A Steve note

When I was 8 years old I got to use a computer for the first time. It was an old Apple II, the kind with the green screen and sloping keyboard, and it was shared with about 30 other students who got about 30 minutes a week on it in our classroom in San Jose, CA.

By age 10, I had learned how to do some simple programming in BASIC, the language the Apple II used. For those of you old enough to remember, there was a pretty easy code to get words repeating on screen:

10 PRINT “TEXT”
20 GOTO 10
RUN

With that, the word TEXT would just appear over and over and over, line by line, until you hit the command to stop it.

Given this knowledge, of course, I did what any 10-year-old would do.

10 PRINT “ASS”
20 GOTO 10
RUN

The result:

ASS
ASS
ASS
ASS
ASS
ASS
ASS

…. and so forth.

I grew up in church environments where such things weren’t done. Repeating swear words via computer code, while juvenile, was one of my first acts of defiance. This sounds hokey to say now, but the computer was a way to express individuality about myself in ways I had not – or could not – do to date. What started as a juvenile bit of code turned into other forms of expression. I used the Logo program to draw pictures. My first was a castle, but rather than build a program that would build the castle in one shot I wrote tiny subprograms that built a tower, a base, a drawbridge, a moat. Then I wrote a larger program that combined those. My castle was a big program that assembled smaller programs.

I learned there was logic to the ways we assemble the world and I learned the language of programming, even if it was a simple form. It was architecture for my universe. I was hooked.

So when I say I’ll miss Steve Jobs, who died today at the age of 56, I mean it. I don’t miss celebrities. I didn’t cry at one of my grandfathers’ funerals. But I am a little teary-eyed tonight. I grew up in the Silicon Valley around the tech boom, and it was an amazing time. I loved everything about what was going on there and I gobbled up the San Jose Mercury News’ Science & Technology section every week to keep up with the latest. I was 10, mind you. Ten-year-old boys should be getting into trouble, chasing girls, getting dirty, playing baseball. I was just too curious at my age, wanting to know more about the amazing things going on in the Bay Area at the time. And I was inspired by them.

So I became a journalist. Yeah, not a programmer, but that’s not the point. I didn’t see it as a leap. The curiosity that led me to learn a little programming, teach myself HTML and make my first home page on the Web in 1993, use desktop publishing in the 1980s …. all of that was inspired by these wonderful machines Apple kept putting out. But it was that curiosity that made me want to be a journalist.

I tell my students this all the time. Most of the time, I fear, they aren’t listening. If you aren’t curious about the world around you, if you have no imagination to see stories without me holding your hand, then you’re studying the wrong thing. Curiosity is the one thing I can’t teach you, but I hope I can inspire it in you. Steve Jobs inspired that in me. He was always a bit mythical, a bit heroic. He believed in creating beauty, not destroying things. And he wanted to leave his mark on the world, to make it better.

He was no celebrity, damn it. And I cried tonight at the news. I don’t have many heroes in life, but Steve Jobs was one of them. And I don’t think I’d be who I am now without some of the products he made and the philosophy that guided their creation.I have learned a lot from his approach.

If you have an Apple device and love it, stop for a second and think beyond them. There is a logic and beauty to your Mac, your iPod, your iPhone, your iPad. The form factor, the interface, the look and feel are all part of a bigger effort to make something remarkable. You can’t make those things if you are just a programmer, just a designer, just a manufacturer. You need a good team, and you need to be curious about the world around you. In his Stanford commencement address, Jobs told the story of taking a typography class and how it influenced the way type was done on the Mac, and then I think about how bored our students get in typography these days. They are missing out. Those little avenues of knowledge are the pathway to bigger things, bigger dreams. I wish more of my students saw this, that success comes from smaller building blocks and you have to give those small things your attention and devotion before you can do something bigger.

Apple products are the It item of our time, but they are not the thing. We don’t need more Apple products. We need more people to be curious, work hard, and dream a little to give us the kind of world that gets us such amazing things. We need that in tech, in music, art, politics, and so many other areas of life.

I’m saddened by this news, sadder than I’ve been in some time. Thank you, Steve, for inspiring so many people. Including me. I hope we carry that forward.