When I was starting college, my father gave me a computer he'd picked up at a yard sale. It was old, even at the time, but it changed my life. I think everyone who uses a computer would agree it is hard to imagine life without one. There is little doubt computers have changed our culture.
There are a few luminaries who made this disruptive change possible. And one of my heroes is Steve Wozniak (AKA Woz). He built the first personal computer and founded Apple Computers with Steve Jobs. In doing so, he changed the way most of us live and started us on a road that we are still traveling. So I was thrilled to attend an event at Ford Motor Company's Detroit headquarters, where Woz was scheduled to talk on a panel about how technology is currently transforming the way we drive cars.
There is a beauty to the fact that event was at Ford. Henry Ford didn't invent the automobile. He made it possible for everyone to have one. Similarly, Steve Wozniak didn't invent the computer. He made it possible for everyone to have one. And it is that democratization of these machines that caused the disruptive changes to the way we live.
I expected to be in geek heaven at this event. And I was not disappointed. I'm still pinching myself. Was it just a dream?
What I didn't expect was to come away with some inspiring parenting advice. It wasn't offered as advice. It was just a story Woz told us. But parenting advice is what I took from it.
He told us that, as a shy teenager, he enjoyed playing with transistors and programming. (We sort of guessed that, right?) And he desperately wanted a computer. But like most teenagers, he didn't know a lot about the world. And like a shy teenager was often too shy to ask.
“I told my Dad,” he explained. “That one day I would own my own computer.” His father didn't tell him this was impossible. He didn't say he’d need to be rich. He simply told him the truth: Computers are huge and cost as much as a house.
“That stopped me,” Woz said. “But only for a minute. Then I told him that, okay, I would get an apartment.” And he went on to reduce the size and cost of the computer so that he -- and the rest of us -- could have an apartment sized one.
As parents, we want to protect our kids from disappointment. And we want to steer them in the right direction. But it was an obstacle – the cost of a computer – that motivated Woz to change the world. So maybe we only need to point out the truth, with all its bumps. Maybe the kids will find a way to change it?
Okay, so here is a truth that everyone on that panel wanted to point out to any of us in the audience with kids. The technology industry needs engineers. And your kids -- whatever their interests -- might make good ones. The kids who study STEM subjects and get the right technical knowledge, will create the future. They don't have to build the computers anymore. That work has been done. But whether they want to tell stories, make films, design clothes, or build cars, they will -- increasingly -- need to be (some sort of) engineer. Engineers create things in our world. “Kids think it’s math and it’s hard,” says Woz. “But math can also be lots of fun. And engineering is really creative."
Who designed that car in your driveway? The iPhone in your hand? The tablet you are reading on? The video game your teen can't stop playing. Engineers. Or at least designers, writers, and artists with an understanding of engineering.
There is a good reason Wozniak has spent so much his time in the last couple of decades bringing excitement about math and engineering to schools. Think about it. What if he had decided math was too hard or engineering too boring?