Interview: Apple Employee No. 12 Dan Kottke on Company’s Earliest Days and the College Steve Jobs
Remembering Steve Jobs has almost become a cottage industry. Walter Isaacson’s biography is No. 1 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction li st; Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview has been playing in movie houses around the country; and a new e-book called “Letters to Steve” has collected Jobs’ email responses to customer service queriesand other electronic correspondence.
From our own archives, we’ve noticed a resurgence in interest in a Jobs-related post we put up over 10 months ago: Interview With Dan Kottke, Apple Employee No. 12, on Steve Jobs’ Health, conducted by KQED’s Peter Jon Shuler after Jobs announced he would take a third medical leave of absence as Apple CEO.
When Jobs stepped down for good in August, Shuler again turned to Kottke, who first met Jobs when both attended Reed College in Oregon. Kottke and Jobs became close friends, traveling to India together, and Kottke went on to work for Apple in its very earliest days, before it was even incorporated.
Here is an edited transcript from the first part of the interview, in which Kottke talks about the young Steve Jobs and the nascent business he started. Kottke, who began with the company plugging chips into Apple I circuit boards, went on to work on the Apple II, Apple III, and Macintosh as a computer engineer.
How did you meet Steve Jobs?
We met in the first few weeks freshman year at Reed College. Which is such a fertile and imprinting time of life. And Steve and I both happened to get copies of (a seminal book on yoga and meditation) Be Here Now. It had just come out, in 1971, and it was our mutual interest in that book that started our friendship.
I had a friend in a different dorm, and one day in the first couple of weeks he said you should come meet this guy, he’s interesting. And that was Steve jobs. Steve, I remember, had a big Teac reel-to-reel tape deck with lots of bootleg Dylan. It was a pretty expensive piece of gear; I don’t know how he wangled that.
Then the other tie in was Robert Friedland, the student body president the year we were freshmen. That summer after our freshman year he went to India and was part of the Be Here Now scene. He was hanging with the people in that book. Somehow I and Steve got to know him. We had an interest in Indian philosophy and spirituality in general. It was Robert who had the idea we should go to India. I had no money. But Steve had found work at Atari so he had money, and we went to see the Kumbh Mela, the biggest religious gathering in the world.
The mutual interest in Be Here Now quickly led to Autobiography of a Yogi. I had never read anything like that. Then Ramakrishna and his disciples, cosmic consciousness by Bucke – I think Steve turned me on to that one.
You mentioned that Steve dropped out but continued to audit classes…
I think his parents loaned him the money for tuition, which might have been $8,000. It was a private college, so it wasn’t cheap like a state school. Steve, using talents that proved valuable later in life, did a cost-benefit analysis and came to the conclusion that he didn’t really need the college credit. He withdrew, got all his tuition money back, then went back to the dean and said, “can I just audit some classes?” He audited a few. He got good value for the money. I know he really liked Shakespeare and calligraphy and a drama class.
Did you imagine then that those early influences might lead to what he was to accomplish later on?
I didn’t. Not at all. Of course I didn’t know he had a background in electronics. I didn’t find out years later about the blue boxes. I guess he didn’t see how I could contribute. I didn’t know anything about electronics or phones. But he was selling blue boxes that year, our second year.
He did bring Woz up to campus, and I met Woz. But we didn’t talk about anything like that.
What I realize now is those Silicon Valley kids were all doing electronics in high school. There was a flea market for electronics. Everybody around worked in electronics; all the fathers of all the kids. all worked either at Lockheed or HP or Varian. Steve’s father worked at Spectra-Physics.
Steve was a thoughtful, focused guy, and I really enjoyed my early conversations with him about wide-ranging topics in the world. We took psychedelics together on occasion and had good times.
In hindsight, do you see anything from that time that led to his later success?
I think there was a lot of entrepreneurial spirit here in Silicon Valley. They weren’t even calling it that at the time. I can remember running into Steve one day in the Reed coffee shop and he was drawing timing diagrams for some game he was working on at Atari. I had no idea what he was doing. I’d never seen anything like that. It was very foreign but he didn’t seem interested in explaining it to me.
At what point did you decide to stay here?
My girlfriend lived in Saratoga. I was coming to visit her and Steve. We were kindred spirits in many ways. I remember I first arrived on a Greyhound bus and Steve’s father came to pick me up at the station here in Palo Alto and he had his Ford Ranchero with a laser beam installed in the engine compartment, and he had a big toggle switch on the dashboard that said “laser.” I thought that was wonderful. That’s Silicon Valley for you. So his father was a tinkerer.
That first trip when I came out, I was just trying to decide where to go to school. We probably went to the Los Altos zendo; Steve was very fond of that place. That was Steve’s main social networking influence.
