Revealing how Steve Jobs runs Apple is like exposing the secrets behind a magician’s tricks. And several of the magician’s “assistants” just broke their code of silence.
In a lengthy feature titled “Inside Apple,” Fortune magazine’s editor at large Adam Lashinsky paints a clear picture of what it’s like to work at Apple, based on dozens of interviews with current or former employees at the company. In a nutshell: It’s a lot like working for a giant startup with a low tolerance for imperfection.
Take for example, the launch of Apple’s MobileMe web service in 2008, which was riddled with bugs and an embarrassing e-mail blackout for thousands of customers. This product release was so poor that critics labeled it “MobileMess.”
Jobs didn’t take it very well, according to Fortune.
“Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?” Jobs reportedly asked the MobileMe team after the fumbled launch. When he received an answer, he continued, “So why the fuck doesn’t it do that?”
Jobs didn’t stop there.
“You’ve tarnished Apple’s reputation,” he reportedly told the team. “You should hate each other for having let each other down.”
Jobs immediately named a new executive to run MobileMe, and shortly after the meeting, most of the team was disbanded.
Apple’s mercurial CEO is well-known for running the company like a ruthless dictator, on a level of secrecy comparable to the CIA. Fortune’s article does a thorough job unraveling the company culture at Apple, which recently surpassed Google to become the most valuable corporation in the world.
The last ambitious piece analyzing Apple’s culture came from Wired alum, Leander Kahney, in his 2008 cover story “How Apple Got Everything Right by Doing Everything Wrong.” Kahney interviewed several former employees, including Guy Kawasaki, who described Jobs as a manager who proved that “it’s OK to be an asshole.”
Kahney elaborated on why Apple’s culture of secrecy is good for the company: “… [T]he approach has been critical to its success, allowing the company to attack new product categories and grab market share before competitors wake up. It took Apple nearly three years to develop the iPhone in secret; that was a three-year head start on rivals.”
Adding more details to the Apple picture, Fortune offers a rather interesting nugget on an elite group at the company known as the Top 100. Jobs gathers these exceptional individuals to attend a top-secret, three-day strategy session at an undisclosed location. This event is so secret that members of the Top 100 are told not to mark the meeting on their calendars, and they’re not even allowed to drive to the location.
During the Top 100 meeting, Jobs and his top leaders “inform a supremely influential group about where Apple is headed,” Lashinsky writes. Here, some members of the Top 100 get on stage to present strategies or products that signal the company’s future. According to one employee, Jobs first showed the iPod to employees during a Top 100 meeting.
Outside of the theatrical Top 100 events, Jobs meets with executives every Monday to discuss important projects, and on Wednesdays he holds a marketing and communications meeting, Fortune claims.
There’s no excuse for employees to have any confusion after a meeting. An effective Apple meeting will include an “action list,” and next to each action item is a “DRI” — a directly responsible individual who must ensure the task is accomplished.
As for senior employees such as vice presidents, Jobs reportedly gives the same speech to all of them. Basically, when you’re a high-level employee, you have no excuses for screwing up:
“When you’re the janitor,” Jobs has repeatedly told incoming VPs, “reasons matter.” He continues: “Somewhere between the janitor and the CEO, reasons stop mattering.”
And perhaps the most fascinating tidbit from the article is about a program called Apple University.
Before his second medical leave three years ago, Jobs hired Joel Podolny, dean of the Yale School of Management, to lead Apple University. Podolny has hired a team of business professors to write a series of internal case studies about Apple’s most significant decisions in recent history.
The purpose? To ensure that Apple will remain Apple, in the event that Jobs were to depart. Investors and technology observers have debated for years whether Apple can continue to be so successful without the visionary leader that has shaped the company from day one.
That remains an open question, but Apple University’s sole purpose seems to be preparing for the day that the show must go on without the magician.