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

by John Martellaro
August 30th, 2006

"The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it."

-- Norman Schwarzkopf

I want to give you a bit of a feel for what it was like at Apple in ways that aren't often discussed, and I'll compare life at Apple to some previous companies I worked for. Check out Part I of this series for more info.

Computer Operations

One of the nice things about working for Apple is the way employees are expected to manage their computers. In many companies, including those I've worked for in the past, your personal computer is issued to you, but you don't really manage your own computer. Administrative and root privileges are withheld by the IT managers. It's especially gruesome when the OS is Windows because you're a helpless user of a helpless OS.

My wife worked for a company who would periodically demand that she give them her PC notebook for the weekend so they could update the OS. Typically, when she got the computer back, it was a mess, files were missing, and the networking was hosed up. She and her colleagues started to dream up new ways of avoiding the IT group.

Apple, in contrast, issues you a computer and the latest OS on DVD, and you're on your own. You're expected to know enough about Mac OS X to install it, configure it, and if you wish, grant yourself administrative and root privileges. There is an internal support group that can assist with the installation of tricky items such as VPN clients or resolve certain technical issues, but it's very rare for a new hire at Apple not to be very familiar with Mac OS X.

In terms of e-mail, you can select any e-mail client you please so long as it supports POP and IMAP. (No Exchange servers are used or needed.)

The downside to all of this is that Apple employees are not able to take advantage of alternative workplace integration products made by competitors. On the other hand, Apple employees have the opportunity to devise any system they please to organize their work. The one unifying thread is the use of Meeting Maker to organize meetings, but I never got the impression that MM would remain a long term solution.

Apple's overall approach is a wonderful, enlightened policy for employees.

Just think about the fact that Apple is an US$18 billion company, but in their data center, they use absolutely no Microsoft server products to operate the company internally. (Of course employees have been known to use MS Word and Excel.) The next time your organization's IT people claim that they just have to convert from stable, secure, inexpensive Unix systems running open source LDAP, e-mail and Web servers over to Active Directory, MS Exchange, and ISS, remind them that Apple, a company that is prospering and fun to work for, uses none of those products and is nicely profitable. Apple's CIO will be happy to brief your CIO how they do it.


Companies have widely varying policies on business travel. In the past, I worked for a company whose business practice said that business travel is a luxury and that you put in your eight hour work day before you can get on an airplane. Or you could fly during the weekend. I had a subcontractor working for me, a very large and well known manufacturing company, that had the same policy. Virtually no one I knew then nor anyone I know now (and I'm betting none of our TMO readers) believe that business travel is a picnic. Especially since 9/11.

Apple, thank goodness, understands all that. You fly when you need to and plan your own travel. To be sure, there are some policies in place that try to minimize travel costs, but they aren't draconian. Apple wisely realizes that everyone works very hard, especially in field sales, and they're away from home for extended periods. Standards for hotels are, I would say, well above average.

I've spent a week in one place, worked Saturday, flew on Sunday, and spent another week at Apple HQ in training. I've worked straight through several Memorial day holiday weekends and into the next week. And loved it because I was at the biannual American Astronomical Society meeting. So while policies are minimal, salaried employees can expect to work until the job's done. When you're trying to change the world, arriving at your hotel at 9:00 PM, eating a late room service dinner, and doing e-mail until midnight is just routine action.

Executive Briefings

These customer briefings are no secret. In fact, Apple has won many, many awards for its executive briefing program. For those new to this, an executive briefing is a formal event, lasting typically an entire day, in which Apple customers are invited to one of Apple's special briefing centers in Cupertino, New York or several other cities by special arrangement. There, they are briefed on topics of special interest, specified by the customer, by Apple technology experts. But the coolest place to do this is right on Apple's Cupertino campus.

Any company who is a major Apple customer needs to take advantage if this Apple program. You'll work with your account manager to specify an agenda, fly to San Jose (you pay) typically arrive the day before and go to dinner with selected Apple executives, (Apple pays) and spend the next day in briefings custom tailored to your needs. The briefing rooms are state-of-the-art. It's like sitting in the briefing room of Star Trek's Enterprise.

I always enjoyed hosting these events for customers because it got me on to the Apple Campus and in touch with the fabulous people in the Executive Briefing Center, provided an opportunity to get customers exposed to the wizardry of EBC briefers, opened customers eyes about Apple, and I always learned something new.

The fellowship with customers and other Apple employees was terrific.

Just remember, Apple believes in peer-to-peer discussions. And so, if your company has only a few hundred employees and sends its engineers, they'll meet Apple engineers. If you want to meet Steve Jobs, then it's expected that your Fortune 500 rank is higher than Apple's and you send your own President and CEO. And maybe he still won't get to see Steve depending on Steve's schedule.

I remember one time I was a consultant for a colleague who was conducting an executive briefing for a major federal customer. It was important to get Steve in the room with them, and so I was looking forward to that part of the briefing. But I was new to Apple, and so I was surprised when the sales team was escorted out of the briefing room as Steve came in. As Steve sat with the customer, the sales team that brought the customer in and was responsible for that customer's business was excluded.

It's an odd way of doing business.

How to Get Fired

At some companies, getting fired is hard to do. If you stick to your work assignment, don't steal office supplies, don't harass the other sex, don't do drugs, and don't assault anyone, it's fairly hard. I worked for a company once that was very respectful of employees and would even put people into a drug rehabilitation program at the company's expense if required. You could make a very small mistake and damage an expensive spacecraft; the result would be safety training, probably a letter of reprimand, and working under the supervision of someone else for awhile.

At Apple, things are different because customers are different. Apple has fanatic, almost religious customers who tremble at every utterance from any Apple employee. I almost got fired once, when I was a Senior Marketing Manager, for posting a comment on one of Apple's list servers regarding Apple's intentions for a feature of Mac OS X before it shipped in 2001. Alas, only Product Marketing (Phil Schiller's) organization, not Sales Marketing can make such pronouncements. It was my second month at Apple. I learned fast.

Another way to get fired is to ignore direct orders about keeping unannounced product details a secret. That's obvious. But there are minor events that can cause a stir. For example, occasionally for marketing and strategic reasons, Apple elects to deprecate certain features and states that only specified engineers can demo it or demo it in a certain context. If you decide, against orders, that your customer needs to see this feature demoed in order to close a sale, any other company would haul your butt in before a VP, ream you a new one, and hand you a letter of reprimand. At Apple, it'll probably be your last day at work.

Another easy way to get fired is to wine and dine your customers beyond what's considered reasonable in business affairs, act like a high roller jerk, and then try to palm it off as a travel expense. Apple has great products that speak for themselves, and so trying to buy a customer's business is frowned on. In this case, the fact that some other company may not be so quick to fire someone because he or she closed the deal is hardly comforting.

The day you process in, you'll be told about how Apple is a very high profile company. There are occasional threats to people and property. Many more against trade secrets. They don't mention this, but we observe in the media that stock holders sometimes seem trigger happy to litigate. And so Apple is forced into a situation where they have to lay down the law. It's hard for me make a value judgment because I never had to fire someone. Only those who have can characterize Apple's values.

Final Thoughts

The computer industry is a high-profile, high pressure, cut-throat business. Companies that engage in this business have to be able to shift strategy and resources almost on a dime. Apple's complete shift to Intel in 210 days is an excellent example of the nimbleness a company must have in today's climate. As a result, Apple has been known to summarily disband and dismiss entire groups -- not because their work was poor but because their product was overcome by events. It cannot be taken personally.

As with any company you go to work for, you get to pick the combinations of thrills, challenges, headaches and annoyances you like, but there is no perfect company except the one you own.

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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