Somehow even when he's sitting still, Nolan Bushnell seems to be in constant motion.
He's like a human "Pong" game, bouncing from one thing to the next, not randomly but with purpose, going from cofounding Atari to starting kiddie restaurant Chuck E. Cheese's to helping incubate dozens of other companies to a brief thing with high-tech eatery uWink to now launching education startup Brainrush and writing a book, "Finding the Next Steve Jobs."
"I like to say that I have five-year ADD," Bushnell jokes, which is to say he likes to start things and look for new ideas. He likes to change it up. It keeps him sharp. And happy.
"Get out of your comfort zone and do things that you think you couldn't do," he says when we meet for coffee on the day his book is released. "It's so different for me to be in a world of letters. I've always been a tech-head."
Yes, a tech-head. When he helped start Atari in 1972, Bushnell cemented his reputation as a valley pioneer. He'll forever be associated with Pong, an early Atari game designed by Al Alcorn, which ended up in bars across America.
Do strangers ever come up to you to share their "Pong" stories, I ask?
"Incessantly," he says, explaining the game's ice-breaking potential at singles bars. "The number of people who met their husband or wife playing 'Pong' is extraordinary."
Atari started as a gaming company when gaming barely existed. And the company culture reflected the freewheeling style of working hard and playing hard that was embraced by dozens of tech startups. Getting hired at Atari wasn't about who you were but about what you could do, a theme Bushnell hits again and again in the book, which he wrote with author Gene Stone. The idea, the book preaches, is to find creative people and restrain yourself from smothering their creativity. Little else -- personality, skills, experience -- matters.
And yes, it was at Atari that Bushnell hired Steve Jobs, who was 19 and not a very pleasant fellow. In fact, Bushnell is one of the few people who actually hired Jobs. (Jobs, as CEO of Apple (AAPL) and Pixar and founder of Next, was usually the one doing the hiring.)
"Steve was difficult but valuable," Bushnell says. "He was very often the smartest guy in the room, and he would let people know that." But Bushnell remains awestruck by Jobs' success and the way he grew into not only a top executive, but a visionary -- a rare combination.
Still, I ask, do we really need another book with "Steve Jobs" in the title?
The publisher, Net Minds, likes titles that include "Steve Jobs," Bushnell explains, but also there is something to be learned from a guy who was creative and unconventional. Bushnell is convinced that there are all sorts of creative and unconventional people out there working at companies today. The problem is that corporate managers don't recognize them. Or when they do, they push them to conform rather than create.
"Some of the best projects to ever come out of Atari or Chuck E. Cheese's," he says, "were from high school dropouts, college dropouts. One guy had been in jail."
Bushnell -- who now lives with his wife, Nancy, in Los Angeles -- isn't necessarily one to look back. But he does carry some fond memories and valuable lessons from his Atari days. The company, like all companies, encountered turbulence. Bushnell sold it to Warner Communications in 1976 and was ultimately forced out. Atari slowly reconfigured and unraveled after Bushnell left. Sure, it was hard to watch.
"I had an awful lot of my soul invested in Atari culture," he says.
Bushnell celebrated his 70th birthday last month. His eight kids are grown (the youngest is 19). But he has no plans to slow down and he practically laughs at the notion of retirement.
"Of course not," he says when I ask about retirement. He swears that he is happiest when he's working on something -- and maybe keeping one eye out for the next thing.
"I literally don't know the difference," he says, "between my work and my play."
OK, so what about legacy, I wonder. Of all these enterprises and operations, I ask, what would you most like to be remembered for?
"I want to be known for Brainrush," he says initially. The education startup, which deploys game theory to teach subjects in quick bits, is what he's working on now, after all. But then he thinks for another second. "I guess I'd like to be known for being an innovator, fostering creativity, thinking outside the box," he says. "You know, keeping people playful."
I'd say he's got a shot at that. But maybe it's too early to say. After all, who really knows what comes next for Nolan Bushnell?
Contact Mike Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.