One question that keeps popping up in my workshops on technical leadership is, “What is an engineering mindset?” In an earlier blog, compiler architect Ayonam Ray talked about having an engineering mindset as a pre-requisite to becoming a successful technical leader.
Well, let’s take this question one step further and ask, “How does a super-engineer think and work? What sort of environment creates a super-engineer?” Perhaps there is no one answer to questions like these. But then, you come across a book like iWoz which goes into details to explain how a revolution came about from an engineer’s perspective and you say, “Wow” or perhaps “iWow”.
iWoz is an autobiography of Steve Wozniak, inventor of Apple I and Apple II (first commercial desktop personal computers) and co-founder of Apple. Here are some of the gems from iWoz:
1. Habit of “building” things: Right from age six, Steve got into a habit of building things. His dad had what he calls “my single greatest influence”. At age six, his dad got him a radio kit and he built “crystal radio kit”. The whole book is about how Steve kept building one thing after another, e.g. tic-tac-toe, ham radio transmitter & receiver, flashlight, carbon rod project, periodic table demonstration, TV jammer, Cream Soda computer and so on. It goes on to show how important it is to “build” things rather than just study to shape an engineering mind.
2. Patience & “One step at a time” mantra: Steve says, “Having a huge project is a huge part of learning engineering – learning anything probably. Doing long, long jobs that aren’t just some real simple quick thing like a flashlight, but things that take weeks to build, really demonstrates that you have mastered something great. I learned not to worry so much about the outcome but to concentrate on the step I was on and to try to do it as perfectly as I could when I was doing it” Then he goes on to caution today’s kids “Not everyone gets this in today’s engineering community you know. Throughout my career at Apple and other places, I always find a lot of geeks who try to reach levels without doing the in-between ones first, and it won’t work. It never does. I kept telling them, like a mantra: one step at a time.”
3. Power of vision & role of network: Seeing a vision about end-to-end solution is a sign about maturing as an engineer. Steve describes his first vision when he visited a bowling alley and played with a video game called “Pong” (produced by Atari). He says, “I stood there awhile and started at it and said, I could design one of these” Such powerful visions keep repeating throughout the book as end-to-end solution would flash in front of Steve. The most powerful vision, of course, was that of a desktop personal computer and it was flashed on the night he visited a “Homebrew Computer Club”, a club of geeky technology buffs who had a goal of bringing computer technology within the range of the average person. Steve recalls, “I was scared, but I showed up (for the first meeting). And you know what? That decision changed everything. That night turned out to be one of the most important nights of my life”. This demonstrates the power of an informal network.
4. Role of “angel investor”: We keep hearing about “angel investors” and the role they play in “innovation eco-system”. Apple certainly had a real “angel” in its destiny. Mike Markkula was only thirty and had already retired from Intel. Steve says, “I had always thought of the Apple computer as being something for a hobbyist who wanted to solve a work simulation or play a game. But Mike was talking about something different. He talked about introducing the computer to regular people in regular homes, doing at home things like keeping a track of your favorite recipes or balancing your checkbook.” When Mike agreed to sign up, he told them, “We are going to be a Fortune 500 company in 2 years. This is the start of an industry. It happens once a decade”. Boy, was Mike right?