Monday, August 29, 2011

Guest Column: Eddie Tao's Reflections on Working for Apple, Steve Jobs, Inspiration, Innovation and Intellectual Property

Eddie Tao: "Co-design is not
how Apple likes to work."
Dear readers of IP Dragon,

IP Dragon (aka Danny), a long time friend of mine asked me to consider writing some notes about the latest news about Apple's CEO, Steve Jobs. Danny and I met at Chinese school in Amsterdam, NL. While Danny worked his way through the Cantonese curriculum and was very interested to get the right pronunciation in Cantonese. So, we met a few times where I gave him some advice on pronunciation. I'm an ex-Apple employee (outside of my control) and an Apple fan (since 1990). So reality distortion factor affects me a lot. I used to work there as quality engineer, and currently work for HP's IPG division in a similar job. I'm not used to write blogs; so, be prepared for tangents and incoherent notes.

Today, 25 August 2011, I found out that Steve Jobs announced his resignation as CEO and wishes to continue as Director and Apple employee. And that Tim Cook will succeed him. Having worked for Apple for almost a decade, and being an Apple fan, the news was shocking, despite this is one of the possible scenarios based on the info about his condition. Many mixed feelings and questions popped up: is Apple going to make it, is Steve doing OK, how will this affect the Apple shareholders, feelings of sadness (as if one loses a beloved one), and what's Tim going to be like, to name a few.

Like myself, many others show concern about whether Apple is able to continue to be as successful and innovative without Steve as CEO/leader. When I checked the stock market today, the Apple stock traded on the Frankfurt exchange dropped about 4.5% in the early trade (-1.75% on NASDAQ at 10.45 PST), and then slowly climbed up to -2%. Related partner companies such as Foxconn/Hon Hai traded almost 5 to 10% lower after the news. As many know already, Foxconn is a large and important Apple partner for product manufacturing such as laptops, desktop PCs and hand held devices. Unlike HP and other PC manufacturers, Apple retains the control over the design and only requires Foxconn and other partners to manufacture their design without further input. Co-design is not how Apple likes to work. (Note: "Designed by Apple in California" and "Assembled in XXX", where XXX is the country of assembly, is found on the Apple label). It is interesting to see how outsourced partners are affected when you look at their stock value. In a way I'm amazed how big Apple's influence/importance is to us. Apple clearly has a plan and executing it step by step - though Apple doesn't like to share its strategy. Steve has shown several glimpses about how he views Apple and about changing the world to provide a better experience. There are numerous examples of his quotes and statements available, which he made in the last three decades.

Back then, when I was part of the Apple family, listening to the keynotes (internal or external) they boosted the connection with the company and Steve. There was this sense of being there together to create an excellent customer experience. Steve would highlight how the products and solutions would market itself through their design and functionality and how they would help the customer do things simpler and easier. (Various books, observations and opinions about this passion for simplicity for the user are available.) At the end of those sessions one would feel amazed and energised to put in an extra few kilometers (or miles) to make it happen. Time spent for Apple is not an issue at all - there are many examples out there - and it was no exception for me to put in 60 (reality) to 80 (ego) hours. One could say, it's the love for the company, the product designs and its charismatic leader that made it worthwhile. To reach the end goal that Steve has envisioned is what matters. I perceived my tasks as to support the magic of Apple and to help change the world a bit. That is unbelievably energising. The feeling that the effort that's put in really matters. (Maybe my ego speaks now.) In my role as Supplier Quality Engineer I was to work with fellow SQEs all over the globe to ensure the products reach the required quality levels that the Apple customer deserves. Few simple examples (but statistically unsound, if I am honest) would be: my Mac Portable still hums happily, as does my PowerBook G3 of 1999, next to the newer iMac 27" of 2008. (I cannot reveal failure rates, but they are impressive in a positive sense.) I dealt with the outsourcing and service partners and basically my job was to remind them what quality levels Apple is expecting, and worked with several: Foxconn, Inventec, Samsung and LG, to name a few. Great people and teams to work with - many of those I encountered with became my friends. Most of them were half a world away from me. But despite the distance we understood our mission - it was to help make happen Steve's vision, his dream as I perceived it. Again, it's this magic that we understood without saying a word. We could read it by looking in each other's eyes. With other employers, there's passion to make things happen, but not as strong as Apple - at least very different.

