Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Inception of Apple's Turnaround

My heart goes out to the family of Steve Jobs. His death saddens me. As my own tribute to him, I want to capture what he taught me.

I used to work at Apple during the dark days – 1992 to 1997. Lack of engineering focus is what drove Apple to the brink of bankruptcy back then (remember the $250M loan they got from Microsoft in Dec ‘97?).

I learned from my experience at Apple that if you want to succeed, you have to focus. As an example of focus, here in 1997 is the moment of conception of Apple’s turnaround:

FYI, I used to work with David Krathwohl (the first speaker). Please watch this entire video, it’s absolutely worth the hour. This is an ad hoc Q and A session between Jobs and his developer community at WWDC. This video was made one month after I left Apple in 1997.

In this video you can see the following key elements of the Apple turnaround:

1. Laser focus on the target customer: for Apple that was consumers and their data. Start with the customer and build backwards to the technology. Strategy and vision must be driven by the end goal customer benefits, not by what engineers think they can build.

2. Deep understanding of what the target consumers want: all their personal data all around them easy to access from everywhere (“”…faster too get the data off the server than off your own desktop,” “with Gigabit data its faster to go to the server in all cases,” “NFS and Internet dial tone,” “we can make the network experience better,” “Apple is about making hot products,” “using computers as a window into communications intensive tasks in the high speed network world,” “add value that is unique to Apple,” “there is so much headroom to making the network experience tangibly better by making the connected world more productive for the rest of us,” “the high order bit is connectivity”).

3. Rabid antipathy to NIH engineering attitudes, use standards where they work and invent where it’s possible to differentiate the product (e.g. use the existing Ethernet standard for network access, don’t use the dysfunctional DLNA standard as an example of where invention is better).

4. Profound awareness of the importance of selling your developers on your customer vision, the roadmap for getting there (building great, unique products), and where and how the developers can add _target customer_ value to your _one_ ecosystem. Steve gives several examples of where developers can and should add value.

5. Unrelenting focus on bread and butter Apple engineering focus management – he “put a bullet in the head of” every project that did not deliver the vision, to correct what he calls “…lousy engineering management” where the total “is less than the sum of the parts.” He states clearly his belief that success comes simply from “a group of people making something they care about.”

Focusing is about saying no and improving developer productivity by eliminating work that does not align to the cohesive vision. Focus pisses off people because you stop doing things they want you to do. But the result is great products and successful ecosystems. I was on the team of one of the projects he killed (OpenDoc). He was right; OpenDoc did not fit into the cohesive vision for the renewed Apple. This tight focus enabled crisp execution over the subsequent decade of their comeback.

In honor of Steve Jobs passing, think about how these lessons can be applied to your own situation.

Chuck Piercey
Apple Alumni 1992-1997