fw: Interview with Nolan Bushnell (long)

Wayne Radinsky (waynerad@oz.net)
Tue, 4 Mar 1997 00:35:41 -0800

also available in html at...
http://www.sjmercury.com/revolutionaries/bushnell.htm

Nolan Bushnell was the founder of Atari corporation. The San Jose Mercury
site has a page about the "revolutionaries" of technology, the guys who
invented the major stuff we use today, and it's interesting to note that none
of them have anything nice to say about education today. They do have
interesting ideas about what's wrong and what will change in the future
(mostly having to do with technology, but then what do you expect from
a gang of techno revolutionaries?). Nolan Bushnell is a good example.
I included the whole thing because I thought it was interesting...his
comments on education are at the very bottom if you want to skip
right to them.

--Waynesville

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All the right moves
Nolan Bushnell stokes dual fires of creativity, competitiveness

He is arguably the father of computer entertainment.

Nolan Bushnell founded Atari in 1972 and subsequently launched the
video-game revolution with Pong. He sold Atari in 1976 for $28
million, and the following year opened the first Chuck E. Cheese's
restaurant, which combines fast food and electronic games and
amusements.

He sold that, too, and since has been involved in several projects
and start-ups.

<Picture>
Photo by Len Lahman, Mercury News

Tournament Go is just one of the many competitive passions of Nolan
Bushnell, who is a player in business, too.

>From the fourth-floor game room of his Woodside mansion, Bushnell,
53, talked with writer Joyce Gemperlein and high school student
Tenaya Scheinman about his passions: Games, his eight children and
why the nation's educational system needs to be overhauled.

Q. Scheinman: Is there a time you can trace in your life when you
isolate the spark that got you started? When you knew what you were
going to be doing?

A. Bushnell: Yes. The spark was ignited in Mrs. Cook's 3rd grade
class when I was assigned to do the unit on electricity and got
to play with the science box. And I put together this thing and
showed the classmates. And I went home, set up the card table,
found all the flashlights and batteries and pieces of wire and
old stuff around the house and started tinkering, and never stopped.

Q. Scheinman: Did you have any other mentors throughout your
education or your life that sort of helped you?

A. Bushnell: Yes. I had a fellow who was a ham radio operator
down the street who taught me a lot about radios and electronics.
I had my boss at the amusement park who taught me a tremendous
amount about business. I had Dr. Evans at the University of Utah,
who taught me a lot about computer graphics at a very early age.

I think that for a long time I looked at Walt Disney as having
a very, very interesting life and was very unhappy when I graduated
with an engineering degree and didn't get a job offer from Disney.
Because I thought that would be the cool place to work.

Q. Gemperlein: You think they threw your application away?

A. Bushnell: I guess. I bet they're sorry now.

Q. Scheinman: You focus on games a lot. ..

A. Bushnell: Games have always been important to me. I played
tournament chess in college. I play tournament Go currently. I
love challenges; I like puzzles and enigmas, and I've just always
been a gamer. To be able to blend that with your life I think is
just very, very lucky.

Q. Gemperlein: Did you get good grades in high school?

A. Bushnell: I got pretty good grades in high school, but I got
terrible grades in college. I just had too many things going on. I
was running a couple of businesses. I was manager of the amusement
park. I was a member of a fraternity. There just were not enough
hours in the day, and so something had to suffer and I think that
was primarily homework and class attendance.

Q. Scheinman: Do you ever feel like you could always be doing
something more? Not that you should be, but that you wanted to?

A. Bushnell: Absolutely. In fact, right now I have 15 projects that
I would like to be able to be working on in some way. And the
projects, the problem with having a lot of experience, you kind
of see how every one of the projects can be charted, plotted,
planned, moved forward. And yet you know if you try to do everything,
you end up doing nothing. And so it's a matter of selective
application. But I've got some that are just really fun that I
would like to spend some time on.

Q. Gemperlein: You created your first game, Computer Space (in 1970),
in your daughter's bedroom?

A. Bushnell: That was Britta, second daughter. And I put her in with
her older sister and turned her bedroom into a lab.

Q. Gemperlein: You were about 29 years old then. What do you know
now that you wish you had known when you were 29?

A. Bushnell: I wish I knew how big money worked. How the stock market
actually operated. How the New York establishment and capitalizations
worked. I think that I did a lot of things on no money that could have
been more efficient if I'd have just known the right ways to fund and
grow companies.

