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Woz Talks Engineering Passion At Gartner Symposium

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak wants to see engineers get more respect, have more fun, and play nice.
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If your enthusiasm for technology ever flags, just listen to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak motor-mouth his way through all the possibilities he sees.

Attendees at the Gartner Symposium in Orlando, Fla., had that pleasure Tuesday night, and those I spoke with afterwards said it was one of the highlights of the conference -- not necessarily the most educational, but the most fun.

"The biggest thing about everything I did in work was it had to make things fun," he said. "The Apple II I designed was only for myself because I wanted to own a computer like that, and it came out so beautiful." Years later, when Steve Jobs led the company to create the iPhone, that was also a thing of beauty -- and this time Jobs was smart enough not to give Bill Gates a peek before the product launched, he said.

Particularly in this era of consumer-friendly technology, one of the best things an engineer can do is design products he would like to own himself. Wozniak sees that at work in some of the products he owns, such as his Tesla electric car. "When I look at the business model of that business that is so different and so right, I see a lot of aspects of it that fit Elon Musk and his family," Wozniak said, referring to the Tesla CEO and "engineer's engineer" who started Tesla, SpaceX, and other companies.

Google Glass may not be the wearable product that ultimately succeeds in the marketplace, but the more Wozniak hears it criticized, the more he wants to wear it himself, he said. "It's so nice and small and convenient that it triggers ideas ... about what the future could be."

[How to silence Google Glass critics: The Ultimate Wearable? It's 'Invisible'.]

Wozniak appeared onstage with two Gartner analysts whose job was to tee up a series of topics for him to riff on, but even two-to-one they were outmatched by his velocity of thought and enthusiasm. He talked a fair amount about Apple, although these days he also serves as chief scientist of Fusion-io, one of the companies that pioneered flash memory for data centers. Over the summer, SanDisk paid $1.1 billion to buy the company. Wozniak said his involvement in that firm is one of the ways he is helping enable exciting possibilities such as the Internet of Things.

One of the things he enjoys most is working with young, enthusiastic engineers. He remembers when he was studying computer science, he would get the textbooks on a Friday and power through them without waiting for the course to start because he was so eager to learn. "You couldn't stop me from going as fast as I wanted -- I couldn't go at the speed of the class." Particularly today, students of technology should not allow themselves to be held back, he said. "You shouldn't even think the way it's stated in engineering books is the way it has to work." Re-envision things however you want as long as you understand that "in engineering, it has to work -- that's the answer."

At one point, the Gartner interviewers opened up a trunk onstage and handed him a series of objects from technology's past to comment on. He wound up rhapsodizing about a RJ45 network cable. While some might say its time is past, given the move to wireless communications, he said he had to pay the lowly cable a compliment. "Everywhere in the world, we've only got about two standards," he said, noting that electrical plugs and phone jacks are different from country to country, but Ethernet and WiFi are the same everywhere.

Echoing one of Gartner's conference themes -- the idea that we need to be "digital humanists" as well as technologists -- Wozniak said, "We have to get away from the technology being more important than us." One of the most exciting trends is how technologies like voice recognition are allowing technology to blend into the background, so that we interact with it in a more human way, he said. In addition to Apple's Siri, he mentioned IBM's Watson cognitive computer as an example of progress on that front. Now, he finds he is impatient interacting with a computer through the keyboard, finding it "too procedural in the way that the old DOS made us procedural."

One aspect of the "cult of Apple" that Wozniak apparently doesn't buy into is the idea that its success was the result of Steve Jobs' demanding and sometimes intolerant style as a boss. One of the most important things about work is to enjoy the people you work with and laugh along with them, Wozniak said. You can compete and still be nice, he said. "Steve Jobs could even have been nicer in a lot of cases and still had great products. That's my own belief."

The Internet of Things demands reliable connectivity, but standards remain up in the air. Here's how to kick your IoT strategy into high gear. Get the new IoT Goes Mobile issue of InformationWeek Tech Digest today. (Free registration required.)