In Summary

  • Swinburne sponsors Steve Wozniak’s Australian tour
  • Professor Bronwyn Fox interviews Steve Wozniak

On Saturday 27 August, Professor Bronwyn Fox, Director of Swinburne’s Factory of the Future, interviewed Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

The interview took place after ‘An evening with Steve Wozniak’, hosted by Think Inc. and proudly sponsored by Swinburne.

The Woz quickly warmed to Bronwyn, a fellow engineer, and the pair spoke about several topics including the university experience, the value of mentors and how universities can promote a culture of innovation.

Watch the full interview

Interview transcript

BRONWYN FOX: First of all, Steve Wozniak, thank you so much for speaking to us at Swinburne. I'm interested to hear about your university experiences, what are your fondest memories of university?

STEVE WOZNIAK: Well first, attending University for the first time ever, you have a lot of free time to choose what you're going to do with your life and what you aren't. But more than that, not only did I have courses in things that I-- well, the first year at college you don't have that much choice. But yes, you have a little bit. And I could take a couple of computer classes, or physics, classical physics classes, things that I loved and was good at. But in the bookstore they had books for other classes, and I could buy different computer language books. You know, they were all graduate courses, but I could study these things and read what I love to do.

And I could think about, yes, spending a whole ton of time. I could have a lot of fun. I found out that college is the most fun time in your life. And even with my own kids I would tell them, you don't pick a college because it's prestigious. Wherever you're going to go in life is in your own head. It's the most fun time of your life. So be sure you go to a place that's going to have a lot of people that you'll have good friends with.

BRONWYN FOX: And how do you think that shaped who you are today?

STEVE WOZNIAK: I think it shaped me a lot in liking a very carefree, fun life, being willing to put a lot of fun into things that are work, that are normally considered work. I think it had a lot to do with that. Later on in university life I found, oh my gosh, I could study as far and as fast as I wanted to. And by your third year at college, hardly any restraints at all. And I could take classes that didn't even lead to a degree, if it was something I wanted to be good at. And so I got good at what-- the things that I loved were electronics, engineering, and computer technology, and all that. And I got really good at it before I ever knew it would be a job of mine.

BRONWYN FOX: Earlier on this evening you were describing your design process and how you would challenge yourself to design a computer with fewer and fewer parts. And it seemed to me like you were solving puzzles all the time. Is that what it--


BRONWYN FOX: --felt like?

STEVE WOZNIAK: I look back at my old days, I remember them, I look at the designs. Where was that magic in me? Why was I doing it? It was a game that I made up. I know that I've been able to use 78 parts for this one machine. I wonder if there's any tricks I can do to save it and cut it down to 77.

And the tricks I came up with were so weird in my head, not in any engineering books. I was really proud of that. I was proud of that. I knew that I could design things better than any other human being. And yet I wasn't out there going for a job, say, in that sort of thing. I just did it for-- that was my fun.

BRONWYN FOX: You spoke about the role of your father, who really seemed to be a mentor to you. How important is it to have a really good mentor?

STEVE WOZNIAK: I grew up in later life. Steve Jobs and I, in our earliest days, before we ever even sold an Apple I computer, took a plane flight across the country. Neither one of us had ever been, ever been. We flew out to Atlantic City for a show called PC 76. And it was all a bunch of two little young people like ourselves, trying to start little things in this new upcoming computer area.

And one kid was making metal cases, but there was a man standing there, an older man, who was a mentor helping a kid who didn't have other things to do in life. And I thought, I want to be-- mentors are so great. That's one of-- because I always wanted to be a teacher. And a teacher is a mentor. And I realized my father was a great teacher and I wound up being a teacher like him. And going out of your way to help people that don't have something that you have is so important to me.

In later life, I have a lot of money that I didn't care for, I didn't ever seek it. So people would come up to me and I'd say, look, here's some money to go to college. And the way you pay me back is when you are successful, you help give something to some-- help somebody else that's younger than you that needs help. In other words, I was a mentor, but you be a mentor. And then that movie Pay it Forward came on and everybody said, oh my god, that's Woz. That was me.

BRONWYN FOX: Fantastic. So is there anyone who stands out as a particularly great mentor to yourself?

STEVE WOZNIAK: Well, aside from-- mentors are usually very direct. The guy that funded Apple Computer and told us what our responsibilities were, how you run a company, what everyone does, he really ran the show. He was really a mentor that was very, very critical and important. None will match my father. I had a couple of teachers, as we all do over time, that impacted our lives personally. If I hadn't met that teacher, I don't think I'd be who I am today-- my electronics teacher.

