Swift-ing to Autopilot: Why did Lattner leave for Tesla?

Until recently, Chris Lattner headed the Developer Tools Department at Apple, where he was responsible for the development of Xcode and led the creation of the Swift programming language that's spread across all of Apple's products. Now, he's the new Vice President of Autopilot Software at another Silicon Valley star firm: electric car maker Tesla.

It's an interesting but altogether unsurprising move for the 11-year Apple veteran: Tesla has been growing rapidly over the past few years, frequently poaching talent from Apple, Google, and others. And they've been hiring from Tesla, as have Tesla's more direct and upstart rivals in the EV space. For a while it looked as if Tesla and Apple would be in direct competition, but Apple's efforts in automotive have reportedly been dramatically scaled back in recent months to a more narrow focus on developing autonomous driving technology.

Tesla is as much a company that builds electric cars as they are serious software developers, even most of it's not user-facing.

While Lattner's move to Tesla isn't a direct match to his previous role at Apple, it's not as different as it might seem. Leading the Developer Tools Department versus being Vice President of Autopilot Software isn't so much about his individual programming skills as it is skills in managing a team of software engineers. And as much as Tesla is a company that designs and builds electric cars, they're also a company that's having to develop some serious software — even if most of it's not user-facing.

This is a vital moment in Tesla's growth. The affordable Model 3 sedan is still a year away, but instrumental to that car's long-term success is the ongoing development of the self-driving software underway at Tesla. Every Tesla rolling off the production line today is equipped with the cameras, radar, and sensors to someday be fully self-driving capable, but before that can happen Tesla needs to collect a lot more data from the deployed fleet of vehicles as well finish development of the software suite to support those capabilities. That's the effort that Lattner will now lead.

More broadly, Lattner's move to Tesla represents the ongoing movement between Silicon Valley firms. Apple, it's worth remembering, is a big old company in comparison to its rivals. They might move fast and break things and be world leaders in the development of many types of technology, but they're not the only ones in Silicon Valley doing that.

Tesla is one such company, not a direct rival to Apple in the market, but certainly one when it comes to talent. And they're very publicly pushing boundaries in technology and hype — it wouldn't be unfair to compare the Tesla of today to the Apple of a decade ago. Granted, Tesla's been around for 13 years and has more than 30,000 employees and revenue in the billions of dollars per year, but they're far from as big, stable, or established as Apple is today. They can be fast and nimble and do dramatic things like sell cars today with the promise that someday down the line they'll be able to drive themselves.

By moving to Tesla, Lattner is taking on a larger role at a smaller company, but one in which he could effect enormous change.

It's worth noting that Tesla, too, is no spring chicken in the context of Silicon Valley. Their primary competition — the likes of BMW and Lincoln and Lexus — is far older, sure, but they have the same "upstarts siphoning away talent" problem with startups like Faraday Future and Lucid Motors poaching Tesla talent as Tesla is pulling hires from Apple.

Then, of course, there's the matter of impact. There's no doubt that Chris Lattner's job at Apple was impactful — he was in charge of making to tools that developers are going to use to make apps for years to come. But he was just one part of the enormous Apple machine. By moving to Tesla he's taking on a larger role at a smaller company, but a role in which he can effect enormous change that could more directly touch users. Maybe there's something in the water in Silicon Valley, but this won't be the first time we see somebody leave a big company like Apple to take a risk on something big at a company like Tesla.

Derek Kessler

Derek Kessler is Special Projects Manager for Mobile Nations. He's been writing about tech since 2009, has far more phones than is considered humane, still carries a torch for Palm, and got a Tesla because it was the biggest gadget he could find. You can follow him on Twitter at @derekakessler.