Q. Gemperlein: Were there times when you were frustrated or people
looked at you like, ahh, you're just a kid and you have a game and
didn't take you seriously?

A. Bushnell: It happened incessantly. In fact, there are still people
who don't understand that games are serious business even though it's
a multibillion dollar industry. You'd go to these conferences, and
they're called multimedia conferences. And they'd say, "What's the
killer app?"

And I'd say: "Guys, the killer app for multimedia is games. . . And
then they'd say: "But what's REALLY going to be important? . . .
People would look at you like you like you had three heads. You mean
you're going to put the TV set in a box with a coin slot and play
games on it? Oh, and then you're going to have people hook them
up to their own TV set? Oh, I don't think so."

Q. Scheinman: One of your companies, Catalyst Technologies, has
funded some robotics. What do you think the application of robotics
is today, and are you interested in them?

A. Bushnell: Robotics is still one of my projects that I would like
to work on in some point in time. It's incredibly difficult, much
more difficult than a lot of people assume. More difficult than I
assumed at the time. I believe that there will be a major wave of
robotics sometime within the next 50 years. And I'd like to be part
of that. Right now, it's still too soon. Because we know what we
want the robot to be. We want it to be a human being. And we are
really complex.

Q. Gemperlein: You once said of Atari after it got all screwed up,
something about the paralysis of perfection. Do you remember saying
that? And what does that phrase mean?

A. Bushnell: What happens is that many companies become sales-proof
because they can never stop perfecting a product. Products are never
perfect at the day they ship. And to assume that they are just says
that you never ship.

What happened at Atari is they kind of went from, you know, after I
sold it, they continued to coast up to $2 billion in sales and nobody
there that was left really understood why. They kind of thought it
was their brilliance. But what really happened is the products had
been created, and it was just a matter of marketing them.

When it came time to introduce a new product, no product looks like
it's going to be a billion-dollar seller when you first enter the
market. If you say, we're only going to market products that will
sell $20 million or above, a lot of products don't look like that.

. . . So, they essentially wouldn't let anything out of the lab
that didn't match an unrealistic hurdle rate. And so, as a result
-- every product has a life cycle -- and if you're not introducing
new stuff, you die. You wither. And it was really sad to see it.

Q. Gemperlein: Did you have a science fair project that exploded?

A. Bushnell: Well, not a science fair, per se. . .But I almost
ignited my family garage with a liquid fuel rocket that I had
mounted on a roller skate that took off and crashed into the
back of the garage and cracked the fuel container. And all of
a sudden this bright orange fireball came shooting out of the
front of the garage, and I thought that I was dead. Nice thing
about it was that it was such volatile fuel that it just flashed,
and there wasn't enough heat there to really ignite anything. Let's
just call it more luck than good judgment.

Q. Scheinman: Were you always tinkering with things?

A. Bushnell: Oh, yes. My back yard was one of the few that had
a working block house. Electronic ignition systems. I've really
amazed that I have all my fingers and eyes.

Q. Gemperlein: Do you watch TV?

A. Bushnell: Rarely. I love to watch "The X-Files." But I never
get to see them, so I tape them and watch it while I'm on the
Stairmaster. But I don't watch sports at all and I've never
attended a professional sporting event.

Q. Gemperlein: No sports? That's amazing, maybe even un-American.

A. Bushnell: (People) think I'm some kind of a loony. I very
often don't know whether Dennis Rodman is a football player or
a baseball player.

It's just not one of those areas that's interesting to me. If
I can't do it myself. . . watching somebody else do it? What's
fun about that? I just don't get it.

Q. Gemperlein: What's the dumbest thing you ever did or had made?

A. Bushnell: Oh, I did a thing called video music. . . .We did
market research on it and were convinced we could sell 150,000
of them. So we said, let's be conservative and made a release
of 25,000. I think we sold six at full price. It was a color
organ that you hooked to your TV set and to your stereo, and
it made pretty pictures. You know, the dance-around music and
all that. Occasionally, if you're in a very, very small town
that has cable, you'll see that they have one.

