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Digital life: New book shares insights from Steve Jobs’ first boss

  • In this photo taken Wednesday, Mar. 20, 2013, Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari poses for a photo at "Two-Bits-Circus," a Los Angeles idea factory focused on software, hardware and machines. Bushnell was the first guy to give Steve Jobs his first full-time job in Silicon Valley at Atari. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

    In this photo taken Wednesday, Mar. 20, 2013, Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari poses for a photo at "Two-Bits-Circus," a Los Angeles idea factory focused on software, hardware and machines. Bushnell was the first guy to give Steve Jobs his first full-time job in Silicon Valley at Atari. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) Purchase photo reprints »

  • In this photo taken Wednesday, Mar. 20, 2013, Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari poses for a photo at "Two-Bits-Circus," a Los Angeles idea factory focused on software, hardware and machines. Bushnell was the first guy to give Steve Jobs his first full-time job in Silicon Valley at Atari. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

    In this photo taken Wednesday, Mar. 20, 2013, Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari poses for a photo at "Two-Bits-Circus," a Los Angeles idea factory focused on software, hardware and machines. Bushnell was the first guy to give Steve Jobs his first full-time job in Silicon Valley at Atari. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) Purchase photo reprints »

  • In this photo taken Wednesday, Mar. 20, 2013, Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari poses for a photo at "Two-Bits-Circus," a Los Angeles idea factory focused on software, hardware and machines. Bushnell was the first guy to give Steve Jobs his first full-time job in Silicon Valley at Atari. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
  • In this photo taken Wednesday, Mar. 20, 2013, Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari poses for a photo at "Two-Bits-Circus," a Los Angeles idea factory focused on software, hardware and machines. Bushnell was the first guy to give Steve Jobs his first full-time job in Silicon Valley at Atari. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

When Steve Jobs adopted “think different” as Apple’s mantra in the late 1990s, the company’s ads featured Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Amelia Earhart and a constellation of other starry-eyed oddballs who reshaped society.

Nolan Bushnell never appeared in those tributes, even though Apple was riffing on an iconoclastic philosophy he embraced while running video game pioneer Atari in the early 1970s. Atari’s refusal to be corralled by the status quo was one reason Jobs went to work there in 1974 as an unkempt, contemptuous 19-year-old.

Bushnell, though, says he always saw something special in Jobs. The two remained in touch until shortly before Jobs died in October 2011 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

That bond inspired Bushnell to write a book about the unorthodox thinking that fosters the kinds of breakthroughs that became Jobs’ hallmark as the co-founder and CEO of Apple Inc. After Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple in 1976, Apple adopted parts of an Atari culture that strived to make work seem like play. That included pizza-and-beer parties and company retreats to the beach.

“I know Steve was always trying to take ideas and turn them upside down, just like I did,” Bushnell said in an interview.

Bushnell’s newly released book, “Finding The Next Steve Jobs: How to Find, Hire, Keep and Nurture Creative Talent,” is the latest chapter in a diverse career that spans more than 20 different startups that he either launched or groomed at Catalyst Technologies, a business incubator.

Bushnell’s best-known accomplishments came at Atari, which helped launch the modern video game industry with the 1972 release of “Pong,” and at the Chuck E Cheese restaurant chain, which specializes in pizza, arcade entertainment and musical performances by animatronic animals.

While at Atari, Bushnell began to break the corporate mold. He allowed employees to turn Atari’s lobby into a cross between a video game arcade and the Amazon jungle. He started holding keg parties and hiring live bands to play for his employees after work. He encouraged workers to nap during their shifts, reasoning that a short rest would stimulate more creativity when they were awake. He also promised a summer sabbatical every seven years.

He advertised job openings at Atari with taglines such as, “Confusing work with play every day” and “Work harder at having fun than ever before.” When job applicants came in for interviews, he would ask questions such as: “What is a mole?”; “Why do tracks run counter-clockwise?” and “What is the order of these numbers: 8, 5, 4, 9, 1, 7, 6, 3, 2?”

Bushnell hadn’t been attracting much attention in recent years until Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography on Jobs came out in 2011, just after Jobs’ death. Suddenly, everyone was asking Bushnell about what it was like to be Jobs’ first boss.

Bushnell’s book doesn’t provide intimate details about what Jobs was like after he dropped out of Reed College in Portland, Ore., and went to work as a technician in 1974 at Atari in Los Gatos, Calif. He had two stints there, sandwiched around a trip to India. During his second stint at Atari, in 1975, Jobs worked on a “Pong” knock-off called “Breakout” with the help of his longtime friend Steve Wozniak, who did most of the engineering work on the video game. Jobs left Atari for good in 1976 when he co-founded Apple with Wozniak.

Jobs and Bushnell kept in touch, meeting periodically over tea or during walks to hash out business ideas. After Bushnell moved to Los Angeles with his family 13 years ago, he didn’t talk to Jobs as frequently, though he made a final visit about six months before he died.

There are only a few anecdotes about Bushnell’s interaction with Jobs at Atari; the book instead serves as a primer on how to ensure a company doesn’t turn into a mind-numbing bureaucracy that smothers employees and scares off rule-bending innovators such as Jobs.

Bushnell dispenses his advice in vignettes that hammer on a few points. The basics: Make work fun; weed out the naysayers; celebrate failure and learn from it; allow employees to take short naps during the day; and don’t shy away from hiring talented people just because they look sloppy or lack college credentials.

“The truth is that very few companies would hire Steve, even today,” Bushnell writes in his book. “Why? Because he was an outlier. To most potential employers, he’d just seem like a jerk in bad clothing.”

Bushnell says he is worried that Apple is starting to lose the magic touch that Jobs brought to the company. It’s a concern shared by many investors, who have been bailing out of Apple’s stock amid tougher competition for the iPhone and the iPad and the lack of a new product line since Tim Cook became the company’s CEO shortly before Jobs’ death. Apple’s market value has dropped by 36 percent, or about $235 billion, from its all-time high reached last September.

The incremental steps that Apple has been taking with the iPod, iPhone and iPad have been fine, Bushnell says, but not enough to prove the company is still thinking differently.

“To really maintain the cutting edge that they live on, they will have to do some radical things that resonate,” Bushnell said. “They probably have three more years before they really have to do something big. I hope they are working on it right now.”

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