Q&A with Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak: Exploring Innovation and Technology at Trimble Dimensions

Trimble CEO Rob Painter with Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak at Trimble Dimensions
Equipment World

As the pace of technological change continues to accelerate, who better to ask for advice than the designer of the first Apple computers, Steve Wozniak?

The Apple co-founder made an appearance at the recent Trimble Dimensions conference to present a keynote address with Trimble CEO Rob Painter. Reflecting on his career in technology, Wozniak offered insights on how to stay innovative, think differently and be happy.

Here are some key moments from the conversation. (Editor’s note: The conversation and responses have been edited for brevity.)

Keeping up with the pace of change

Painter: Technology is moving so fast. What advice do you have for organizations to help them keep up with the pace of change?


You can't always tell which of these new technologies are going to go all the way to fruition and really be profitable for what they are. For example, if you work on different types of batteries for electric vehicles, there are all these promises. This one is solid state and this one is lighter, but which ones are really going to make it? It's hard. You have to gamble; you have to take a guess.

The most important thing, the CEO’s job, is to keep the money coming in and adjust the company and all of that. That’s the most important job of any company; you have to live.

But the next most important is creativity and innovation. Inventors are not the same as engineers. Inventors will get an idea, run a random lab test, test it out, see if it works and bring new things to life that didn’t exist before.

Disruption is what you’re worried about, but you want to be the disrupter, not the disrupted.

Apple has always been really good about moving this direction from a successful product into new areas when that one product category is at its peak or going to die off. You want to be up to date with what’s likely to work for you.

Have a disruption office. Have a chief disruption officer that doesn’t report to the CEO. The CEO has the more important job of keeping the money wheel going. These little ideas for the future and which ones might come through – battery technology or chip technology or maybe quantum computing – they should focus on it, and they should not be located near the company headquarters.

The disruption office should be looking at very unusual things that might come about in five years, long-term things, and report to the board of directors directly. That’s something I propose.

What is innovation?

Painter: I want to ask about innovation. You’re designing my organizational chart in real-time. How do you define innovation? What does innovation mean to you?


Well, everyone defines innovation as thinking out of the box. There's a way that everybody's done things in the past. It's in all the books – a million people can read it and do the same things. But you want to somehow do things differently.

I was that kind of person. That was my personality from when I was in elementary school and middle school with grade science-fair projects. In middle school, I won the top electronics award in the whole Bay Area, and I was competing against 12th-graders.

But you want just always to sit down and say how can I do something different? Why did I? I was shy. I didn't like conflict. I didn't want to have to deal with somebody face-to-face and be measured on which one of us are thinking better.

So, let's just go off into some weird tangents. It’s just what I like to do and did so many designs on my own just because I'm so used to working in that way. But it's a personality, your personality settles down between 18 and 23 years old. From then on, you're the same person. Some people you talk to them, and oh, they have all the skills; they got the university courses; they have two skill sets. If they're hired for a project, they come through, and they can design things when given something to do.

But then there are the inventor types, and they just think differently, and they're always looking for something a little bit different that didn't exist before, and you've got to somehow balance a little of each in the company.

Innovation kind of comes from a group of people that – it's hard to say – it’s just in you or isn’t.

If you have kids, bring them up to the creative. Bring them up to know the greatest element of creativity is humor. Because if you start a joke, you started with one line of reasoning, and the punch line says, 'Oh, there was a whole different way to look at it, and that's what makes it funny.'

But the whole different way of looking at it is an innovator. Here's the path that's normally taken. I can take a different path and still get to the end result I want. So, raise your kids to think creatively. Just don't shut them down. Creativity and innovation are not something we're taught. We were born wanting to be creative. That's how everyone is when they're young. But a lot of factors in life –institutions, schools, parents, lots of things in life – say you have to follow this one very straight route.

Heck, I take all the top people in the top tech companies in Silicon Valley and talk to them. They just love to talk about their early pranks, you know, and things they did with electronics a little outside of the normal.

Preparing customers for change

Painter: So, we talked about innovation; we talked about disruption. How do you enable and prepare customers for these positive disruptions?


How do you prepare customers? That's the marketing job. I'm an engineer.

Think for yourself. Marketing research could just be something out the door, but you have to think it feels good to you.

Now, some of the greatest products in our lifetime, the technology products, have really come from somebody not thinking about what should I build, and how do I build it really well, and I've done a lot of this. It comes from wanting it in their own lives.

