On August 6, 2014, Steve “The Woz” Wozniak gave the keynote at the Flash Memory Summit in Santa Clara, CA. Like most of the people in the room, I was extremely excited to be able to see one of my childhood heroes (more on this later) up close and personal (more on this later too).
But first, a short clip of his talk, where he is asked to give advice to the engineers in the audience:
[I tried to clean up the audio a bit, but given the nature of the large room we were in don’t expect documentary-style quality :-P]
After his talk, when it came time for the Q&A, I was a bit surprised that there weren’t more people who wanted to ask him a question (this is not to say that there weren’t people raising their hands – at least one guy in the front row literally jumped up and down with his hand in the air, but didn’t get called on.”
“Let’s try someone from the other side of the room,” Frank Berry, the MC said, looking vaguely in the direction of the section in which I was sitting. Surprisingly, there were no takers. I raised my hand.
Frank saw me (I was sitting in the second row), and I asked with as much confidence as I could muster (Please, voice, don’t crack!), “Can I get a picture with you?”
There was scattered laughter and groans at the request, but it was evident it took Steve off guard. He mumbled some comment about making it quick because he had a plane to catch, and the session officially ended.
At that point, all hell broke loose with a mad rush to the stage. I was only in the second row, and only the third seat in from the aisle, but by the time I got to the stage there were already 50 people waiting in line with their cameras and phones at the ready.
It soon became apparent that even though I had the cojones to ask, it was unlikely that I might even get a turn. “Oh great,” I said, half jokingly, “I asked the question and can’t even get close now.”
To my surprise, a gentleman at the front of the queue said, “You should definitely go first,” and with that simple statement people started to move aside. I climbed up on the stage and hovered to the side (I hate hovering, but I wasn’t going to get off the stage at that point – I had come too far!) while Woz took some pictures with the organizers and received an honorary plaque from IT Brand Pulse (Frank’s company).
Standing up there, I had a rushing sensation in all the activity. I’m not a shy person, but Woz is, and it was clear to me where I was standing that even though he must have gone through this thousands of times he was obviously not comfortable and probably just wanted it to be over. For that reason I didn’t want to prolong my time on stage more than absolutely necessary.
Saying Thank You
I confess I had been fantasizing about having a picture taken with Woz for days, once I found out that he was going to be giving the keynote. Even made a comment on Twitter about it beforehand, prompting a reply from Fusion-IO’s social media team (the company he most closely works with now).
— Fusion-io (@fusionio) August 5, 2014
I knew that there wasn’t going to be any chance of that happening unless I actually spoke up about it. As the presentation wound down, I started having second thoughts, started feeling nervous about it. What would he think – this guy I respect so much – about a complete stranger being so trite?
Standing next to him, though, he seemed to take it all in stride. I had only about 30 seconds before I knew I was going to have to get off the stage. What could I say? What shouldn’t I say? Crap!
Stay simple, I told myself. Stay sincere. I held out my hand, and he took it. “Thank you so much,” I said. “You really are a hero of mine.”
He smiled politely, and thanked me. I looked up and saw dozens of cameras (not just camera phones – there were those too) aimed in our direction and snapping away. It was a true paparazzi moment.
Doing what I usually do when I’m overwhelmed, I cracked a joke. “See?” I said as loud as I could to the cameras. “Dreams really do come true!”
Cue polite, scattered laughter.
Steve, though, took me at face value. “Yes!” he said, turning to face me, his face serious and intent. “That’s the kind of attitude you have to have always.” Then he broke out into his trademark huge grin. I got the feeling that there was something else he wanted to say, but by that point the patience of the crowd had worn thin and there was a loud clamoring for his attention.
I got off the stage so that others could have an opportunity, just in time. As far as I know, no one else got a one-on-one picture with him though. The crush of people was just too overwhelming. I had asked Frank to take a picture of us but, in typical “J isn’t paying attention fashion,” I had the setting on the camera wrong and what should have been a beautiful picture wound up being out of focus.
[Special thanks to Michael Orenich, the event photographer, for capturing real pictures of us for me!]
I’m not one for hero worship, so when a friend asked me later why I was gushing about seeing Steve Wozniak, I thought it was a fair question.
I cannot speak for anyone else as to why he stands out for them or what “Woz” – as a symbol – means to them. I don’t even think he’s all that comfortable with this kind of attention, from what I understand.
To me, however, he represents the fact that “nice guys don’t finish last.” Nothing in his interviews, his reputation, his writings – nothing at all indicates to me that he is anything other than what he appears to be: an engineer with an insuppressible curiosity about the way things work. To me, he represented everything I wanted to be when I finally figured out who I wanted to be. Here is a man who succeeded based upon merit, based upon doing what he believed to be the best way to do things – with humor and even somewhat of a practical joker.
(I still remember a photo of him crawling under a desk in the early days of Apple to plant a gag for John Draper. Can’t find it now, though, but I’ve always wanted to know just what that prank was.)
When I was growing up, there really was no love for people like me. Having a modicum of intelligence and curiosity was often a bad thing. Sometimes you had to apologize for it: I’ve lived in places where I had a switchblade pulled on me just because I could read. I always thought “outside the box.” I asked questions. I made people uncomfortable by doing things in a non-conformist way. I couldn’t understand why people wouldn’t want to do things better or more efficiently. I couldn’t understand how people could be content not knowing. Ironically, at the time I thought it was because I was extremely slow and they just “got it,” and I didn’t. I felt I had to work harder just to keep up.
What Woz says in the video clip above doesn’t go into the details about how bloody hard it really is to do, because the peer pressure (especially growing up) is overwhelming at times. There are too many people – peers, teachers, bosses, family – who want you to do what you want them to do, the way they want you to do it. The penalties and punishments, the ostracization and ridicule, all of these things come part and parcel when you think differently. Unless you’re living in an episode of Sliders you’re never going to get the girl over the quarterback by winning the Academic Decathlon.
To me, Steve Wozniak represented the notion that you could be curious and still be successful. You could ask the questions that people don’t like asked, you can challenge the status quo or the accepted norm, and still come out ahead in the long run. Even in this video clip above, he talks about his time at HP and the difficulty in getting other engineers to think outside the “HP way.” He doesn’t go into what the repercussions of this were, but I can imagine that somewhere along the line he must have gotten some pushback from people who simply didn’t want to have to deal with those kinds of troublemakers.
It was a time in my life when I needed that. I needed that reinforcement that not only could someone like me be successful, but also celebrated, drove everything I wanted to do. It heavily influenced my teaching style, for instance, as I strove to counter some of the soul-crushing, creativity-eradicating methods of other professors. It’s what underlies my attempts to do good work.
A Moment in Time
You rarely get to meet someone who – in their own way – had a long-term impact on your life, even if it was indirectly. I doubt the opportunity will come up to cross paths again, as I seriously doubt I’ll be getting a request to meet up for lunch. 🙂
For now, however, I got to meet someone who provided me a positive image of myself that felt more tuned to my personality than any sports star, actor, or politician, and I was able to thank him for it. He’ll likely never remember me from any of the other ‘fans’ he meets, at least when the time came I put aside my own self-consciousness and asked for the opportunity.
And got it.