Steve Wozniak is a rock star in the world of information technology.
From his roots in Silicon Valley’s counter-culture movement to his position as one of the most powerful and influential people in IT, he sometimes seems larger than life. At the Avaya Evolutions conference in Toronto this past Tuesday, the organizers cleverly scheduled his appearance at the end of the day.
Nobody would have left before seeing the star of the show.
But why did Wozniak, and indeed, his longtime partner Steve Jobs, develop into such celebrated figures with legions of adoring fans? And more significantly, why has the establishment, which they once fought against, now embraced them to such an extent? As Melanie Dudek, an IT recruiter at Stafflink Solutions wrote
, it often seems that “geeks are running the world.”
Wozniak himself offered an explanation. He spoke about meeting a 16-year-old Steve jobs (“a true hippie”) who didn’t fit the mold of traditional society. Jobs was “seeking the absolute minimalist of existence,” he said.
Jobs wasn’t an ordinary hippie. While some of the social goals of the counter-culture movement in the 1960s and 1970s were arguably achieved due to their protests and sit-ins, we tend to look back on the era as one of childish innocence. On the other hand, the hippies of Silicon Valley made a serious and, more importantly, enduring contribution to the way we live our lives.
“An awful lot of super-accomplished people that become executives and CEOs in later years went through that same phase,” Wozniak said. “A lot of people went through that phase when they were young, of just trying to be in a period of your life, trying to find where you are a little.”
Yes, we’ve all heard the expression: “just going through a phase.” But what should be the perspective of employers? Do they, like parents with free-thinking children, sometimes need to let their employees run loose?
In recent years, there’s been more of a willingness to allow people to take “professional development” courses, even those unrelated to an employee’s particular job. I met a senior executive from Xerox in one of my university history classes; he was studying “the history of the American West,” with the full blessing of his employer.
This would have been considered revolutionary at one time. As Wozniak said of Jobs, “in college, he wouldn’t take any of their courses, because it was their courses. They were telling him what to take. And he wanted to take all the advanced things he heard about: Shakespeare, quantum physics, calligraphy — you know, all these little interesting things.”
But times have changed. It’s a good sign that employers are recognizing that “all these little interesting things” can contribute to a healthier mind. It’s the equivalent of what geneticists call Heterosis, or ‘hybrid vigour’— diversity in the DNA of an employee, and thus, the company as a whole, means better longevity.
The purebred companies have realized, some more quickly than others, that a purely homogenous organization will have health problems in the future.
When Wozniak worked at Hewlett-Packard Corp. he recalls proposing the idea of engineering an $800 personal computer. “And Hewlett-Packard turned me down for the first of five times,” he said.
“Good thing they turned me down. They had too much inbred corporate culture back then as the engineering company. They would have built a product for engineers.
“And even before the Apple II was out, they had a product they built, and it was only for engineers, and it was boring, and wasn’t going to start the personal computer revolution.”