Saturday, December 01, 2007

Book Review: iWoz

iWoz is Steve Wozniak's memoir, written with Gina Smith. One of the two co-founders at Apple, it is hard to understand what a pure engineer this man was and is without reading this book.

The book itself is well-written, with a light-weight reading style that's clearly designed to make non-technical readers comfortable. (Ironically, I wish he had chosen to keep the technical parts more technical because it would have made those sections of the book easier for me to read)

The early part of the book is easy reading, about Wozniak's early days in school, and how he met Steve Jobs and Captain Crunch and got into making Blue Boxes. His light-heartedness and spirited playfulness comes through in his pranks, and the man has not a single bit of malice at all in his body, not even when Steve Jobs screwed him over:
The whole thing used forty-five chips, and Steve paid me half the seven hundred bucks he said they paid him for it. (They were paying us based on how few chips I could do it in.) Later I found out he got paid a bit more for it --- like a few thousand dollars --- than he said at the time...

The important part of the book, about the Apple and the Apple II are very much worth reading. He really sets the record straight (e.g., he was the sole designer of the Apple and the Apple II, rather than it being a collaboration between him and Jobs). He also designed Apple's floppy drive in 2 weeks, and that included writing all the firmware for it. Make no mistake, this man was an engineer's engineer: he could design, prototype, solder, and then write the BASIC interpreter for one of the first personal computers, and still have time left over for a prank that no one could pin on him at a trade show.

Yet this man was more unworldly than a monk:
...this idea popped into my mind about two guys who die on the same day. One guy is really successful, and he's spending all his time running companies, managing them, making sure they are profitable, and making sales goals all the time. And the other guy, all he does is lounge around, doesn't have much money, really likes to tell jokes and follow gadgets and technology and other things he finds interesting in the world, and he just spends his life laughing...
Wozniak leaves you no doubt in your mind as to which person he is.

Yet a hundred pages down the road, you find the limitations of this mind-set:
During the time the Apple III was being developed, he thought we'd grown a bit too large. There were good engineers, sure, but there were a lot of lousy engineers floating around. That happens in any big company.
I can't imagine a single startup founder today taking that attitude. Not after Larry Page and Sergey Brin have shown that even at an incredible size, employee hiring is still something that you must spend time doing and worrying about, and that it is possible to keep standards incredibly high despite becoming very big. Today, Apple has a reputation for being an incredibly frustrating place for engineers to work at (even my friend the iPhone touch screen custom chip designer will admit that). But it does not have to be that way, and to a large extent, I think the fact that the engineering co-founder did not take an active management role has a lot to do with it. (An interesting note: Wayne Rosing, Google's first Senior VP of Engineering has a cameo role in the book as Wozniak's bosses boss. Rosing was instrumental in setting up Google's engineering culture, and is easily one of the smartest engineering managers I've ever had the pleasure of working with/under.)

The book ends with a chapter of Wozniak's advice to engineers. It is excellent advice. For instance:
If you're that rare engineer who's an inventor and also an artist, I'm going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is:Work alone.

There it is from the horse's mouth. Do not believe all those journalists who tell you that in this modern age, you need to work with lots of people to do anything significant. All good software is designed by one person working by himself. That is as true now as it was when Wozniak wrote Apple Integer BASIC.

When Wozniak visited Google, I got to ask him if he had any regrets about Apple. He gave me the ultimate engineer's answer: I wish we'd sprung for a better keyboard on the Apple II. A great guy, and this book's a great read. Highly recommended.
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