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2 Lessons From Steve Wozniak's Early Creative Experiments

Design things for yourself, first, and learn to ask the right questions.
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BASIC, the programming language, celebrated its 50th birthday last week. In honor of the occasion, Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak wrote on Gizmodo about his early experiences creating his own version of BASIC for the Apple I and Apple II. 

As you might guess, Wozniak's recollection of this time, beginning in 1967 as a high school senior and culminating in his design of the video game Breakout, is a fascinating read.

For entrepreneurs and aspirants, it holds two key lessons: 

1. Design for yourself, first and foremost. Yes, eventually you'll need to test your creation on prospective customers. But as a first step, designing for yourself is a smart way to go. Garrett Camp, the cofounder of Uber and StumbleUpon, counts himself as a fan of this approach. Likewise, Zappos' founder Nick Swinmurn started the company out of frustration that he couldn't find a pair of brown Airwalks at his local mall. 

In designing for themselves first, Camp and Swinmurn were borrowing a page from the Wozniak playbook. Here's how Wozniak describes his initial self-interest in BASIC: 

We didn't have a computer in the school but GE, I think, brought in a terminal with modem to promote their time-sharing business. A very few of we bright math students were given some pages of instruction and we wrote some very simple programs in BASIC. I saw that this was a very simple and easy-to learn language to start with, but that terminal was only in our school for a few days.

That was when it all began. Years later, when he was part of the legendary Homebrew Computer Club, BASIC again came a-knocking. There was a book lying around the club called "101 Games in BASIC." Always a fan of games, Wozniak had a feeling that the popularity of games would be essential for getting computers in every home.

He is clear about the fact that it was his own love of games--more than any marketing-driven entrepreneurial impulse--that was behind his initial programming efforts: 

I was a fan of computer games and knew that as soon as I had a computer of my own I would want to type in all these games to play. Judging by my own feelings, I assumed that this would be a key to starting a home computer revolution. The non-businessman in me prevents me from talking about markets or finance.

And so Wozniak began programming in BASIC, in a seemingly innocent (if slightly fame-driven) effort to create fun video games. What's most remarkable about Wozniak's story is that he truly had to teach himself the language, having only a vague recollection of it from his high school experience. "I had no idea if I was on a correct track but it worked correctly and did what I needed," he writes. 

2. Ask the key "discovery" questions. In their 2009 article for the Harvard Business Review called "The Innovator's DNA," authors Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal B. Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen share five key skills that entrepreneurial innovators possess. One of them is "questioning"--specifically, the act of questioning the status quo:

Most of the innovative entrepreneurs we interviewed could remember the specific questions they were asking at the time they had the inspiration for a new venture. Michael Dell, for instance, told us that his idea for founding Dell Computer sprang from his asking why a computer cost five times as much as the sum of its parts. "I would take computers apart...and would observe that $600 worth of parts were sold for $3,000." In chewing over the question, he hit on his revolutionary business model.

Wozniak's article makes it clear that he had this questioning skill in abundance. Two questions he asked were: 

  • Could you program moving objects in BASIC and see them move like realistic animation? He'd designed Breakout for Atari in hardware, and he simply wondered if he could create the same type of rudimentary animated arcade game as software (using BASIC). 
  • When would a computer with 4KB of processing power be truly affordable for consumers? For Wozniak, 4KB was the minimum RAM a computer would need to run his games in BASIC. In the late 60s, very few computers had this much power. Wozniak recalls his dad telling him that a 4K Data General NOVA computer "cost as much as a down payment on an expensive house." But by the Homebrew days of 1975, three companies had introduced 4KB machines. Wozniak writes that it was "the first time that 4KB was truly affordable."

What this meant was that the market was finally ready to buy computers powerful enough to run BASIC games.

"Hence the minimum RAM on an Apple I or Apple II was 4KB," Wozniak concludes. "Had I not cared about BASIC, I probably would have just built another switches and lights computer with minimal static memory and been done with it."

And what a difference it made. Wozniak is essentially saying that without his love for BASIC, there'd have been no Apple--or at least, a very different Apple. 

And so you could argue that the phone in your hand or the laptop at your fingers owes an homage to the programming language that turned 50 not long ago.

So take a second to raise a glass to Woz. Then keep on working.

IMAGE: Corbis
Last updated: May 6, 2014




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