2013-05-16

Why Working At Apple Isn't Your Career Peak

Getting a gig at 1 Infinite Loop is considered the end of the road by the technorati. But a new book suggests what you learn at Apple might only be useful once you've left.



For his book The Apple Revolution, Luke Dormehl spoke to dozens of former Apple employees. I sat down with Dormehl to talk to him about what he learned—and found that the pinnacle of many former employees’ careers wasn't in what they did at the company, but what they went on to do after.

Tell me about some of the people you got the chance to speak with?

I was incredibly fortunate with the number of people I got to interview for this book: around 70 in total. There were Apple employees spanning every era of the company’s history, as well as people who worked at NeXT, Pixar, and a large number of others who came into contact with Steve Jobs and Wozniak over the years. Since I knew that most people would be familiar with the Apple story to some degree already, I really wanted to “flesh out” aspects of the company’s history: whether that meant delving into the creation of some of its most successful pieces of iconography (the creation of the “1984” ad and the logo, for example), looking at some of some of Apple’s forgotten innovations, like the groundbreaking—if painfully slow—Lisa computer and the oft-maligned Newton handheld, or tracing the pre-Apple history of Industrial Design Senior VP Sir Jony Ive in the most comprehensive way I’ve yet come across. I’m confident that people will find new information and perspectives about Apple they won’t have previously heard about.

You mentioned to me before the interview that some of the people at Apple have gone on to do some other interesting work...

That’s right. When you look at Apple’s iconic products, the temptation is to somehow see the people that were part of these extraordinary teams as having only worked on the product lines and projects that we best know them for. In a sense, being involved with something like the original Macintosh is a bit like being one of the first astronauts: What do you do after that extraordinary, definitive high point? Steve Jobs, of course, went on to revolutionize a number of different products and industries, but Steve Jobs is the exception to a great many rules. A lot of former Applers, of course, were inspired enough to go on to found their own startups after leaving the company. They’re doing things as varied as building the world’s first “smart thermostat” (in the case of iPod guru Tony Fadell), imagining new ways of organizing our information and personal files (in the case of former Apple marketing director Michael Mace), and working on a memristor to succeed dynamic RAM and flash memory (in the case of Rich Page, one of the first four Apple Fellows). In many cases, their stories just begin with Apple. Then there are people like Andy Hertzfeld, one of the brilliant designers for the original Macintosh software, who is now working over at Google.

Really?

That’s right. A couple of years ago he was one of the designers of Google+, working on the Circles user interface. He’s been there for almost 10 years now, which is wonderful since when it comes to software he really is one of a relatively small group of true artists working in high-tech. In my book he talked a bit about the similarities and differences between Google and Apple, which only get more interesting as the relationship changes between the two companies. They are, of course, incredibly different in terms of their approach. Google is far more open than Apple in everything from its approach to source code to its dealings with the press, but it also shares a lot of the same ideology that Apple does. It’s an ideology-based company that believes, quite fervently, that high-tech can benefit the world. Not a lot of today’s high-tech companies have mission statements that couch what they’re doing in quasi-political terms. Facebook does, Google does, and Apple does. In that way I’m not surprised that a former member of the Macintosh team would find themselves starting out at Apple and, 20 years later, ending up at Google.

Even with Silicon Valley migration being what it is, do you see people taking what they’ve learned at Apple and applying it elsewhere?

Absolutely. Silicon Valley is a unique place; one of the only places in the world where starting your own business can be viewed as a form of rebellion. Even in that environment, though, Apple can be seen as fairly unique. There are, of course, small things you notice among former Apple employees: a shared vocabulary, for example. But there are bigger things, too: the idea that Steve Jobs inculcated that products can’t just be “good enough”; they have to change the world. As I mentioned, former Apple employees have gone on to a number of different industries and businesses, but that belief in the world-changing possibilities offered by technology carries with them. Perhaps most obviously we see this in the Apple-inspired principles of design: the notion that things should be—as Einstein once said—as simple as possible, but no simpler. Sometimes that takes the form of, for instance, product managers taking the lead on a project, because they’re the ones who understand and are advocates for the user. This is, of course, a very different scenario to what is increasingly the Silicon Valley norm, where—as with Google—it’s the engineers who are king. I’ve heard this approach described as Apple’s attempt to “systematize intuition” rather than the Google approach of systematizing logical analysis. That meeting point between engineering and art is very much an Apple value, and that’s something that can be applied to a wide range of disciplines.

Your book is called The Apple Revolution, but it seems that one of the things people worry about now is that the company is not revolutionizing anymore.

For all the revolutionary shake-ups that Apple has brought into the mainstream over the years, there was always going to be a bit of an issue calling the book what I did. After all, with the term “revolution” running parallel to “counter-culture” you would be quite correct in asking what possible computing culture the largest high-tech company in the world could be running counter to. And that was before Steve Jobs died, and people started hand-wringing about the end of innovation. Like most people I’ve heard the rumors of an Apple television set and an Apple watch as potential new product lines. Are either of those likely to be the next iPhone or iPad? I’m not convinced that they are. Nor am I sure that sacrificing the high margins by making cheaper iPhones is, by itself, necessarily the best way to move forward as a brand.

Where should Apple be looking to innovate?

What is interesting about Apple is that it has always taken the view that, if it doesn’t cannibalize its own product lines, someone else will do it for them. I’ve recently been playing with Microsoft’s Surface, which serves as a hybrid between tablet and laptop computing. As much as I like the versatility, it’s still not a perfect product by any means. Could Apple take some of those ideas and apply them successfully to its next generation of iPad? That’s a possibility—but doing so significantly eats into its MacBook line. These are the kinds of difficult questions that need to be posed in order to continue Apple’s position as wave maker, rather than wave rider. But if history has shown us anything, it is that counting Apple out—or underestimating its capacity for making sideways leaps in terms of business—is never where the smart money is.

The Apple Revolution: Steve Jobs, the Counterculture and How the Crazy Ones Took Over the World is published by Virgin Books and available in bookstores, on Amazon, Kindle, and the iBookstore.

[Apple Tree: Mazzzur via Shutterstock]




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