Oh, Apple, That Thing You Do (Part I)

"A corporation is a living organism; it has to continue to shed its skin. Methods have to change. Focus has to change. Values have to change. The sum total of those changes is transformation."

-- Andy Grove

No company with more than one employee is perfect. Changing companies often simply replaces one set of problems with another set. So if you're thinking about going to work for Apple, or even some other company, and you're wondering what's good and bad about Apple for comparison, I'm going to describe the ten best things about working for Apple and the worst.

I worked for Apple in the 2000 to 2005 time frame. During that time, I found that Apple does some things fantastically well and some things not so well. Often, I've had people ask me what it was like to work there, so I made a list of the ten or so things on each side of the fence.

By way of background, the best job I ever had was with Martin Marietta Energy Systems, essentially the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in the 1990s. I had some great managers and almost unlimited computing resources. But for pure exhilaration, and maybe the best manager I ever had, (you know who you are), Apple is hard to beat.

I'll start with the not so great things I experienced at Apple:

The Not So Great

1. Apple, under Steve Jobs, loves to do periodic, small scale purges. This is also in Apple's DNA, and it's therapeutic, like blood letting. Apple hires the best, on paper, but the environment of Apple is a lot like the pressure cooker of the TV show, The West Wing. Some thrive and some do not.

Eventually, Apple identifies people who just aren't thriving -- or their project is not doing well -- and lays off small projects and/or individuals. It's never enough to notify the state government, and since the whole purpose is to get rid of certain people, they're never given a chance to relocate within the company before being laid off. Consider it ISO "Continuous Improvement" and just get used to it.

2. Apple never seems to be able to scale the heights of the highest levels of technical excellence in certain technical areas, system security, high performance networking and system performance, because it's a consumer oriented company, not IBM who caters to scientists. (Duh.)

That happens for several reasons: Apple doesn't generally hire and retain at lot of top-flight Ph.Ds as staff except for the Advanced Computation Group headed by Dr. Richard Crandall. Also, Apple jealously maintains its degrees of freedom to act and, so, tends not to partner deeply with say, U.S. National Laboratories or notable research organizations.

As a result, while Apple builds terrific hardware for consumers, there is always that slight lag behind the very best computational gear, clusters, benchmarks for government procurement, the way IBM and Cray work with National Laboratories, and so on. It's expected but can be irritating when trying to sell to those groups.

3. Apple has had some problems in the past accounting for all its field sales. For a company that prides itself on the perfection of its image, products and security, it didn't do a very good job when I was there of accounting for federal sales.

While the rest of the company was a marvel of software excellence, our team was given Excel spreadsheets supplied by resellers (each in a different format) which we had to process by hand. And then when our carefully crunched numbers didn't reconcile with internal estimates, the team numbers were often dismissed. The sales commission was just to painful to pay it seemed. For juicy details and a stolen sales deal, here's the mind bending story by a former Apple executive. I was there and lived through it, so I can vouch for his story.

4. One has to be immensely careful in all communications. Even more so than the stories and rumors that float around on the Internet. The slightest thing one says, in person, or in a communication, can blow up.

When I first joined Apple, I was a science marketing manager -- but I was in the Sales group not the Product Marketing group. You'd think it was my job to communicate to science customers, but the reality was that the product communication had very carefully defined parameters - by P.M., not Sales.

In 2000, people were curious about whether Mac OS X would ship with a terminal app. It wasn't at all clear because some felt it violated the simplicity rules of the Mac, and it might scare off customers.

I learned that it would be, and I said so on an Apple mailing list.  That, in turn, made it into the Apple news media. I almost got fired because the Mac OS X Product Manager hadn't yet made that formal decision publicly. I had to apologize to Phil Schiller, and my manager talked him out of firing me because I was a newbie. I never made that mistake again.

5. Apple is paranoid about empty briefing rooms in a public presentation. I think it's born of the days in the 1990s when Apple got no respect and empty briefing rooms smacked of the embarrassment of a failing company. Even so, I have seen meeting rooms downsized on purpose when a good crowd was expected just for the sake of having the glitz of SRO. It's hard to estimate attendance at many events, which is why Apple requires pre-registration. So, on the whole, Apple does well. However, when always carried to extremes it creates a sense of penny pinching and rudeness to professional, non fanboy customers. They feel it.

6. Apple also is allergic to interacting too much with customers personally -- unless it's at one of the retail stores or field sales.  Regrettably, some customers become cloying fanboys, and Apple hates to have their regular employees in Cupertino exposed to them. That goes a long way towards explaining why Apple has pulled out of the Expos and why they like to outsource. It's hard to be a fanboy with a GTSI sales guy who knows not so much and can't be held to his promises on behalf of Apple.

I always had the feeling that if Apple were able to train its people better and work more closely to trust the high caliber people it hires, it could benefit from a better, more professional dialogue with customers.

7. Apple's generally doesn't give people raises because most employees are so happy to be working for Apple -- and fearful of being fired by Mr. Jobs -- they don't worry about raises. However, small bonuses are given for great work. Also, the giddiness over receiving a free iPhone can fold under the pressure of the spouse pointing out that a 3 percent raise for most is worth many, many iPhones and pays the household bills.

8. Apple employees are third world citizens at Apple events like Macworld (in previous years) and WWDC. Staff have the privilege of working for Apple and, accordingly, customers (or developers) always come first. Unfortunately, when Mr. Jobs was giving the some of the most notable keynotes in history, Apple staff got moved off into overflow seating to watch on a big screen display. This is perfectly understandable in an SRO situation with major Press in attendance. Also perfectly frustrating for new employees.

9. In my subjective experience, having been exposed to many different situations, it seemed to me that Apple would often bend over backwards with a channel partner or other entity, either in verbal promises or apparent business partnerships. in order to get ahead. That was when Apple was needy.

Then, as Apple prospered, those agreements, became a hindrance, and the recipient of the mild betrayal actually thought Apple was going to be a gentleman partner, when, in fact, Apple needed to look after its own best interests. That's business as usual, but it has created bad feelings along the way for some. Unfortunately, Apple never seemed to be able to handle it in a way that earned respect instead of disgruntlement.

10. Along the lines of #2 above, many Apple Product Managers don't have a strong technical education. They're very strong on public speaking, correct Apple politics, and product technologies -- but sometimes lacking in academic background. I remember one time, I set up a briefing for the NASA chief of high performance computing, a Ph.D. I carefully briefed the Mac OS X product manager on some key technical issues related to the briefing, who his audience would be, and he soaked it all in, agreeing to address the important stuff. But when the actual briefing came, he lapsed into irrelevant things like Spotlight and Parental Controls. It was a disaster.

Well, that's the downside. Of course, Apple is generally a great company to work for if one can stick to engineering and stay out of the sales politics. And since it's been a few years, it's possible many of these things I described have been fixed. In Part II next week, I'll describe the really great stuff that made Apple a joy to work for.