My Apple Computer, the Apple II computer – the foundation of Apple, I love games. I built the games and that was really critical. And our slogan was six colors for a reason.

Or Steve Jobs and the iPhone. All the engineers had ideas, ideas, ideas, but it had to be the whole product. It had to be usable by he, himself.

Another example was Elon Musk and the Tesla Model S, which is really changing the world for electric cars.

Why would an engineer design an electric car as a large sedan? Elon Musk had five kids. It was for himself. It was the right car for him. Turns out to be there was a whirlpool of people like that that hadn't been recognized.

I talked to the Chevy Bolt engineers and I said, “Oh, are you getting some Tesla superchargers?” He said, “No, we just built the electric car. Other people can build the chargers.”

Tesla had thought it out that you need the car and the superchargers to make it worth it to change to an electric car and not give things up in your life, not sacrifice.

The first superchargers were between Southern California where Elon lives and Northern California where the factory is.

Sophisticated simplicity is a phrase Steve Jobs liked to use a lot. I think he learned it from me. You have to know what’s good and what’s bad, not that I can add anything and anything and anything that makes it better. Know how to keep it simple too.

Under the radar technologies

Painter: Let's talk about technology. Which technologies are out there which aren't getting enough attention or they're not getting as much as we all need to pay attention to?


I read all the same articles and everything as everyone in this room does. They say, 'Oh, there's quantum computing, and there's drones, and this and that.' What's going to really come in and change our lives in a way is that every single person has to use it.

Well, I'm still hoping for a web, not web 3.0, but a web system that basically is peer-to-peer, just like Bitcoin. Peer-to-peer doesn't go through any centralized services and basically cleans up some of the messes we have today.

It's like everything I have, I feel I don't own it anymore. The company owns it and makes changes that they want to make. And even if I set here’s how it should work for me, I'll come back to the car half an hour later is set differently. I hope we can clean up the messy situation we have with files, cloud services and all that.

What else? There are always new ways to make, you know, faster chips, and they're doing that very well and multi-layer chips for greater memory storage at the same cost. But I'm not sure how much those are improvements necessarily. They let us make things smaller and smaller and smaller. My favorite piece of technology is my watch, not my iPhone, not my computer, so we're getting smaller.

Painter: Could you have ever imagined that watch when you were first designing Apple computers?


When we were designing Apple’s first computers the cost of RAM memory to hold one song was close to $1 million. Did we envision the world we have today, where you carry everything with you? It’s very difficult to look out that far.

You can say Moore’s law. Moore’s law guarantees we’re going to be here, but you never know when Moore’s law is going to end and we’re stuck in a certain place forever.

I remember being a year in advance thinking we were just about to the point we were going to have enough memory to store a video frame. I was editing video on pneumatic recorders and stuff like that a lot of my life, and now, we’re going to be able to edit digitally on a computer. I couldn’t convince one person at Apple it was worth doing.

Business and sustainability

Painter: So, let's take a change in direction. I want to ask you about how you see the role of business and how we support our planet going forward.


Well, in theory, we all say our businesses make this world a better place. And businesses have to concentrate on how can I make things with less and get more out of less. And I don't necessarily say that that's a good role for things like the climate.

Because if you make something for less that does the same job, then you’ve got extra money to make something more. You're still going to use more energy than you used before.

Computers have allowed us to use a certain amount of energy per person that we can manage. We can manage more things because of computers. That means for every person on earth, we can open up more energy users per person and more emissions. It’s a very simple formula, but nobody else has said it but me for about the last five years.

One time I was at the Science Center in Detroit, and I'm seated next to the CEO of Chrysler and top execs from GM and Ford. I told the CEO of Chrysler I said, 'You know, I drove my Prius for 10 years of my life.' I showed him a picture. I got 54.1 miles per gallon driving from San Jose, California to San Diego. At 412 miles, I could’ve still gone another 150. And he said, 'Steve, you can't beat the laws of physics.'

I knew from a point of view of nature, physics, laws and mathematics, he was right, and I was wrong no matter what. And he said, 'You only gain 3% of your electricity going downhill. The cost of that hybrid system recovers some energy for you and has an electric motor. The cost of it equals the gas that you save.'

So, it's a wash cost-wise, and I thought about it in the shower every day for about a year. I'm trying to figure out what that meant. How do you decide if the cost is worth things or not? What I came up with is, what is the cost of a car? It's the cost of every single component, plus the energy to put them together. The cost of anything is basically the energy used in all forms to create it.