He didn't go by the rules. I mean, he taught that school-- our high school had a better electronics program than any local college. And he got the kids to have projects to build low cost kits the first year at the school. And the second year, and the third year. I was there the fourth year. And by then we had all the test equipment we needed for real full program. He wrote his own lectures. He wrote all his own notes. So when I taught for eight years of my life, I wrote my own handouts every morning before class. I never used a book. You know, you're much closer to who you're trying to reach, and caring.

That teacher was so incredible. He worked with local industry. He went out-- he didn't say, the education is in the boundary of our school. He went out to outside companies and got them to donate parts, and he also got them to take smart students in to actually have a chance. I got to program a computer down at a local company. So Mr. McCollum, our electronics teacher, was an unbelievable mentor, too.

BRONWYN FOX: That's fantastic. I had teacher like that, Mr. Darbishew. He used to do the most amazing physics demonstrations. And by the end of the class we'd all be sitting at the back, because it would inevitably end in--

STEVE WOZNIAK: Those are the best.

BRONWYN FOX: --an explosion. But it was the best. Really inspirational.

STEVE WOZNIAK: It was physics, not chemistry?

BRONWYN FOX: Yeah, physics. Yeah, you can to a lot of damage with physics demonstrations, as it turns out. So what is it that really excites you about engineering?

STEVE WOZNIAK: Well, you know what? I was good from about eight years old on. I was the top student in my schools in mathematics. We had slide rules in those days, and I was the slide rule wiz in my schools. So that fit engineering very closely. In fact, electronics class in high school, we used a slide rule more than you used in chemistry or physics. I mean, it was that deep of calculations. And that's what I was good at.

Engineering was basically electronics plus math. So I don't know. It's just like I had a lot of successes. I was a star, doing things nobody else my age could do, winning awards for it sometimes, but hardly noticed by most of the students. I was kind of a geek on the outside. But I knew it inside, that when I was designing computers in high school-- we didn't have computers in our schools. We didn't have books in bookstores, how to do it. I taught myself. I don't know, you just follow what you love.

When I was about 10 years old, I discovered this journal by accident, maybe I was nine. And it had stuff about how computers worked inside. Oh my gosh, I said, this is the most amazing thing I've ever found in my life. No student my age would ever find this stuff. And I said, I'm going to love it forever.

BRONWYN FOX: One of the things that we're really interested in at Swinburne is innovation. And we've just recently launched our innovation precinct. What role do you think universities can play in harboring and fostering innovation?

STEVE WOZNIAK: A lot of innovation doesn't come, necessarily, from knowledge and content, things you can get in academic classes. It really comes a lot from a personality that wants to do unusual things, that wants to try to prove himself. But it comes from a lot of free time. Do I have the time to go do something that's not in a class? The best innovators in the world are the ones who, even way back in earlier school, had courses, but when they came home they did their own things on the side.

A lot of the most interesting things that are most innovative, especially in computer technology and engineering, you don't ever come across in primary education. And I think it's a flaw, and it shouldn't be missing. It's important. It does relate to academics. It has a lot of thinking and procedures and logic and adding up, to get working on projects, long goals to get answers. And we don't do enough of that. An innovator really should be used to being a builder. Not just come up with an idea, but actually build things, and make them realize them, make them real, make them work.

BRONWYN FOX: You talk a lot about the role of finding innovation. How important is that, do you think?

STEVE WOZNIAK: To me-- everybody has different personalities. To my personality, it was critical, all my life, that I have fun. Now I go back to when I was trying to teach myself how to design computers, and you don't know how, and you're trying to figure out something and work it out, and it can take you weeks. And you came up with one simple thing that, once everyone sees it, it looks very simple now. I would have to up late at night, drink Cokes. The little breaks that you get, the little breaks you get, and humor. Any fun, any jokes you hear, being able to joke with workmates.

When I worked at Hewlett-Packard, being able to joke through the day, we were camaraderie. We were friends. We'd go off sometimes for a lunch and fly four small planes off somewhere and have lunch, and fly them back. I mean, having that kind of an atmosphere. My dad told me that how far you go in life in work is really based on how well people like you. So being liked, and being humorous, and communicative, and joking, and talking casually, and not everything super serious person is good in my mind.

I don't think everyone can be it, because your personality settles down about age 23, maybe between 18 and 23. Somewhere in there your personality settles, and then it doesn't change for life. So you better find the way to find your formulas. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to have feelings of smiling, and I didn't want to have feelings of frowning. So I told myself, don't care that much about things in the world that go wrong. Your car gets scratched? Cars get scratched. And I wound up living with a lot fewer frowns than most people, and bad feelings.

And for laughter, I just-- pranks help out, making jokes. I make up a few jokes a day, you know, and I just tell them, and I forget them. But it's just a fun part of life keep myself real happy. Go to a lot of entertaining things. Music. Music makes me so happy. And concerts, and comedian shows.

STEVE WOZNIAK: Or thinking, any thinking shows make me happy.