When it comes to IP (Intellectual Property), Danny's expertise, I can only say that Apple is very sensitive to that. Apple has guarded IP and related info as important to maintain the (competitive) edge. I myself value knowledge and creativity a lot. I remember one or more occasions where my manager informed me that he's been asked to justify why I had been accessing unreleased product information. Consider this similar to a situation where a security breach has been discovered. However, in my role as SQE, getting prepared for a product launch, it is handy to know the info about service parts used in that product, and getting suppliers ready to service them on time so any customer who have an issue with the new product can be supported/helped. The info is needed to set up the reverse logistics supply chain. It's a relative boring and hidden supply chain (of broken products - with negative vibes), but very important in my opinion. Boring as: not so sexy as the Finished Goods (= what consumers buy) supply chain. As the FG is considered making the revenue and thus more important. In my opinion, reverse logistics is even cooler to work with. As there are numbers out there that 1:9 will voice their issue and the rest remain silent. That one customer is able to get a nice service experience and tell like 9 to 11 others about the good service they've gotten from the company. So in my perception, I liked it a lot to get feedback about broken parts/products. To me, it's another way to "talk" to the customer to show what's the value-add of our Service team. Those were customers who think it is valuable to provide feedback, so they can help improve the product. I think if you can show good service to the customer, it's going to change the perception a lot, and customers become more loyal (and hopefully purchase again). Through my job, I was able to "talk" to my customer. And that, in a sense, was carrying out the passion for the customer. To make the customer experience, as Steve envisioned, as nice as possible. I as a nerdy perfectionist, I loved this attitude that drives perfectionism. I'd rather say, it's knowing what is needed to reach customer satisfaction. Others would call it perfectionism of Steve and the team. Maybe because they do not know how to respond otherwise, and use perfectionism with a negative connotation.

Being so passionate about a company such as Apple and its products, makes it hard to have an objective view. I've worked for various companies, but cannot say I've had the same passion before for a company like Apple. It's like working for a team and you know that their mission is the ONE. It's good on the scale of good and evil. It's going to make a change - a change what appears to be for the better. I think all of us have been to a situation while making a decision helps us feel great about it because it's 100% the right one. No doubt about it, not even the devil's advocate can make a difference. Steve's reality distortion force is strong - very strong. He's without question nor doubt, very good at it. And I think it's his level of thinking that makes him put these concepts into the words that he's using. (Note the various quotes from him that are out there). As if from a different dimension. Think of a 3D world. How do you explain in words in such a way that a 2D world (lines) understands the concept of volume. That's how I viewed Steve's messages and his drive for innovation. He's got this idea of how it should be in the future, and uses phrases to help us at Apple to understand (not saying the rest at Apple were not able to understand, but you get my idea). At the same time it's very empowering to know the little things you do, are making a significant change for the Apple customer. (In my case that was for the Europe region).

So, on a more personal note; to me Steve is Apple, and Apple is Steve. I find it hard to imagine an Apple without Steve in charge. It happened before, though. Steve had to leave Apple and came back few years later. While away from Apple he tried to innovate via NeXT. It was OK and Apple came out better (just look at the revenue Year over Year). There's various teams behind the scene that do magical stuff. During some keynotes they're highlighted, but that's just a fraction of the teams. Now, with Steve no longer being CEO, it makes me concerned. But having mingled with the teams responsible for product design manufacturing and the outsourced partners, Apple will do just fine and continue to show their creativity and innovation. Silently, I keep hoping that Steve will become healthy enough to influence Apple as he used to have. For now, I am looking forward to see how Tim leads Apple to the next level. Will miss you, Steve - thanks for the great experience and magic, and good luck Tim. Hoping to see more of Apple in the future.

Eddie Tao

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