Nolan Bushnell knows how to spot talent. Among the hires he made two years after he founded Atari in 1972 was an intense and difficult young man who wasn’t fond of bathing. His name was Steve Jobs. In fact, Bushnell was one of the very few bosses Jobs ever had, and the two were close friends for decades.
In Finding the Next Steve Jobs (written with Gene Stone), Bushnell reveals his strategies for identifying out-of-the-box thinkers who can propel a company forward with creativity even if, like Jobs, they are most definitely not the kind of docile and pliable team players that most managers seek out.
After an interesting portrait of Jobs as a young man, Bushnell offers 51 quick, anecdote-driven pieces of advice for hiring managers, divided into two categories: finding people like Jobs and keeping people like Jobs. In both sections his suggestions are clever, inspiring, counterintuitive, and sometimes controversial.
His main premise is that rules stink. “Situations vary. Flexibility is always necessary. If you try to apply the same rules to every person or circumstance, you will find you’ve planted a field that is sterile and homogenous. In that environment, creativity will wither and die. The constant application of inflexible rules stifles the imagination.”
And so, he says, ignore college credentials, invent wacky job titles, accommodate the personal quirks of potentially creative employees, hire obnoxious people, even hire crazy people, although to be clear, when he says crazy he means people like the Wright Brothers or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, not true lunatics. Hire the people who come up to you after you make a speech. Hire waiters or salespeople who love their job and make you a happy customer. Always ask interviewees about the books they read, and consider taking them sailing or bowling to see how they react when they’re out of their comfort zone.
How do you hang onto your creative employees? Bushnell has a fun streak (he was also the founder of Chuck E. Cheese), and he doesn’t seem to mind the kind of liberal workplace that would make many managers squirm. Scatter toys around the office, he says. Throw beer busts on Fridays. Promote pranks. Let employees set up secret skunk works. Host retreats. Give out funny awards for the worst ideas of the quarter. You can even encourage ADHD of a sort by understanding that truly creative people get bored working on a single project and letting them launch several efforts at the same time.
“Creativity is every company’s first driver,” Bushnell writes. “It’s where everything starts, where energy and forward motion originate.” So if you stumble across someone as creative and productive as Steve Jobs and he wants to sleep under his desk, then get him a futon and install a shower in the men’s room. If he wants to bring his dog to work, let him. (If he wants to bring his gun to work, however, draw the line.)
By the time you finish breezing through Bushnell’s fun advice, you’ll probably wish you worked for him, but you’ll also probably think that the ideal workplace he envisions might be a little tough to manage. Nevertheless, even coming out of the box part way is better than staying totally stuck inside it. Creativity won’t thrive in the dark.
Finding the Next Steve Jobs, by Norman Bushnell, paperback, 280 pages. Published by Net Minds Corp.