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Hidden Dimensions -- My Tour of Duty at Apple, Part I

by John Martellaro
April 7th, 2006

Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.

-- Dwight D. Eisenhower

I worked for Apple for just under five years. Everyone who wants to work for Apple should go for it. You probably won't spend your entire career at Apple. For many, it'll be more like a tour of duty.

In fact, when I first joined Apple in 2000, a dear friend at Apple told me that all I needed to know about life and politics at Apple could be learned from watching the NBC television show "The West Wing."

She was oh, so right.

When you watch "The West Wing," you see a central, strong character who is absolutely in charge. Surrounding him are some very articulate and intelligent senior staff members, the Chief of Staff (Leo), the Director of Communications (Toby), and so on. They respond to crises, put spin on events, and work day and night to provide the Commander-in-Chief with information he needs to call the shots. They also call their own smaller shots.

In most episodes, you'll also see staffers walking the halls. Bit players with no speaking roles. Sometime they carry around thick portfolios. You see them blending into the background, and you know they're not important actors. They're merely there for effect, rounding out the illusion, members of the White House army of people carrying out their assigned tasks.

This will be you.

In some cases, in analogy with Apple, one of those staffers might be on a trip outside Washington D.C. and have a conversation with a citizen like this:

"Oh, cool. So you work in the White House?"


"What's it like working for the President?"

"It's hard work."

"When will the President say something about Fair Use?"

"You'll have to ask the White House press secretary about that."

"Do you ever see him? The President, I mean."


"So why do you do it?"

"Well, every time I walk through White House security and into that building, I think to myself, I'm making a difference."

"Wow. How many hours a week do you work?"

"All of them."

In many episodes of "The West Wing," we have seen how complex technical issues can be overly simplified, pushed to political extremes, and require late night hours brain storming to put the desired face on events. Typically, just the right choice of words is required. Only a few people have the talent to think on their feet, achieve the desired effect, and not make a mistake that invites further examination (or hysteria) by the press. This is why so few people are selected to speak for the President. As in politics, the same goes for Apple: appearance is everything.

Continuing the analogy, every action you take as a member of the staff is directed towards winning some kind of battle. So there is no such thing as individuality. Nothing you do is ever for yourself; everything you do is directed towards the success of the team. Every policy change, every legislative agenda issued from the west wing is like an Apple product launch - thousands are behind the scenes supporting just a few spokespersons.

If you are coming from a company in which strong personalities jockey for for authority, power, and public visibility, you'll find a very different atmosphere at Apple. Many new hires with the words "vice president" in their title have miscalculated their limits, misunderstood the culture of Apple, and tried to make a name for themselves. That's the fast track to termination. Rather, think again about all the tireless and faceless people who work in the west wing: Secret Service agents, speech writers, researchers, network managers, personal assistants, military liaisons, and even cooks.

This will be you.

Of course, because I had a military and government background, all this was natural for me. Even so, one of the great revelations I had after an intense five years at Apple was that I hadn't been really living for myself. I wasn't learning any new skills; I was merely learning about products. The problems I was solving were mostly generated internally by Apple decisions and policies that impacted our team's federal sales. Every once in a while, I had the genuine pleasure of solving a customer problem, and it felt really good, but that was a very small percentage of my time.

Life in the White House (or Apple) isn't a skill building exercise. You must already have the required skills before you can work in these positions. Rather, it's a consciousness and career building exercise. You'll leave a different person than when you joined.

Eventually, your tour of duty will be over and you'll go back to civilian life. Then, a wonderful thing occurs. You suddenly realize that you can now do things for yourself. When you exercise, it's for your own health -- not so you can endure long plane flights. When you sit back, put your feet up, and read a Robert B. Parker book, it's just for the simple enjoyment of reading -- a selfish pleasure never afforded in previous, hectic times. Suddenly, you have some time to figure out what you want to do in life that is in your own best interest, not the interest of the Commander who has his own battles to wage.

Would I do it again? In a heart beat.

But now that I'm not in Steve's outfit, my perspective has changed. I want tools that work for me as an author. I apply Mac OS X updates when I'm good and ready, not because it's expected. My next iPod will be one that suits me, not because I'll want to put it in an arm band and show it off in the airports and on the plane. I'll buy a MacBook Pro when I think the bugs are worked out, not before. I'm recovering some programming skills that had gotten rusty. I'm exercising more, skiing more, and writing more.

But that's just me. Apple will always need people who want to fight the special war they engage in. They'll need sales and engineering support people who travel a lot and will frequently be away from their families. They'll need people who will work very long hours just for the joy of walking into that Apple courtyard at 1 Infinite Loop and thinking to themselves, I'm making a difference.

This will be you if you elect to join Apple.

In future installments, as the spirit moves me, I'll talk more about my tour of duty and the hidden dimensions of Apple.

John Martellaro is a senior scientist and author. A former U.S. Air Force officer,he has worked for NASA, White Sands Missile Range, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Apple Computer. During his five years at Apple, he worked as a Senior Marketing Manager for science and technology, Federal Account Executive, and High Performance Computing Manager. His interests include alpine skiing, SciFi, astronomy, and Perl. John lives in Denver, Colorado.

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