An Interview with Daniel Kottke, the Man Who Built Some of Steve Jobs’ First Macintoshes (and Witness to the Last Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field)

by | May 25, 2016 | Softletter Back Issues and Articles, The Lighter Side of Softletter, 2016 Softletter Articles | 0 comments

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Daniel Kottke today

Daniel Kottke was Apple employee number 12 and at one point a close friend of Steve Jobs, meeting him at Reed College in 1972. He accompanied Jobs on what has become a semi-legendary trip to India before Apple’s founding in 1976, an event portrayed on film and widely documented.

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Daniel Kottke and Steve Jobs in the late 70s

Daniel was heavily involved in building and testing the early versions of the Apple II computer, and later built the some of the first prototypes of the Apple III and the Macintosh computers─he owns the first Macintosh circuit board in additional to several other early Mac, Apple II, and Apple III prototypes. Daniel also worked on the design of the original Mac’s keyboard and his signature can be

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An early Apple III motherboard. The computer worked better when you dropped it. (This is not a joke)

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Daniel Kottke pointing to his name inside the early Macintoshes

found on the interior case of the first run of the original Mac 128s and 512s (it’s up in the upper left quadrant). Click here to see a video of Daniel displaying off some of his treasures. We have no doubt these artifacts from one of the most significant periods in computing history will one day end up in a computer or technology museum; they are invaluable and the entire industry owes Daniel its thanks for saving them for posterity.

Kottke was close with Steve Jobs’ then girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan and assisted her in early efforts to care for her and Steve Jobs’ daughter, Lisa. In a (in)famous incident that has been widely written about, Jobs refused to award any stock to Daniel when Apple was preparing to go public in 1980. Despite this, Daniel worked at Apple till 1985 before striking out on his own.

Daniel was played in Pirates of Silicon Valley in by Marcus Giamatti and by Lukas Haas in the 2013 biopic of Jobs starring Ashton Kutcher. While his character is not portrayed in Aaron Sorkin’s 2015 Steve Jobs, he is mentioned prominently several times in the screenplay. (Despite good acting, writing and directing, I thought Steve Jobs was terrible and was to the history of Steve Jobs and his relationship with Apple what Age of Ultron is to modern robotics and AI.)

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Daniel Kottke likes this book

I first made contact with Daniel when I offered to send him an advance review copy of my latest novel, Selling Steve Jobs’ Liver: A Story of Startups, Innovation, and Connectivity in the Clouds. He agreed to read the book and we began to talk about our respective careers. The result of our early conversation is this review.

I don’t want to spend much time rehashing your time at Apple and stuff that’s been covered in extensive detail by others. I want to focus on your post-Apple career. As you prepared to leave Apple, what were the primary lessons you’d learned from your experiences there?

The big issue for me up until 1981 was how to advance from being an hourly technician to a salaried engineer (and eligible for stock options). Apple’s engineering management at the time was really not helpful for me in that regard, even though I’d taken the initiative to attend various UC Berkeley Extension and Stanford Honors Co-op engineering courses, starting in 1978. In January of 1981, when Steve was creating the Mac Division, he was nice enough to hire me as an engineer on the project, which put that issue to rest at least (although there was still no offer of a stock option).

By the time I was taking my leave of absence in late 1984, I felt competent to design anything I needed, so it never made sense to go back for an EE/CS degree—but that’s why for years I advised people who wanted to work in high-tech so that they’d be eligible for stock options. It was a common industry practice that only engineers were eligible for options and not particular to Apple. So when I left the company, the need to get that degree had been hammered into me. But you know something? I’ve changed my mind about this in many respects.

In what way?

I think that the traditional four-year degree is becoming a dinosaur. A standard BA is becoming increasingly unaffordable, particularly when you factor in your post-collegiate debt. People such as Peter Thiel are actively discouraging entrepreneurs from attending college. And the technology is moving so fast. A couple of years when the Raspberry PI came out, you were supposed to code it in Python. Now the consensus is you should use JavaScript because it runs so well in the Cloud and on devices.

So your advice is to forget about the college degree?

My advice right now is if you’re considering a career in technology, carefully examine your online learning and education options. I’m on the board of advisors of World Online Education and the opportunities that are opening up are incredible. Online is accessible, affordable, and offers a tremendous opportunity to rapidly acquire new skills. You have to commit to reeducating yourself for your entire career. If you have a vision of something you want to accomplish or a company you want to build, learn online, follow your enthusiasm, start a company. This was a big theme in Steve Jobs’ life.

On the other hand, if you’re not sure of your goals, if you need to take time to discover what you want to do, a four-year degree can be useful. But don’t take on a huge debt load.

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