Q. Gemperlein: What are you proudest of in your business life?

A. Bushnell: Boy, that's a tough one. I don't think I've done it
yet. I've got a couple of projects that are much more important
than anything I've done so far. So, with the caveat that it's
work in progress, I'm proud of my contribution to the video game
business.

I think that I'm proud of Chuck E. Cheese and entertainment
restaurants because I think there were and still are too many
things that pull families apart as opposed to bringing them
into a situation where they can all be together. I think that
there are a lot of things in society that don't allow parents
and kids to interact in a social way. And I think that society
is worse off because of it.

Q. Gemperlein: With Chuck E. Cheese and other creative things...How
would you describe the creative process? Was there a light bulb?
Did you leap up in the middle of the night? Is it evolutionary?
Do you rely on engineers?

A. Bushnell: I essentially see a problem and then invent to fit.
The problem that Chuck E. Cheese addressed was that there were
insufficient places that a family go and young kids could play
games in public places. I didn't feel like bowling alleys were
an appropriate environment. I didn't feel like, of course, bars
were appropriate environments.

Q. Gemperlein: Do you take your kids there?

A. Bushnell: Oh, yeah. And they get really upset. They say, You
owned this and you sold it? That was really lame!

Q. Scheinman: How are you educating your own kids in technology
and computers?

A. Bushnell: Right now, all the kids have their own computer,
except the 6- and 2-year-old, but they all play games.

The only problem the 2-year-old has is he can't work a mouse.
I'm working on some things to get really little kids to be able
to do it. But he knows exactly where you want to go because if
you're doing it and he's watching you and you go the wrong way,
he has a fit.

Q. Gemperlein: How do you feel about education in the schools?

A. Bushnell: That's actually one of my projects, and schools are
doing horribly. I mean, not just horribly but criminally horribly.

I think that we have such huge problems in the American school
system that you have literally the worst of all worlds delivering
a product. And if you look at something that's politicized, that
is, unionized, that is hidebound, which is techno-adverse, which
is controlled by people who are fundamentally part of the
generation of which computer literacy was not important, we
are graduating kids out of high school that not only can't type
but really don't see the computer as a part of the tools.

It's like, would a person in the 1930s have made sense if they
didn't know how to use a pencil when they got out of high school?
That's the equivalent of what we're doing in most instances. But
more than that, school is just falling way, way, way behind in the
race for presentation of ideas. In the '30s and the '40s, school
almost worked because the alternatives were watching the corn grow
and the river flow. If you were in a small town and you wanted to
get out of the town, the school represented the most interesting
that was happening in your life.

Now school is the least interesting thing that's happening in your
life, other than the socialization. I mean, kids, immature minds,
can't necessarily distinguish between a bad idea well-packaged and
a good idea, poorly packaged.

You see this even right now in our political system, in which you
have the packaging of candidates much more important than the
content. It's all visual whiz-bang.

Well, in the marketplace of ideas, you have horrible delivery
systems, namely a teacher with a piece of chalk and a blackboard,
in a group, competing with commercials that have had half a million
dollars worth of production values inserted into them. What's
going to win in terms of all that? It's like nuclear weapons
against a pea shooter.

So, what really has to happen is the school systems have to be
made efficient and bureaucracy by its nature is inefficient. It
has to use technology. Remember that your phone bills would be a
thousand times higher if you had to use operators to connect. A
teacher-centric school system cannot operate in the year 2000. It
has to be a technology center, and everyone is horrified with that
idea.

Q. Gemperlein: There would be no teachers in the schools?

A. Bushnell: There's a teacher there, but a teacher as a facilitator,
not as a provider of education. It's teacher as director, not teacher
as actor.

There is the hackneyed notion that a good teacher is the most
critical thing to the educational process. And it's wrong.

In the marketplace for ideas, the ideas and the content and the
curriculum should be central, not a cult of personality. And if
you package data, process, facts sufficiently well, they should
pull the student into the curriculum, into the knowledge base.
And the teacher can be there to help facilitate other areas.