Energy is widely tradable. So, economy equals energy use. If the economy goes up, energy use goes up. I haven't been able to violate that principle with anyone I’ve ever talked to or anything I’ve read in the paper.

As energy usage goes up, there’s a ratio that can't change very much, energy usage per emissions. So, I called that EQ formula economy. It’s energy equals emissions. And it takes a lot of thinking to even let yourself agree to that because everyone else is saying different things.

Philosophies for life

Painter: Can you share one philosophy from your life?


Oh, absolutely. I've got a few philosophies that are part of my life.

The main thing I’d say is to be organized. Take things out, plan them. For example, I have a standard place I put things, and I go to a lot of hotels. So, I always have one standard place in my pocket where I can pull out my room key.

Be truthful. Don’t try to make up stories without knowing the full truth, technically. You sound phony, like a used-car salesman.

If somebody else has a better way of doing something, sit down and acknowledge it and try to incorporate it into what you’re doing. Don’t say just because I invented something, it’s the best.

Always be willing to acknowledge and respect others, especially those lower down the ranks. Try to help other people that don’t know as much. Helping others go a little further than they would is a good thing in life.

It all boils down to when I was 19 years old and in my first year in college. I was reading a magazine article; I think it was Summer Redstone of Viacom. He was flying in somewhere to sell a $50 million property and flying out to sell another one. I thought, 'Oh my gosh, that’s a lot of money.' That’s $1 billion today.

And I said, 'Would I want to be that person?' No. I had just pulled a prank with friends, and we sat laughing. On the day I die, I want to have that laughter in me. What life is about to me is not about accomplishment. It’s going to be about happiness. And happiness is what life is about for everyone. If being rich makes you happy, be rich. But for me, it was jokes, humor and things like that.

If happiness is the important thing in life, what is happiness? It was like I said, laughing, feeling. So, I came up with a formula: H for happiness equals S for smiles minus F for frowns. I look back to this day to things that make you laugh, humor, go to comedy, watch comedy shows, and have a lot of that. Have an enjoyable life.

I have a second thing to that, don’t argue. You can only walk away unhappy from that. It’s part of that non-conflict. You don’t have to be in conflict with other people. Just be nice to everybody; be liked by everybody. I don’t have any enemies in this world. I’m going to back away from any dispute and that helps save the friends.

Don’t do things, even things you’re liking, that make you frown. Stop and think, how can I not do things in advance? Know in advance – that’s part of that organization and planning.

I had a very happy life guaranteed to me from that age on for my personality set. I didn’t need Apple or any business success or anything like that. I’m smart enough that I can always have a job. If you have a job, you can have a home and a family and all that.  

Closing thoughts

Painter: I have one last question for you. We have an audience of over 5,000 people here today from around the world. This is an audience that is literally building our infrastructure in the engineering and construction space. What’s one final message you have for this room of innovators?


One final message I kind of already gave them, which is to let honesty be the drive in your life above all other things.

Know yourself. I knew who I was all my life and who I wanted to be, how I wanted to act, and how I wanted to treat other people.

I was never the one who really started out to try to get rich or something. I just have the computer, so I was in. I wanted to show off my engineering. I didn't want to start a company. I wanted other engineers to look over my shoulder at my designs and say, 'Woah, how do we ever come up with that? It's just amazing.' I look back on my designs, and I say that now. I had 10 years of just magic pouring from me, like Bob Dylan.

I knew who I was all through that, and then all of a sudden,  we have this incredible success and this incredible wealth, 10 times more than I would need for life.

And I felt guilty. Because I had grown up thinking, I don't want to be moving up the ladder, one of these top people. Their values get changed and my values won't change. I know who I am. So, I really gave all my money away to museums and rock concerts and arts groups and things like that in the city.

I'm born in San Jose, California, and they've named a street after me. It's a great street. A lot of great things on it. So anyway, that was because I always jump back and say, 'I know who I am and who I want to be in life and it's not to get money.' You have power and you want to have more power, and I would not be that kind of person because I was never intended to.

One last thing: all the employees in a company should be really well respected and paid. And when Apple went public, I said, 'Why do the three of us have all this money? We're founders. We’re on a sheet of paper as founders. What about the Homebrew Computer Club in high school back then that helped me get started? I wouldn't have done it without them.'

So, I gave millions of dollars of my own stock to five early people, and then I sold other stock pre-IPO to everyone in the company, and they all got a house out of the deal. We’re all the same company, and that's how I feel.