Last week I was able to catch up with three great friends who I worked with at Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL). It has been 17 years since I left, and it felt like a surrealistic dream sitting in the cafeteria watching thousands of people going through, recognizing a few here and there, but after 17 years there were few familiar faces.
At one point in our conversation, one friend said Apple needs a person like Steve Jobs, because it needs a Dictator. I agreed, but offered a better description. What Apple needs is a Chief Showman, and Jobs fills that role well. We continued the conversation that almost all product development is done in Cupertino as people need to be close to Jobs to show their progress. The only product development outside the area is international localization. While almost all high tech companies have shifted development outside the US, Apple is alone focusing development in the US surrounding its corporate campus. Working in small development teams to drive innovation.
But, that is not the secret.
When Steve Jobs was pushed out in 1985, John Sculley had his phase. Then Sculley was pushed out and Michael Spindler had his stint, and was pushed out. Then Ellen Hancock and Gil Amelio. This last phase was some of the darkest days of Apple with losses and low stock price. Ellen Hancock brought in the IBM mindset. In 1997, Apple purchased NeXT, and Steve Jobs was able orchestrate the removal of Gil and Ellen.
Recognize a pattern? Apple went through a series of managers that was focused on a Top Down Management approach as sited in one of the wikipedia posts above.
In 2007, Jobs summed up his predecessor's tenure with a quote that he attributed to Amelio:
"Apple is like a ship with a hole in the bottom, and my job is to point the ship in the right direction"
Apple was able to reject the cancerous growth of clueless management who knew little about developing great product products like the Apple II and Mac. It started with John Sculley, then the cancer grew with Michael Spindler, and became life threatening with Gil Amelio and Ellen Hancock. Upper and Middle management was in a “careerism” mode.
Apple was in danger of going out of business, and Microsoft was hovering with the success of Windows 95 to squash the Mac. Steve Jobs was able to cut the cancer off and remove it from Apple’s culture. It took a while to recover, but Apple has had steady growth since 1997.
For the good of industry we can hope Steve Jobs recovers from his latest illness. He has shown a different way of developing products that beats all the rest of the industry. Apple has beat back Microsoft and the PC industry, the audio/video players, and gone from nowhere to be “the phone”. Apple is competing against the broadest range of technology companies and winning consistently.
I’ve had the pleasure of being at Apple for 7 years and working at Microsoft for 14 years watched it as an outsider, yet having insights to how Microsoft has tried to compete against Apple.
Apple’s secret is it is a cancer survivor, rejecting a way that doomed its existence.