How Steve Wozniak Blended Self-Directed Learning with Traditional Education

Steve Wozniak

Steve Wozniak has plenty of degrees. He did most of the coursework for a Bachelor’s and has been awarded numerous honorary degrees, but the Apple co-founder’s great skill comes from rigorous self-teaching.

Like many self-taught programmers, his childhood activities combined a love of mathematics and technology with a decidedly ambitious personality. Later, he attributed his passion to inspiration from his father and encouragement from his primary school teachers– as well as watching Star Trek on TV. In fourth grade, he first developed a taste for mathematics. He had an early passion for radio transistors and earned a ham radio license at ten years old. At 11, he built a “ticktacktoe” computer.

In junior high, he won a science fair award by building a binary adding and subtracting computer. By high school, he taught himself to program in Fortran. He was too advanced for high school electronics and math courses, so his parents sent him to the nearby company Sylvania to program their computers.

Here’s Wozniak on this period of his life:

One accident that happened to me was that I taught myself, with no books, how to design computers in high school. I loved doing it and designed computers all the time, from descriptions of them in manuals by the companies that made them. I designed the same computers over and over and made a game out of trying to use fewer and fewer parts, coming up with tricks to accomplish my task that could never be in a book. They were ’tricks‘ in my own head. I felt that some of these tricks would be used by probably no other computer designer in the world. In my game world, on paper, where I could never afford to build my designs, I felt I was one of the best in the world.

The best things I did in my young years leading up to the early Apple computers were done because I had little money and had to think deeply to achieve the impossible. Also, I had never done those technologies or studied them. I had to write the book myself. Being self-taught, figuring out how to design computers with pencil and paper, made me skilled at finding solutions that I had not been taught.

Despite being mostly self-taught, he also valued traditional education. He went to college at the University of Colorado at Boulder but they expelled him for hacking into the institution’s computer system.

After his first attempt at college, he worked at Hewlett-Packard. While there, he created some of the first graphics for computers and computer games.

He met fellow Apple co-founder Steve Jobs at the age of 19. Together, they built a box that allowed them to make free phone calls by using phone companies’ lines and sold them to other students at $80 a pop.

After the formation of Apple, Wozniak built Apple’s first computer, the Apple I. It was the first home computer with a keyboard and a TV-like screen display. It sold 175 copies.

Next, Wozniak created the Apple II, which was a smash hit. This version included sound, computer animation, high-resolution images, the ability to play games, and the BASIC programming language built in.

Wozniak also was the first to connect Apple computers to a printer and developed the floppy disk.

Some of his inspiration and motivation must have come from his attendance at the Homebrew Computer Club, a series of meetings that brought together Silicon Valley engineers.

In 1982, he developed the Macintosh, which included a mouse, folders, pull-down menus, and pictures.

Steve left Apple in 1985 to finish a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He earned his degree the following year. He didn’t quite meet the credits requirements, but he received equivalency credits for his work at Apple.

His drive and love of learning led him to later spend ten years teaching computer skills to kids in grade 5 to 9. He cares a lot about education, both traditional and self-taught, and can serve programmers as an excellent role model. Most recently, he launched his own online tech education platform.

What can we learn from Steve Wozniak?

1. To be successful, you need ambition. Only the most ambitious middle-schoolers are building their own computers like Wozniak did. If you were not a child prodigy, don’t worry– you can develop ambition. You just have to remember the wonder and love that brought you into the field in the first place. Reach for the stars and then work like hell to get there!

2. Steve Wozniak can teach us lots about the value of play. He designed puzzles for himself just for fun. That’s how he trained his brain to solve professional problems later on. The value of play and creativity also came through in his teaching programs for kids. He made sure they had fun instead of relying on rote learning.

How do you play with technology? Let us know in the comments below!

Want to learn to program? Register for my free Self-Taught Coder Masterclass where I cover how I went from a novice to a software engineer at eBay in less than one year.

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  1. I am currently in a Coder Bootcamp branded with Woz U; I’m learning how to “play with technology” to start my own business!

    1. Nice! How are you liking it? Keep me updated!

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