One of the hallmarks of Nolan Bushnell’s career is that he’s spent decades hiring and enabling all manner of gifted renegades and imaginative oddballs.
It was partly of out necessity because of the kinds of companies he’s launched over the years. Bushnell cofounded Atari where he was Steve Jobs’s first boss, and where he helped create classic video games like Pong. Companies he launched later include the pizza chain Chuck E. Cheese’s. Today, the 71-year-old serial entrepreneur who’s been called the father of the video-game industry is regarded as something of an elder statesman of technology and business innovation.
Long known as an out-of-the-box thinker, he remains legendary in Silicon Valley and beyond for his idiosyncratic way of looking at the world—a trait that’s manifested itself partly in the kinds of people who’ve worked for him.
Because of that, Bushnell’s career also can be looked at as a fountain of insight for leaders whose jobs involve managing creative talent.
Bushnell proudly acknowledges that some of his best hires over the years would have been written off as "freakish" by a traditional company like IBM. Take Harold Lee, the Atari engineer who created the chip for Pong. Bushnell describes Lee as a bearded bear of a man with long, scraggly hair who drove a Harley—but who Bushnell says also is a brilliant chip designer.
He’s also made hires for his companies from unlikely places—from among people who’ve approached him to chat after he’s given a speech, as well as when he’s been particularly impressed by a waiter’s service in a restaurant.
"I think the insistence on credentials at companies is such a huge mistake," he tells Fast Company. "I believe you should hire people based on who they are and what they’ve done, not because of something like what college they went to—or even whether they went to college. It turns out, the rigor that college requires often screens out the most creative people anyway."
"In fact, one of the prime architects of the (Atari) 2600 was a dropout," Bushnell adds. "Totally self-taught. I find they’re often better than their college-educated counterparts . . . they’re learning because of passion. Because they love it. They’re living it and breathing it and immersed in the technology."
Of his employees over the years, his most famous is unquestionably Jobs. He hired Jobs at Atari to be a developer for $5 an hour at a time when the impetuous 19-year-old was still searching for his place in the world.
Despite the future Apple cofounder’s abrasiveness that almost got him canned from Atari, Bushnell saw something in Jobs, so much that he put him on the night shift. Atari didn’t have a night shift at the time, and the fact that Bushnell thought it was worth starting one as a solution to managing a difficult employee is an example of his belief that companies should "get out of the way" of creative employees more often.
"The problem among companies in my estimation is overmanaging rather than undermanaging," Bushnell says. "There’s a big difference between employees that want to be adults versus those that want to remain children.
"It’s amazing how many people in their 50s and 60s still want to be told what to do," he says. "What you want are people who are adults, where you can leave them alone and give them the broad goals of the company. You don’t care how or when they do it, as long as they hit their deadlines and have an excellent work product. In between that, you leave them alone."
He collected some of his thoughts on business leadership last year in a book called Finding the Next Steve Jobs. In the book, he argues that managing creatives is a bit like herding cats—it's doomed to fail. Rather, he says, companies should work on building a flexible organization where creativity is given room to breathe.
That, Bushnell tells Fast Company, is what he tried to do at Atari, and at his other ventures since then. Creative talent today, he points out, tends to rush to a company like Google because they feel like the company is "open to innovation, because they’re doing a lot of it." They don’t necessarily get this vibe from a company like IBM or Hewlett-Packard, he adds, "even though they may be doing equivalently cool things there."
"I think the problem in most companies is that—under their nose right now—they probably have an equivalent of Steve Jobs," Bushnell says. "But too often, their ideas have been said ‘no’ to. When the fact of the matter is true innovation has no constituency."
"If you have a radical innovation and you stand up in a room and say, ‘Look at this radical innovation!’ virtually no one will vote for it," he says. "I’ve seen it over and over again. If you go into a room and ask, ‘How many people here believe in innovation?’ Of course, everybody will raise their hand. But you show them a true innovation? No hands. It’s really a conundrum."
He believes a company can begin to solve that difficult problem by getting more comfortable with employees and ideas that it could write off as "crazy."
"You also want to have people who are enthusiastic and extremely hardworking," Bushnell says. "There’s this idea some people have that ideas are the golden thrones. That good ideas are enough. I say, no, just having the idea—you don’t even own it. There’s a whole list of things you have to do before you even have a tiny bit of claim to it."
"The thing people may not realize about Steve Jobs—a lot of people know he was intense, but they may not realize how hard he worked," he says. "He was always ‘on.’ Maybe his health was negatively affected by that. But he worked extremely hard. He was one of the few employees who slept at his desk at Atari—and he was just a tech."
That bias for hard work and action is revealed in many of the anecdotes in Bushnell’s book that include personal encounters between Jobs and himself. One such encounter saw Jobs, while at Apple, seek out Bushnell’s advice on a very Jobs-like topic. "How in the world do you figure out what the next big thing is?" Jobs once asked his old boss.
You’ve got to figure out how to put yourself into the future and ask what you want your computers to be able to do, Bushnell responded.
Jobs said he was trying to do that, but that’s hard to find people who think like that. Also, Jobs lamented that everyone at Apple expected him to come up with all the groundbreaking ideas.
That taught Bushnell an important lesson—that even "the original Steve Jobs believed he had to find his own next Steve Jobs."