Tech

Former Apple Employee Reveals Why the Company Lost Its Mojo

Published On 02/03/2017 Published On 02/03/2017

It's cliché at this point to explain away Apple's failure to develop "another iPhone" since Steve Jobs died with the fact that, well, there isn't a Steve Jobs at the helm anymore. However, that's overly simplistic. The truth, according to at least one former Apple engineer, is that Tim Cook's insistence on smoothing out long-standing internal conflicts has fundamentally curtailed the company's ability to quickly innovate and change course on a whim, turning it, instead, into a "boring operations company."

In an interview with CNBC following a fervent Twitter exchange with an Apple analyst, a former Apple engineer named Bob Burrough -- who worked at the company for over seven years under both Steve Jobs and Tim Cook -- described that a baseline level of chaos under Jobs had played a critical role in helping the company move and innovate quickly. Alternately, he pointed to a shift in sensibility ushered in by Tim Cook -- to prioritize the organization of teams over the ultimate success of individual projects -- as a major reason Apple hasn't been as nimble or innovative as it once was.

"At Apple in 2007, organizationally it was the Wild West. 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 organization 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."

So why haven't we heard more about this? In the tweet storm that preceded the interview, Burrough points to Apple's infamous culture of secrecy as the reason more longtime employees haven't addressed the issue with people outside the company. 

Burrough also claims it was Cook's eagerness to assuage internal conflict among executives (by firing notorious feather-ruffler and iOS architect Scott Forstall, for instance) that neutered the passionate and competitive environment that -- as disruptive and uncomfortable as it may have been -- was fundamental to Apple's previous success. When conflict is cultivated and hashed out at the highest levels, the company is better equipped to make faster, bolder moves, he argues. That line of thinking is right in line with Steve Jobs' storied rock tumbler parable about how teams must bump up against each other, fight, and argue in order to create an ultimately successful product. Instead, Burrough says fights are now fought lower down in the organization, ultimately slowing projects down.

Not all former employees agree with Burrough's assessment that Apple's morphed into a "boring operations company" because of Tim Cook's leadership style. As CNBC pointed out, Tony Fadell, godfather of the iPod who later went on to launch Nest, disputes the notion that teams and individuals were compelled to be competitive with one another under Jobs. The important distinction, he argues, is that it was a competition among ideas -- a tradition that is presumably alive and well under Cook.

After all, It's tough to argue with Cook's performance, seeing as he's turned Apple into the richest company in the world, has nearly doubled its annual revenue since he took over in 2011, and managed to exceed expectations in its latest earnings report, returning to revenue growth after a few down quarters. Plus, who knows, maybe it is indeed cooking up something incredible that'll eclipse the success of the iPhone. 

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Joe McGauley is a senior writer for Thrillist who'd kill for a cash pile a fraction the size of Apple's.

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