Oct 092011

Apple Campus, 1 Infinite Loop - Sign

Steve Jobs was well known as an impossibly difficult person to work for, generating both fierce loyalty and profound fear among employees. For all the words written this week, one of the most striking articles was done back in May by Adam Lashinsky (Senior Editor at Large at Fortune). It provides more details than most on the work environment inside the headquarters at 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, CA, a near impossible task given Apple’s secrecy (even former staff members are reticent to talk openly about their experience). It also has an insufferably long title, “From Steve Jobs down to the janitor: How America’s most successful – and most secretive – big company really operates.

You know in something like this there will be stories of Jobs elevating or demoting staff based on his immediate reaction to their work. And it doesn’t disappoint with a recounting of a meeting between him and the development team for MobileMe. At one point, he’s not happy with MobileMe, calls the team together, rips into the entire group and before the meeting was over, had replaced the person in charge of the project. In short, you produced, or you got out of the way. As former staff Andrew Borovsky, a former Apple designer who runs the New York design shop 80/20 put it:

On a regular basis you either get positive feedback or are told to stop doing stupid shit.

The Inner Circle: (from left) Jonathan Ive, Phil Schiller, Eddy Cue, and Scott Forstall, on the Apple campus in 2010.

But the most fascinating insights comes not from these accounts but from the way Steve Jobs reinvented Apple, creating one of the world’s largest technology companies that had the heart and soul of start-up just getting off the ground. Perhaps not surprising given that he was involved in all facets of the company from food in the cafeteria to the design of the buses that carried employees back and forth from San Francisco.

So here’s what is striking in an environment with a single-minded focus on detail, deeply secretive, and where constant (and unforgiving) feedback was the norm:

  • The creative process involved continually preparing someone – “be it one’s boss, one’s boss’s boss, or oneself” – to make a presentation to him. And everything rode on these presentations.
  • Jobs liked to tell a story of a janitor who didn’t empty the garbage in an office for days as the locks had been changed. The janitor had a reason – and a valid one at that – as he didn’t have the keys, but as you move up the increasing levels of responsibility to a VP, reasons simply become excuses. They no longer matter, serving only as justifications for failure.
  • Every facet of every project, every meeting agenda, and every action item that came out of meetings seemed to have a DRI – a Directly Responsible Individual.
  • Only one person – the Chief Financial Officer – focused specifically on P/L, profit and loss. Everyone else keeps their eye on process and products.
  • Specialization is the key. Each person focuses on one thing and does it best-in-class. For, example Ron Johnson who handles Apple’s retail stores doesn’t have to deal with inventory as that was handled by Tim Cook.

An executive who worked at both Microsoft and Apple described the different corporate visions this way:

Microsoft (MSFT) tries to find pockets of unrealized revenue and then figures out what to make. Apple is just the opposite: It thinks of great products, then sells them. Prototypes and demos always come before spreadsheets.

And that was Steve Jobs. He created a work environment that had the agility, flexibility and the ruthlessness to act like a start-up even though it has 50,000 employees, almost 100 billion in revenue and a 60% growth rate. And just how successful was this approach? I don’t want to fall back on numbers, but the following chart reveal an astonishing record:


Apple Under Steve Jobs - 1997-2011

You didn’t need a spreadsheet; you needed an idea and a means of executing it. If you focused solely on the product, and organized everyone around functions instead of reporting lines and profit and loss, the rest would take care of itself.

And indeed, it has.

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