BRONWYN FOX: I read about you organizing a music festival that sounded amazing.

STEVE WOZNIAK: A huge music festival, a million tickets to our festival, over in 1982, and a million tickets in 1983. Oh yeah, it was the forerunner of the big ones like Bonnaroo and Coachella and all that now. Ahead of its time. However, we were ahead of our time, and we didn't have the formula that made money. We lost a lot of money even though an awful lot of people attended. But at least they say the show was the concert of their life.

BRONWYN FOX: And had a lot of fun.

STEVE WOZNIAK: Yeah, and they say that they've never been to a better show since.

BRONWYN FOX: In your book I notice you talk very fondly about the times in which you founded Apple, and how much fun it was. And that it was a really small team working very closely together. And then later in your career you talk about design by committee, and that, you know, these committees can get in the way of innovation. Where is the balance, and how do you strike that balance?

STEVE WOZNIAK: Well, almost any really great product that came out of Apple ever had one direct mind over it. Sometimes it was Bill Atkinson, over things like a program called HyperCard. And sometimes it was myself over some early computers and accessories, like the disk drive and all. And Steve Jobs, with the phone. And basically you can't-- if you have everybody getting in inputs, a product comes so washed out. One person has to see it as something I want it my way for myself.

One example that I use in recent times is Elon Musk and the Tesla Model S car. Nobody thought of making an electric car large, a big sedan. But Elon Musk had a big family. The first supercharger stations, where you can drive for a while and charge very quickly, and then continue on the way, so you can drive anywhere in the country just like a gas car-- the first six of those stations were between Elon Musk's home in Los Angeles, and the factory up in Fremont, California.

So put two and two together. He wanted to create the environment that would be great for himself. It turns out that he was on to something. There were a lot of people like him. I mean, pretty much wealthy people to start this, but someday we may have all electric vehicles and not gas vehicles, and Tesla is the start of it.

BRONWYN FOX: So what is it that you think that makes a startup really special?

STEVE WOZNIAK: The feeling of the people in it. And are they enjoying what they're doing? Do they believe in it, strongly? Do they go out and say, I've got something that really is a positive change in the world? And even if that startup fails, the experience they had is worth it, so much. And they'll never stop looking for that again, trying to have future startups. And they'll understand that there are marketing principles or engineering principles. There are a lot of things that can kill a company, even with a good product.

BRONWYN FOX: We asked the Swinburne community to come up with a question for you, and the question we've selected is from Clem, and he says, what a phenomenal outcome Steve. You've enabled the world to be connected at the touch of a finger. What do you see as the next evolution of human interaction via new technology?

STEVE WOZNIAK: OK. My intent was always to start building machines. Couldn't really see the connectivity that we have today way back then. Nobody could. Remember, the amount of memory to hold one song cost a million dollars. But we knew that computers with a smart person, they could get more done in their life and be more powerful. And it was worth it in terms of money that way. We always wanted computers to be helping people to get to a further-- to be more super than they are. More than the person they are today.

In the future I think that's going to be the continuation though. Computers have got to help us do what we think about, and get done more naturally and easily. And I think a lot of it's going to be done with how you direct computers with your voice, and it understands you, and the computer starts to get to know you and becomes a best friend. I think that it may not be Artificial Intelligence per se, have its own feelings, but it will still be someone you'd rather relate to than human beings that don't understand you as well.

At least it's the best communication tool we have. That you know what? The people that are most like me in the world, that I want spend my time with, may not be in the room I'm in. They might be all across the universe. I may never have met them, but somehow I enjoy the way we interact. Who can predict that? So I hope these machines go further and further to letting us find our emotional happiness.

BRONWYN FOX: I'm really interested in manufacturing, and how Artificial Intelligence and virtual reality might impact manufacturing. Can you comment on that at all?

STEVE WOZNIAK: Well, you know, manufacturing's gotten so incredibly, I don't know, digitized, to where everything is doing what needs to be done. Manufacturing is mostly robotics. It's mostly-- although they have to think some. Robotics, even building a car, has to have vision, and be able to see where it's planning something, and where something's a little bit out of distance and all that. But every single time we've built these things, it's to help us have more in our life, to have things that are less expensive.

Now Artificial Intelligence, eventually we might have robots that are running around. They see, ah, here's a task that needs some doing. Here's something's broken down or over here. I've got to go attend to it and fix it. I think eventually they may think closer and closer to the way humans think, and maybe even faster and better than us. You know what? If you have to sit there and make a decision and pull a switch at certain times, you aren't going to pull it as fast as a computer.

BRONWYN FOX: That's fascinating. Thank you so much for speaking to us at Swinburne, Steve Wozniak. Delight talking to you.

STEVE WOZNIAK: Good. I'm so-- for everybody that goes into engineering, and especially people that go into robotics and cover a lot of the disciplines.