An inside look at the secrecy that is Apple culture

Wed, Jan 18, 2012

Featured, News

One of the hallmarks of Apple, ever since Steve Jobs assumed the reigns of the company back in 1997, has been product secrecy. As opposed to many other tech companies who routinely pre-announce products and services that may or may not ever ship, Apple keeps its plans close to its vest and places a lot of emphasis on the “big reveal.”

But in order to do so, Apple has to ensure that its employees remain tightlipped and ensuring that requires a culture of secrecy alongside an organizational structure that limits upcoming product plans to those who need to be in the know.

In Adam Lashinsky’s upcoming book “Inside Apple”, Lashinky removes some of the veneer that masks Apple’s secretive ways and provides an intriguing look into what life is actually like working at 1 Infinity Loop.

Interestingly, Apple’s theme of secrecy is often apparent from the moment an employee signs on the dotted line to work in Cupertino to the extent that new employees aren’t typically told of what their job entails until they actually beign working on it.

And lest any employee fall prey to loose lips, a security meeting from the get go stresses that employees will be promptly fired if they’re found to be blabbing to the wrong people.

A former iPhone marketing executive recounts:

Whoever headed up security came in and said, ‘Okay, everybody understands secrecy and security are incredibly important here. Let me just explain why.’ And the rationale is that when Apple launches a product, if it’s been a secret up until the launch, the amount of press and coverage and buzz that you get is hugely valuable to the company. ‘It’s worth millions of dollars,’ I remember her saying.” So there’s no confusion, the penalty for revealing Apple secrets, intentionally or unintentionally, is clear: swift termination.

Also interesting is the degree to which Apple places an emphasis on a product’s first few says on the market. Though this should come as no surprise to anyone who closely follows Apple, Lashinsky relays that Phil Schiller has in the past compared such an event to the opening weekend of a blockbluster movie.

There is tremendous emphasis on the product’s first few days, akin to a film’s opening weekend. Releasing details ahead of time would dampen the suspense. Indeed, Apple fanboys camp out in front of Apple stores in anticipation of new Apple product releases in a way that is reminiscent of the lines that once greeted a new installment in the Lord of the Rings or Star Wars franchises. That is precisely the effect Schiller desires from the day one burst of activity. “I still remember him drawing the spike over and over,” said a former Apple executive who worked in Schiller’s organization.

And the need for secrecy has a direct impact on the organizational structure at Apple and the way different teams interact with each other, that is to say, not much at all.

“It’s one thing to pressure employees to keep information from falling into the wrong hands. Apple’s twist is that those wrong hands happen to include one’s own colleagues. It is, in the words of a former employee, “the ultimate need‑to‑know culture.” Teams are purposely kept apart, sometimes because they are unknowingly competing against one another, but more often because the Apple way is to mind one’s own business. This has a side benefit that is striking in its simplicity: Employees prevented from butting into one another’s affairs will have more time to focus on their own work. Below a certain level, it is difficult to play politics at Apple, because the average employee doesn’t have enough information to get into the game. Like a horse fitted with blinders, the Apple employee charges forward to the exclusion of all else…

As a result, Apple employees and their projects are pieces of a puzzle. The snapshot of the completed puzzle is known only at the highest reaches of the organization. It calls to mind the cells a resistance organization plants behind enemy lines, whose members aren’t given information that could incriminate a comrade.Jon Rubinstein, formerly Apple’s senior hardware executive, once deployed the comparison in a less flattering but equally effective manner. “We have cells, like a terrorist organization,” he told Business Week in 2000. “Everything is on a need‑to‑know basis.””

As for what it’s like to actually work at Apple, Lashinky writes that almost no one would describe it as fun. Sure, people are passionate and focused on creating great products, but the high stress environment can often be taxing. At the same time, a few employees Lashinsky talked to said that if you’re an Apple geek, the experience there could be “magical.”

Lashinsky closes with an interesting quite from Steve Jobs that, quite honestly, we had never before.

Speaking to what it’s like to work at Apple, Jobs reportedly quipped, “I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t say it’s the most fulfilling experience in their lives. People love it, which is different than saying they have fun. Fun comes and goes.”



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