Steve and Woz and their blue box activities — the story I heard was that this article came out about Captain Crunch, a Vanity Fair article about phone freaking, probably about 1975. I think Woz was a student at Berkeley, and somehow they connected with Captain Crunch and got the keys, so to speak. They figured out how to work these things, and then Woz figured out how to design his own.
My guess is that it was Steve jobs who was the entrepreneur, who said let’s make these things and sell them. It would be Woz’s style just to build a prototype. That’s an interesting question to ask Woz someday. I don’t know how many they made, but they were all handmade I think. But they sold them, they made money. Before the Apple One, they were selling the blue boxes. But Steve never said a word to me.
How did you get involved with Apple?
I had stayed in touch with Steve and by ’75 I was ready to go back to school somewhere. I ended up applying to Columbia College and that’s where I got my degree. During that year we wrote postcards. At some point that year he and I went up to Robert Friedland‘s farm. It had a big apple orchard and Steve and I had both gone up there to pick apples. Simultaneously Steve had found Arnold Ehrtiz’s mucousless diet, a fruitarian diet healing system. I thought that was interesting, so the two of us were doing a fruitarian diet, eating apples. That’s why the apple was in the air. And Robert was a very charismatic guy and has gone on to become a billionaire in his own right.
I definitely see that Steve learned a lot from Robert. When we first met him at Reed he had done time in federal prison for being caught with tens of thousands of doses of LSD. That was impressive in a kind of an outlaw way. And he was applying for a Rhodes scholarship, as a convicted felon. I thought that was fascinating. So those were the combination of events.
That book, Be Here Now, plus On the Road, was the biggest event of our freshman year. Because Robert had a personal connection into that whole scene, that was very compelling. And that’s what led us going out to India, and me coming back to the west coast to visit, and to Robert’s farm.
I called Steve up in the spring of 1976 when I was in my junior year in Columbia, and he said, you know, we’re doing this computer project and I said that’s kind of interesting. There’s no possible way anyone could tell it would be successful, there was a lot of hobbyist activity going on. So I’m trying to decide what to do for the summer, Steve said you can come help me, I said okay, and that was it.
That was when we were doing the Apple I, and when I first showed up at the Jobs’ house in Cupertino, his sister Patti was plugging chips into the Apple I board on the coffee table in the living room while she watched TV. I looked at that and thought, ‘I can do better than that.’ And she already had a job at Taco Bell, as I recall, so I just kind of jumped in.
The agreement was Steve would pay me $3.25 an hour, maybe $3.50, I’m sure it was the minimum wage. There was no electrical expertise required; all you had to do was pay attention and make sure the chip was not backwards and plug it in without bending the pins backwards and inspect the board. Then he taught me how to test the boards, which was not a technical thing. It was basically a factory assembly job. So I was just lucky to get that start.
That summer didn’t really lead anywhere. Apple could have easily folded that summer. What happened was they basically got one big purchase order from the Byte Shop. That happened before I arrived. Steve had the circuit boards and was filling orders. I helped him write the first flyer for the Apple I, and I kept him company when he was making rounds to the Byte Shops, delivering product. Steve was still probably affiliated with Atari; he brought me there and I filled out a job application.
The other thing that happened: Steve got me a job working for an hourly rate part-time assembling circuit boards for a company called Call Computer. I couldn’t even read the resistor code. But basically I was given a kit of parts and each bag of parts had labels and I was given a schematic and I didn’t know how to read it but it wasn’t that hard, like putting together a puzzle or doing embroidery. That’s when I first realized I had some aptitude for doing this kind of stuff.
I went back to school and took an introduction to transistor theory class, which I didn’t take to too well. But by the spring of ’77, Mike Markkula had arrived, who was really the third founder of the company. They incorporated in January. He took a look at the situation and said, ‘we can make money here.’ Steve didn’t know what to do. But Mike Markkula put in 90k to get the company going, so they could rent an office space, incorporate, get the board of directors and write a business plan, hire a president, Mike Scott, all the things that make a company.
I was a senior at Columbia College. I had a dual major of literature and music. By the middle of the spring of that year, Steve had said yeah, whenever you can come out here we have work for you, full time.
Bill Fernandez was the first full-time employee of Apple, after it was incorporated. There’s many different ways to count. I suppose Patti Jobs could be considered the first part-time employee, but if you don’t count Patti then I was the first part-time employee. I was the first one who actually said yes, I want to do this, I’ll help. Patti was kind of like watching TV.
I didn’t show up for full-time work until the week I graduated college, in the spring of ’77. That’s when I came out west and became employee No. 12, and there was full-time work immediately. The Apple II boards were piling up and needed to be tested, and I quickly developed an aptitude for fixing them. So I became the chief technician.
End Part 1