at school and when you’re shy you’re not very good at expressing things that are emotional. I did science and math at school, as you might have guessed and I was very good at it. You learn a lot of facts but these facts are actually rules, rules on how to calculate solutions to simple problems, including your work and some of the most complex solutions on our planet – such as the allocation of resources.
The noted heroes we have in mathematics and science are known for discovering new things that weren’t known before. The Newtons and the Einsteins of the world thought out the box, they didn’t come up with the same solutions as people before. For some reason their heads went in a new direction. Now that’s creativity and leadership – thinking different and coming up with new solutions that are useful to people.
I didn’t encounter any books on computers when I was growing up. I just started teaching myself and thought this was really fun to know. It wasn’t for grades at school either, this was a completely internal process which I did for myself. I didn’t even tell anyone else, like my parents, brothers or friends at school. I knew that computers were going to be the most important thing in my life. This was a science I loved, even though I couldn’t get books on it. I just knew this was just going to be my most important thing in life and when you put this idea deep into your core it stays with you for life. I was self-taught, no lessons, no books.
Can shyness lead to leadership? It worked in my case, because I became independent. You solve problems on your own, you work on your own, you don’t look for other people’s answers. If you have a good idea and it means a lot to you and you’re motivated you can work alone and you don’t need to worry about other people telling you you’re wrong or that it’s not done a certain way. I’m a non-conflict person and I never argue, I just walk away.
In high school I got to a point where I could design almost all the small computers of the time in about two days, so I was very advanced by the time I met Steve Jobs.
We were around the same age and by the time I left school there was a counter-culture in the San Francisco area that allowed people to think they could live life differently. Steve Jobs grew up in relative poverty but always aspired to run a big company, which of course today is Apple. I stood out because of my computer designs, yet the two of us still had time to have fun and play pranks. Steve became more serious later on when he became in charge of all the big developments that started happening in his work. But I recall how we used to laugh and laugh at the pranks we’d play on the principal at school and I’m still grateful for those memories of him.
Once in a while, after I’d play a really good prank on him he’d laugh, but it became rarer over time. We used to talk about the latest electronics being made, read books on new science, discuss Bob Dylan lyrics for signs of how people should behave and treat each other. Steve was acutely interested in the latest computer parts, that I hadn’t even got to play with yet. He’d wonder if one of these might lead to a device that would allow people to share a computer? He was always thinking about something that someone would think worth buying.
Steve was always questioning and searching and he was usually thinking one level above the rest of us. I would show him a computer chip that did something at a certain speed and he would immediately start exploring the potential. He’d say, “Maybe this means we can use it to make a certain calculation faster or draw a picture on a screen.” He was usually one level higher in reality than the engineers, because he saw the potential of what things might become.
Steve was involved in all my side projects, where I experimented with electronics. He recognized my computer building skills and always approached new ideas with great excitement. We were told by professors from Stanford that technology was going to change life for humanity, that microprocessors were the key to making computers affordable to the masses. Yes, the first ones were cheap, but they didn’t do anything. So I sat down and built the computer I’d always wanted. Something with software that could solve real-world problems, such as mathematics or a puzzle. My colleagues and I spoke about making the “little engineer” of a company more important than the CFO, because they’d eventually be solving all the problems with their technology.
I gave away all my schematics and designs for free at the time, because they were going to help society. Steve saw my formula for the personal computer – a small number of affordable chips on one little electronics board that could do the whole job for you – by typing on a keyboard and watching the result on a display, and said “Steve, it’s time for us to have our own company. We may lose money, but that’s ok because we’ll be doing something we really want to do.” So, with no money and no business experience, we set out to start a revolution.