Apple employees are usually not permitted to talk to the media about the notoriously secretive company or its products.
But it’s not every day that a tech company makes it to 40 and is not in some form of corporate hospice, so on Thursday, six workers were given (nearly) free reign to talk about the company, its culture and what makes it stand out in Silicon Valley.
The world’s most valuable company still feels like a small place with unlimited possibilities, said the six employees — some old-timers, some relative newbies.
Of course, if you are one of the 100,000 people who work at Apple, chances are you are a true believer. You are steeped in the company’s lore and drawn to the ideals Apple says it aspires to, making high-quality products that delight customers.
Still, I’ve always wondered how they succeed: Employees at Apple have to straddle the past and future every day under a global spotlight as consumers and competitors watch the company’s every move.
Bud Tribble, who worked at Apple in the early days and then returned with co-founder Steve Jobs, said the company’s DNA is essentially the same as it was in the 1980s.
“We felt we were going to change the world. We felt like the products we were making were going to be part of people’s life. And we made them so that we ourselves would love those products,” said Tribble, now vice president of software technology at Apple who was on the original Mac team. “Those constants are a real source of strength and consistency for the company. We had no idea back then that Apple would grow to be the size that it is … . Yet here we are.”
Apple, more than any other Silicon Valley company, broke from the traditional view of the tech employee, hiring people from a variety of backgrounds: the musician, the anthropologist and even some like Tribble with a medical background.
The company culture then and now cultivates among its workers a sense that its mission is not about making glorified typewriters and suped-up phones. Its nothing less than making “a dent in the universe,” as Jobs once said. That zeal and sense of purpose may help explain why today’s employees still sound like those who started 10, 20 and even 30 years ago.
Nothing is off the shelf for Apple. The hardware and software are made and married in-house.
“You are almost creating art in a way,” said Cheryl Thomas, a senior software engineer who has been at Apple for 27 years. “There’s beauty in that.”
The employees talked about the first time they met an Apple recruiter, and recalled the ups and downs the company experienced as it cycled through CEOs in the early to mid-1990s.
The hard times, though, had their upside. “I stayed because I realized I was learning so much,” said Deirdre O’Brien, who has worked at Apple for nearly 30 years and is now a vice president working on the supply chain operations team. “We were managing a really complicated situation. It’s a good skill to have.”
Jobs’ return and his emphasis on talking about where the company wanted to go began to improve employee morale. So, too, did the 1997 “Think Different” ad campaign featuring people like Albert Einstein, John Lennon and many other famous icons.
The ad helped remind the company itself why it existed, said Greg Joswiak, a veteran Apple employee and vice president on the worldwide marketing team.
“PCs and Windows seemed to rule the world. That commercial explained us as a company. I still get goose bumps. We were going to be the ones to watch.”
There were tough years for Apple, too, after the dot-com bust of the early 2000s. Eleven straight quarters of no growth. And yet the company created many of its pivotal products, including the iPod, during this period.
Apple just announced that 1 billion of its devices are in use. Apple’s strategy of cannibalizing existing products with newer ones has proved itself over and over again. It has also fostered a sense of opportunity in the workplace.
“We feel like a small company every day,” O’Brien said. “We are not worried about protecting things. It’s a very positive rather than a maintenance approach.”
That feeling is appreciated by relatively newer employees.
“The teams internally feel like startups,” said Divya Nag, who joined Apple two years ago to work on the company’s health technologies team. They want to challenge the status quo and be the disrupter.”
That intimacy sometimes obscures the true size and scope of Apple.
“I have to remind myself how big we are,” said Jay Blahnik, who has also been with Apple for two years and is a director working on health and fitness technologies. “You don’t feel stuck here.”
The employees didn’t delve much into the company’s recent controversy with the U.S. government about privacy and the security of its technology. But there was pride in Apple’s stance to resist government intrusion in favor of consumer privacy, even when the firm faced intense criticism, Joswiak said.
“It would have been easier to acquiesce,” he said.
In traditional Silicon Valley style, Apple’s top execs and rank and file will gather Friday afternoon for a beer party to celebrate.
Then they will be back at work on Monday, trying again to change the world.
After all, as Thomas said, doing so “does take some time.”
Apple and employment
100,000 — Apple’s direct employees
2 million — Number of U.S. jobs Apple is responsible for, including 1.4 million in the iOS app economy
1.46 million — Number of European jobs Apple is responsible for, including 1.2 million in the iOS app economy
4.4 million — Number of jobs Apple is responsible for in China, including at least 1.4 million in the iOS app economy