Career Advice Jan 24 2012

Selling Your Soul to Work at Apple

By joseph walker

With a market capitalization second only to Exxon's, Apple's business and brand are the envy of corporate America. Yet little is known about how Apple operates or what life is like for its employees.

In his new book, Inside Apple: How America's Most Admired – and Secretive – Company Really Works, author and journalist Adam Lashinsky details a corporate culture in which internal and external transparency is shunned, and the best Apple employees are both "egoless and fanatical."

Lashinsky, a senior editor-at-large at Fortune, talked with FINS about why Apple employees rarely quit, how pockets within the company have retained a start-up feel, and why anyone would take what he calls the "Faustian bargain" of being berated by superiors in exchange for working on the world's most revered consumer electronics.

Joseph Walker: You describe a culture of extreme secrecy and insularity. Is Apple a cult?

Adam Lashinksy: I think cult is too strong a word with the negative connotations of Jim Jones and drinking the Kool-Aid. There is life after Apple, for sure. But there are cult-like aspects to it. To be specific, employees who join other companies retain more of their own personalities. When you join Apple, it's understood that you're more or less giving up your personality and adopting Apple's personality.

JW: Apple employees don't get to talk with outsiders or the media about their work at Apple or even that they work at the company. What's so cool about a company that you can't even brag to your friend about working at?

AL: There's the pride and the satisfaction of knowing that you're contributing to something great. This isn't for everyone, clearly. You could ask the same question of someone who works at the CIA. What's the good of it if you can't brag that you're a spy? It seems a little silly, but it isn't. Apple employees know what they're doing and what they're accomplishing. I describe the scene of an employee in a bar looking around and seeing everyone using an iPhone. The downside is you don't get to jawbone about it.

JW: What is Apple's attrition rate like?

AL: It's relatively low. Recruiters who recruit engineers say that it is relatively difficult to get engineers out of Apple. There's this mythical Apple engineer who's dreamt of working at Apple since their first Macintosh. Those people have a sense of mission and they don't leave. If employees wash out at Apple they wash out quickly. They realize right away that it's not for them. You can think of it as a hazing period.

JW: You write that Apple has worked hard to create small project teams and cut middle management. Do Apple employees actually feel like they've escaped the bureaucracy of working at a big company?

AL: It's a mixed bag. If you're somebody who's been plucked from what you're doing to work on a golden project, then yes, you operate in this splendid isolation of a start-up but with the resources of the world's second most valuable company.

I think this is the magic that has completely eluded other big companies. They say we're going to create this team and they'll operate on the side, but then they force people to attend meetings and go on cross-functional committees. When Apple does it, they really set them aside. It seems simple, but it's something other companies consistently can't do.

Other people in the organization tell me that Apple is every bit as stodgy as any big company, and this is particularly true if you're working in one of the more mundane parts of the company like customer service or the less glamorous products like Mac software.

JW: You write about Apple's intense and narrow focus on just a few products. When the iPhone ends up taking precedence over the Mac operating system, doesn't that cause dissension among employees?

AL: There's no question. It feels like crap. Institutionally, Apple doesn't care about your feelings. And I say institutionally purposely. I'm sure there are human beings who care, but the ethos of the organization is to not be concerned about how you feel about the assignment given to you. And there's a reason for this. Shareholders don't necessarily care about whether you feel good this morning; they care about whether you're kicking ass in making an iPad.

It's almost like this old company town on steroids, because on the one hand you do everything for the greater glory and good of Apple. But on the other hand, it's not like you're being abused. You're paid well, the surroundings are comfortable. The demands are realistic, but hard.

JW: How do engineers and technical employees get singled out as exceptional?

AL: I describe Apple as shockingly functional for such a large organization. Apple values expertise as opposed to general management skills. Apple values software engineers who are skilled at working with hardware designers, but that's not the only skill. They value everyone who's good at what it is that they do. It almost becomes mythical. They take pride in finding the best possible person that can be found.

Steve Jobs once bragged that Apple had hired the best metallurgist in the world, because metals are important for MacBooks and MacBook Airs.

When he appeared before the Cupertino City Council to discuss the company's new campus, he made this seemingly off-the-cuff boast about how Apple had hired one of the world's leading arborists to go buy and plant apricot trees. This seems silly, but it was a classic Jobsean touch.

JW: Where do Apple employees come from?

AL: It varies by function. Jobs's senior management had stayed with him for a very long time. Many of them came from NeXT, and the ones who hadn't had already been at Apple when he got there.

The company is full of paradoxes. While Jobs and the people around him have a software engineering/liberal arts major bent about them, many of the people who work on the operational side of the company under Tim Cook are from IBM.

I write about the combination of software engineer and liberal arts that's embodied perfectly in Scott Forstall [senior vice president of iOS software]. He was a teenage thespian; he's this nerd who can communicate well, which is an invaluable skill at Apple.

JW: You write Apple doesn't put much value in providing clear career development paths for most employees. Why is that?

AL: It's a radical notion because business schools teach that what you want to do is develop your people, expose them to other things. Think about companies that move their managers around the world so they can become broader and better. And Apple rejects that. I'm not judging this, but you can see where this leads to excellence.

This is your expertise, why would I want you to stop giving the company the benefit of your expertise? There's an upside and a downside. The downside is that you may feel like you're not growing. This is a tension at Apple that is unresolved.

JW: Jobs was infamous for berating employees as bozos and even worse. Does that kind of behavior extend beyond Jobs?

AL: Yes, it's absolutely part of the deal. It's part of the Faustian bargain of working at Apple. If you can take it, you get to go along for the ride. If you can't, you're not cut out for Apple. The bottom line is that the way he treated people is tolerated down the line.

To put a head on this, we're entering a brave new world for them. All sorts of things are going to change for them and we don't know how. There's no question that the company under Tim Cook will change. They'll have to think about this -- can they sustain it?

Write to Joseph Walker at Joseph.Walker@dowjones.com



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