Former Apple engineer says Tim Cook made Apple a ‘boring operations company’
Ex-employee claims organisation at the tech giant 10 years ago was wild but rewarding
There’s less internal conflict inside Apple — and that’s not necessarily a good thing, according to one former employee.
Bob Burrough, a former Apple engineer, told CNBC that the invention of the iPhone came, in part, out of the chaos of Apple under co-founder Steve Jobs.
“At Apple in 2007, organisationally it was the wild west,” Burrough said. “I was hired under a particular manager, but for the first two years worked on projects that had virtually nothing to do with that manager’s core responsibility. That’s because the organisation wasn’t the priority, the projects were the priority. It was the exact opposite of ‘not my job.’ It was ‘I’m here to solve whatever problems I can, irrespective of my role, my title, or to whom I report.’ It was wild. But it was also very rewarding, because everything you did had maximal impact on the product.”
But today, the “dynamic has clearly and distinctly changed,” and Apple is much closer to his job at Palm, said Burrough, who most recently founded a 3D printing company called Bilt It.
“Working at Palm, the teams were highly organisational, [hierarchical] and responsibilities were siloed,” Burrough said. “There was a clear sense that each person had a clear responsibility, and rarely deviated from it. When you went to someone for help solving a problem ‘not my job’ was a common response.”
Tim Cook, who took over as Apple CEO in 2011, has made the company the richest in the world. Apple has nearly doubled its annual revenue under Cook, from US$108.2 billion in 2011 to US$215.7 billion in 2016. Cook has also replaced challenging leaders from the Steve Jobs era, such as Scott Forstall, who led the iOS platform used on the iPhone and iPad, but reportedly clashed with Cook and other Apple execs.
But while Apple has pumped out money, it has also faced grumbles that it’s been slow to innovate in areas like self-driving cars, TV and video, and the Internet of Things. Despite introducing new products like the Apple Watch, the iPhone still makes up the vast majority of Apple’s sales each year.
Entrepreneur Steve Blank has likened Cook’s leadership to that of Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, who took over from Bill Gates and tripled Microsoft’s sales. But under Ballmer, Microsoft missed major opportunities to retain its software dominance as companies like Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon took the lead on mobile, search, social and cloud.
Burrough said he endorses the comparison between Ballmer and Cook. He went on a tweet storm on Tuesday where he said apple was no longer a “dynamic change-maker.”
— ᴮᵒᵇ ᴮᵘʳʳᵒᵘᵍʰ (@bob_burrough) January 16, 2017
.@Mbrawler Question: If conflict comes from caring about a product, and Tim Cook eliminated conflict, did Tim Cook eliminate caring?
— ᴮᵒᵇ ᴮᵘʳʳᵒᵘᵍʰ (@bob_burrough) January 17, 2017
But not all former Apple employees agree. Tony Fadell, a top-tier Apple engineer who later founded home-automation company Nest and sold it to Google, has said that “there was never a competition” at Apple.
“We, together, were searching for the best solution. Steve asked us to test all the possibilities,” Fadell tweeted.
Wrong!!! There was never a competition. We, together, were searching for the best solution. Steve asked us to test all the possibilities... https://t.co/DNkT2WZnqV
— Tony Fadell (@tfadell) January 11, 2017
There’s still evidence of plenty of competition between engineers at Apple, if not what it once was: Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman reports that in the past few years, inside the Mac division “Apple managers have also become more likely to float two or more competing ideas, meaning designers and engineers must work on more than one concept at a time. In the past, managers pushed a more singular vision.”
CNBC reached out to Apple for comment.