Steve Wozniak has vague memories of driving through Fresno with his parents on twice-a-year family trips down Highway 99 from the Bay Area to Los Angeles in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
“The Woz,” as the co-founder of tech giant Apple is known, made a more substantial visit Thursday, when he spoke to a capacity crowd at William Saroyan Theatre in the season-opening installment of the San Joaquin Valley Town Hall lecture series.
Wozniak said he is impressed by efforts in Fresno and the Valley to encourage technology, creativity and entrepreneurship among the region’s students.
“Obviously the future is a lot less a resource-based economy and a lot more of an information-based economy,” he said in remarks before his presentation. “Fresno seems to have a huge head start on any place I go to.”
Wozniak, 65, is often viewed as the mathematical and engineering genius behind the earliest generations of personal computers, including the Apple I and the revolutionary Apple II that catapulted Apple into prominence years before anyone even imagined an iPod, iPhone or iPad. And, he said, there is no reason why that same type of success cannot germinate in the Valley. “It doesn’t matter where you are in the world,” he said. “It’s big-time here.”
Jake Soberal, moderator for Wozniak’s talk and CEO of Bitwise Industries, pointed out that more than 1,000 students were in the audience. Wozniak delighted in that tidbit as he recalled his earliest days building rudimentary electronics as a fourth-grader in Los Altos. “In elementary school I knew I was going to be an engineer,” he said. “When I discovered computers, I thought, ‘I love this stuff.’ ”
While he acknowledged the challenges faced by the Fresno region, including higher levels of poverty and unemployment than statewide averages and lower average educational attainment, “there are high schools that are oriented around entrepreneurship and technology and engineering and coding.”
“I like to think that even though I grew up in the Silicon Valley and had a bunch of advantages, because I was in this area where a lot of companies started up, I think I could have done what I did if I lived in Fresno,” Wozniak added. “I could probably have had access to the resources, the tools and the materials I needed to develop what I did. …It’s basically how much interest and excitement and belief in yourself that you can be technology leaders.”
The technology industry’s shift from a hardware focus to software, and modern Internet connectivity make doing business in technology – and the inspiration for success – possible anywhere, not just in established technology hubs. “Everyone hears the stories in books and online about technology companies and how exciting it is and the new products, where they came from and the people who did it, and that inspires everybody in the world,” he said. “They start to think, ‘Wow, I want to do that. That could be me.’ ”
A pre-lecture reception gave Damon Thomas, co-founder of Fresno tech software startup QuiqLabs, a chance to meet one of his “massive, massive heroes.” Thomas and his son posed for a photo with Wozniak and got his ticket autographed. “I was introduced to the Apple Macintosh in 1984 as a high school freshman … He’s an amazing, amazing hero, and my company and I all have Apple everything.”
Woz drew laughs as he talked about the many technology-based pranks that he and Jobs would pull in school, and with his not-so-humble declarations about his own self-taught skills as a computer engineer. “Because I was very smart, my designs were very good,” he said.
Wozniak and Steve Jobs met as teenagers, and were college age when they co-founded Apple Computer (now known simply as Apple). “We were kids, we were hungry,” Wozniak remembered. “Steve Jobs and I were in our 20s, no money, no savings account, no business experience. We just had some good ideas and we believed in them”
As Apple grew, Wozniak maintained a much lower profile with the company than Jobs. Before his death in 2011, Jobs was credited with guiding Apple with an eye for design, strong consumer instincts and marketing savvy through a surge of tremendous growth into one of the most valuable companies in the world. Wozniak left Apple in 1985 but has continued to be involved in the technology industry, currently serving as chief scientist at Primary Data, a data-storage firm in Los Altos.
While sometimes overshadowed at Apple by the more flamboyant Jobs, Wozniak said that’s the way he liked it. “Jobs wanted to be the face of the company,” he said. “I just wanted to be an engineer.”
Still, Wozniak has managed to make his cultural marks inside and outside the technology field. He sponsored the 1982 and 1983 US Festivals – an amalgam of music, culture and technology – in San Bernardino, and in 1987 sponsored the first joint U.S./USSR stadium rock concert in Moscow. President Ronald Reagan presented him with the National Medal of Technology, the highest honor for leading innovators, in 1985; in 2000, he was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame and received the Heinz Award for Technology.
Wozniak has long been a benefactor for technology education and other philanthropic enterprises, and in recent years he has become even more visible in pop culture.
He competed in the 2009 season of “Dancing with the Stars” and appeared as himself in a 2010 episode of the television sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” He was portrayed by actor Josh Gad in the 2013 movie “Jobs,” and actor Seth Rogen plays Wozniak in the upcoming movie “Steve Jobs.” Wozniak’s pop culture cred was burnished again last week as he appeared with Rogen on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
Wozniak referred to the new movie several times in his talk but offered no opinion about it Thursday.
His autobiography, “iWoz – Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It,” was published in 2006. And fun was one of the key messages he had for his Fresno audience: “Everything in life that’s work should have a fun element to it.”