Last night I had the opportunity to listen to Steve Wozniak speak to old and young Silicon Valley natives at the Flint Center in Cupertino. He grew up here and had a special connection to the Flint Center during his college days at DeAnza. It was a treat to watch him embrace his roots and remember growing up down the street at Homestead High.
Steve talks fast and becoming used to the cadence of his words was initially challenging. But once I could follow him, I was enthralled. His level of genius is incredible to witness as he recounts stories of his youth - creating ham radios, teaching himself to write code, designing hardware, and solving mechanical problems of his own making, just to teach himself to fix it as efficiently as possible. His (literal) formula for happiness is H= F+F+F (Happiness = Food + Fun + Friends).
As an HR professional, I was struck by his self-awareness. He receives as much joy finding numerical patterns on license plates as he does designing computers. He is an engineer at heart and knows he shouldn’t be doing anything else. He does not like office politics or managing employees or being at the top of an org chart. He learned early in life to follow his gut instincts, not listen to criticism, believe in himself and embrace his talents. He needs to build, create, try and fail, and keep going until he solves the puzzle.
Woz's honesty about his strengths and weaknesses made me consider a phenomena that occurs frequently in engineering. How many times does a manager or HR person promote a high performing engineer into a management role just because the engineer is a rock star? It requires an astute manager or HR person to identify the promise shown in another individual and mentor her towards her full potential. It takes an equally talented manager or HR person to recognize when she is a shining star because she is doing what she was always meant to do.
Steve's story does not suggest engineers should not be managers. Rather, Woz reminds us what can be accomplished by identifying your passions, believing in your talents, and following your dreams in whatever direction they take you.