People talk about class size. You should have an individualized
curriculum for the student in real time, on demand. And so instead
of talking about class size -- hey this is really good; here's
teacher-pupil ratio of 15-to-1, horrible; 10-to-1, horrible;
5-to-1, impossible -- what you really want to do is have class
size 1-to-1.

Clearly, that won't happen if you have a human being there. And so
what I think has to happen is you want class size of teachers-to-pupils
of 100-to-1. And the money spent in the technologically assisted
systems.

I'm doing a lot of research on this. I actually also believe that
there's some interesting technology. In fact, I believe that
educational technology -- call it ET, not to be confused with
phoning home -- will be more important in the year 2000 than
biotechnology.

I think that if properly structured, kids can learn at 200 to 300
times the current speed. So that they can go to school for a couple
of hours in the morning and the rest of the time they can be working
on projects, having fun. 'Cause there's a very, very strong
correlation between the amount of creativity a person has and the
time they spend in school. School right now is not good for most
kids.

Q. Gemperlein: What about your kids?

A. Bushnell: Yeah, they go to a school, but we're having some serious
questions about that.

I believe socialization is very important, and I would like to have
my kids socialized in the traditional environment. But I just would
really like to see school be more efficient all the way around.

Q. Gemperlein: What do you imagine the world will be like
technologically 10 years from now?

A. Bushnell: I think transportation is really all screwed up. And
that there will be some real solutions. A lot of people think that
mass transit is the solution. It's not. It's a really bad idea that
was obsolete in the 30s. And clearly the automobile doesn't make
sense.

I think that we will in the United States within 10 years all have
at least a gigabit of real-time data access in two ways. And that's
going to change an awful lot of things in terms of the way we
communicate, entertain ourselves, and work. I think that knowledge
workers will increasingly not have to travel to work. I think there
will be less commuting in some of these issues.

I think the school system, the public school system will have been
totally replaced within 10 years.

I believe that parents haven't been really given an adequate
alternative. That is, parents with their kids are kind of holding
them and climbing on a jungle gym. You really don't want to let go
of this bad rung until you've got a good firm grip on the other one.

I believe that there will be within three or four years the perfect
solutions that will be very easy to grasp on the other side. And
once that happens, there's so much pent-up anger, frustration,
disgust, it'll happen, boom, overnight.

Q. Gemperlein: Would you ever hire a young computer hacker who
committed a crime?

A. Bushnell: Yes. I believe that the operative word is "young." I
think that we all did weird stuff when we were kids, and I did.
And I just happened to not get caught. And I think that there is
a fine line between what people think to be pranks and jokes and
crimes, even though definitionally, they're crimes.

But the network and hacking is such a tantalizing plum of a puzzle.
And a way to demonstrate intellectual prowess. It's the forbidden
fruit. And some people are going to take a great big bite out of
it. And I would have to see whether the hack they did was a good
hack or a bad hack. But if it was a really clever one, I'd hire
him in a microsecond.

I think that I would draw the line at a destructive hack. I don't
have a lot of patience with viruses ... I think that the world
needs to be a constructive place, not a destructive place. I don't
have respect for people who destroy. I have respect for people who
build.

Q. Gemperlein: What's your overall advice for young people who
want to prepare themselves for jobs in electronics and technology?

A. Bushnell: I think that they should try to learn everything. Now
I know that's crazy, but I think that they should try to be a
generalist. They should try to figure out where the edge is and
try to get as close to it technically as they can. Not necessarily
from learning how a computer works. But I believe that using tools,
that is, a person today who is computer literate, is 20 times
more valuable than someone who is not because they're facilitated.
It's like they have three robots working for them. And one of the
problems that you have right now is this haves vs. have-nots. The
information haves and have-nots.

When I start a new company, a lot of times there are people who
worked for me previously and the world has moved and they haven't.
They haven't kept up their skills. And so they were totally adequate
and competent 10 years ago. And today, they're obsolete.

If you're going to expect to have today's kind of salary, you're
going to have to have today's kind of skills. Period. And they
kind of look at me like, well, I've been OK before. I say, yeah,
but that was before, and this is now.

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