An Optimistic View of The Apple Re-Org
Some background links here:
From inside Apple, the Scott Forstall fallout which includes links worth following for more good commentary.
I’m optimistic. Very optimistic. Note the headline of Apple’s Press Release, it’s telling: “Apple Announces Changes to Increase Collaboration Across Hardware, Software & Services”
Over the years, I’ve enjoyed several opportunities to work pretty closely with various people and teams at Apple, in particular the QuickTime team but others I can’t mention and in all those experiences, I’ve found Apple to be staffed by shockingly smart people. Smart in ways that, to my mind, are vastly superior to the obvious brilliance of the Google and Microsoft employees I’ve worked with.
Anyone fairly senior in a tech company, especially in engineering, has to be smart and often a hell of a lot smarter technically than me, but smart is a much deeper thing than the ability to calculus in your head or or keep a mental map of all the personal information Google can collect about you and how it can be used to
exploit you, provide you better services. The smart people I’ve enjoyed working with at Apple (and some at Microsoft too actually) play musical instruments, cook gourmet food, race cars, do creative and challenging things deeper, more personal interesting than just code. The smart people I hire when I make my better choices are content-smart, user-smart, life-smart. Apple is overwhelmingly well staffed by this more well rounded kind of smart, the better kind of smart.
What’s always stymied these smart people I’ve worked with, and some have told me outright and others done a great job of ‘not telling me’ by answering questions with the word “So…” followed by a long pregnant pause and careful control of eye contact when the answer in an officially acceptable way is that collaboration is a problem between teams at Apple. They tell me, particularly since the return of Steve, the policies of secrecy and the inter-group competitiveness engendered by Steve’s style made collaboration difficult. I’m bound by personal NDA’s (as in, ‘don’t talk about this or you breach our personal trust’ NDA’s which are far more binding than the NDA’s of ‘don’t talk about this or I’ll sue you’ NDAs) not to be specific here but if you read between the lines in interviews with and even sometimes in public documentation, one group who relied on another for the ‘plumbing’ didn’t get to see the actual plumbing until late in the game and the product suffered for it or was unable to get the resources to invest in plumbing that an App needed to function.
‘Increase Collaboration’ Sure, sounds like corporate-speak. Apple’s not normal. They don’t tend to do ‘corporate-speak’. Read their contracts. Read their PR. Listen to them in interviews. There’s always the overt and the veiled message. The veiled message is often quite clear if you pay close attention. Here, the surface and underlying messages are congruent completely and that makes the message all the louder and, therefore, likely sincere: “We’re done with infighting and jockeying for position. We’re done with the platforms and system services groups having to compete with the applications groups for resources. We’re done core services groups having to justify their own bottom lines when they are essential to initiatives that serve the whole bottom line. We’re done with MBA-old-school approaches to retail staffing and management. We’re going to work together to do what we do best starting right-the-#$%^-now.”
Now, I see a plan. I see Tim Cook saying “These guys (and it’s a shame it’s all guys and no women) are large-and-in-charge and they are the adults. They can and will work together and enjoy doing it and our products will be better for it. When our products are better, customers are happier. When customers are happier, we make more money. When we make more money, shareholders are happier and we keep our jobs.” I see Tim being the adult supervision and choosing people with visibly impressive track records for being capable, mature and collaborative to act as his lieutenants in making Apple better.
I’ve met with Phil Schiller several times and even had to go to him once to pitch him with a problem I saw and while we didn’t agree when we spoke, I’ve seen the feedback I’ve given him (and no, it wasn’t just me, I was one of hundreds of people Apple was working closely with at the same time were saying the same things privately) manifest itself as positive changes every user saw and benefited from. I’ve met Bob Mansfield and he’s a very reflective and deep thinking guy. Those are the two I’ve met and can tell you from my gut are brilliant, effective at their jobs and genuinely interested in doing ‘the right thing’ for customers as the means to make Apple succeed.
I see meaningful thoughtfulness in every word I’ve read and heard from Jony Ive. He passes my bozo-stink test even as he waxes rhapsodic about idealistic views of design. He’s the real deal. I’ve been told by people I trust who work with him that Eddy Cue is surreally capable and a truly decent guy in a meaningful way. (Apple doesn’t need iTunes U as a profit center. Why do they bother?)
It’s clear to anyone who regularly engages with Apple Retail that John Browett was screwing that operation up badly and making employees miserable. Miserable people who’s entire job is representing the company face to face with customers can’t be fully effective no matter how hard they try. I’ve actually been amazed at how good the Geniuses I’ve dealt with as things were getting rough managed to be but there was increasingly visible strain on their faces and in their tone.
My wildly optimistic and likely to be mocked by my ‘in the know friends in the industry’ predictions are as follows:
1- We’ll see long-standing broken things start to get fixed. Think of the evolution of FinalCut X from innovative and interesting but customer-alienating-disaster to iteratively improving new tool. Think of that incremental and positive attention starting to get applied to OS X and OS X Server. Consider that it’s already started. Mountain Lion is the “Oops, we’re sorry” follow-up release to Lion in much the same way Snow Leopard was to Leopard. Here’s hoping the next big cat won’t need an “I’m sorry” release. We’ll see Apple do a better job of keeping the software up to the same standards of ‘build quality’ they have for the hardware.
2- We’ll see changes in how Apple manages secrecy. No, Apple will never do the kinds of roadmap press events and developer briefings Microsoft does but we will see them bringing back some of the kinds of programs they used to have that had selected customers briefed under ironclad NDAs. We’ll see indications that within Apple, teams can actually talk to each other in ways that improve the products.
3- We’ll see Apple do more for the Enterprise. We’ll see another Mac Pro with Thunderbolt because Apple recognizes that low volume ‘pro’ products keep them from being forced out of managed I.T. environments. We’ll see Apple act like they know I.T.-friendly, Pro-Friendly tools and give them much needed toe-holds in the “I use it at home and I use it work” two way street that made Windows the dominant platform and continues to make it the market leader today.
That’s my optimism about the meaning of this management re-organization.
Ok, I lied, I’m not quite as optimistic as I seem. Yes, I do see real hope from this management change, but really this piece is my little foray into the game of two messages in one. The first is to you, dear readers, to inspire you to look for the positive and also demand it from Apple, the second is to Tim Cook begging him to make me right.
P.S. It’s weird to me that nobody in the press I’ve read so far seems to have twigged to the fact that if Bob Mansfield was ‘un-retired’ he must have been somebody very highly regarded. It’s spun negatively that he had announced leaving and is now an even bigger kahuna but I see this is an indication of Tim Cook’s strength as a manager. Be willing to make it worthwhile for a good person who could retire to stay on and do more.