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)

So, you never received a degree?

No, I have two of them. I have a BA from Columbia College in Music/Literature and a law degree from Peninsula Univ. College of Law in Mountain View, CA.

I had no idea you were a lawyer.

I don’t actively practice. When I decided to go for my law degree, I thought maybe I’d work in IP (intellectual property) law, but I found I wasn’t a good temperamental fit to that specialty. Hardware engineers are always seeking to refine and simplify their work. Steve Wozniak was legendary for his ability to simplify his hardware designs. When you read his various interviews about his work on the Apple II and the first Apple floppy controller, the Disk II, he’s always proudest when he describes cutting the chip count. I absorbed that attitude in my own engineering career.

But in law, and patent law in particular, the goal is to add in everything that could possibly be relevant. It’s really a very different mindset and not something that comes naturally to me.

My daughter has a law degree. After she graduated, she told me that the second and third years of law school were a waste of time. She felt it would have been much more productive if she’d worked in a law office or clerked for two years.

I think she’s right and this ties back to my observation on four-year degrees. I think the faster you can start working in a field you’ve chosen, the better. If I’d taken one year of law school, then perhaps gone to work for a patent attorney, I might have saved two years of my life by not pursuing a career I wasn’t suited for.

Did you ever obtain an engineering diploma?

No. I did take EE-101 at Columbia, but it seemed like 90% of my classmates were Asian, so there was a cultural issue there and it didn’t feel like a good fit for me. Then when I landed at Apple, where neither Jobs nor Woz had degrees, it seemed like I should just be able to learn on the job. It felt like it took me many years to get through my apprenticeship phase, but at this point, it doesn’t seem to have made much difference. Technology moves so fast, one has to be always learning and absorbing anyway.

Let’s discuss your start-up career. What sort of ventures have you been involved in since leaving Cupertino?

My first job after Apple was in 1985 was with a company called Greenleaf Science. This company was a spin-off of William Dement’s sleep studies lab at Stanford. I built an eight channel data acquisition card for the Apple II. The system was later called Sleep Trace and upgraded with a DSP processor and flat-screen display. For its day, it was very cutting edge. The company wasn’t a failure, but it wasn’t a big success, either.

I also worked for Lucidity Research. We created a product called the Lucid Dream Induction Mask. The idea behind this product was you would wear it when you went to sleep, and when the mask detected you were in REM sleep, it would flash a red LED to give you a cue to hopefully enter the “lucid dreaming” state and take control of the dream. It can be a useful therapy for people who suffer from recurring nightmares, PTSD, and related problems.

Did it work?

Sometimes! The theory is appealing, that in the dreaming state which is accompanied by REM (rapid eye movement), it’s possible to become aware that you’re asleep without actually waking up, and guide your dream enough so that you’re confronting your ‘monster’ (in the case of nightmare) in which case it typically dissolves or runs away. Stephen LaBerge the founder is still making a living doing lucidity workshops, where the masks are used.

You seem to have been very interested in sleep research.

I was interested in working for companies doing interesting things with technology. We take a great deal for granted now, but in the 80s, cheap microcontrollers were a new and exciting world. Actually, it’s still a very exciting time now that we have Arduinos, Raspberry Pi, and lots of wireless technologies.

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