Apple, Tesla, retention, and reality

Neil Cybart, writing for his Above Avalon newsletter:

Given Apple's culture, the company is all about small groups and hiring people for a particular specialty. It has been reported over the years that there isn't much internal movement within Apple. It is not a coincidence that when looking at many of Apple's high-profile departures, the driving force often ends up being a desire for something different, chasing something that was not possible within Apple. Obviously, losing key people represents a risk for Apple. However, it is a risk for any company. There is no evidence to suggest Apple has an outsized employee retention problem compared to its peers.

I considered including retention in my biggest problems facing Apple in 2017 piece but ultimately decided against it for similar reasons. The only way to absolutely avoid losing brilliant, driven people is not to hire brilliant, driven people.

Apple does the opposite. They seek out and attract the kind of people who want to work on Project Purple (iPhone), Gizmo (Watch), or Titan (the rumored car project). They're the kinds of people who want to be part of the next big thing — of denting the next universe. Apple, by virtue of having brought several of those kinds of products to market and explored many more beyond, is one of the best opportunities to do just that.

But not the only place. Sometimes, the kind of person who wants to revolutionize phones will want to revolutionize something else, be it an app, an accessory, a service, or a combination of those things. If Apple has no interest in what they specifically want to do, they'll have to go somewhere else.

Apple also doesn't have a lot of room at the top. There aren't many people at the highest levels of the company and they don't turn over that often. When and if they do, and the position isn't filled by someone from the outside, it's still a single opportunity. Two or more people can't occupy the same space at the same time so, inevitably, some change spaces. And sometimes, after years at Apple, some people just want some time out, even if its just for the chance to build something of their own with all the tools they'd previously been making for others.

Once upon a time a bunch of people who worked on the original iPhone left to go work on the Palm Pre. That it didn't work out, so some moved on again and others came back to Apple. That pattern has repeated itself several times over the intervening years. Facebook was actively going after Apple talent for a while, giving people a lot of money but ultimately not much to do. Many have gone to startups over the years with some also coming back again. Now, Tesla.

People leave Apple. People also come back to Apple. Some do that multiple times. Others simply move around inside the company, looking for the projects that interest and excite them the most. Some have moved from iOS to watchOS or tvOS and some have moved back again or on to new projects. None of this should be the least bit surprising in a company Apple's size and with people this talented.

Brilliant, driven people are exactly the kinds of people Apple wants but are also exactly the kinds of people who can be hard to retain. That's why some who ran teams at Apple either leave or get poached to run entire organizations elsewhere.

There's already a senior vice president of software engineering at Apple and several absolutely top-flight vice presidents with wide-ranging skills beyond the bits, including interface and design, marketing and education, partnering and more. Project Titan's already got a software lead as well in Dan Dodge, former head of QNX — a real-time operating system at the heart of many existing infotainment systems and much, much more. In that environment, the biggest opportunities for movement, if movement is what's really desired, may well exist elsewhere.

That's not to say Apple can't pay more attention to their internal dynamics and do a better job keeping key people at the company whenever possible. They can and should always be doing more and better. It'll just never always be possible.

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

35 Comments
  • "The only way not to absolutely avoid losing brilliant, driven people is not to hire brilliant, driven people." Or you could allow them to move another project that would keep their interest, improve the company stance, and retain great talent, right? The articles assumption, and I think correctly is that people are leaving because they are pigeon holed and bored.
  • You are once again the one making assumptions. Rene provides a nuanced, reasonable analysis and the critics just can't let go of the "Apple is in decline" argument.
  • I'm not making any assumption, the quoted article and Rene's writing are stating that is the reason why people leave Apple. Because they are pigeon holed into small groups and don't move from them. You should read the article before making assumptions on what the article is saying.
  • If you're going to treat these authors as prescient, then we're done arguing: "There is no evidence to suggest Apple has an outsized employee retention problem compared to its peers." Over and out.
  • I didn't ask you to respond to my comment, you took it on yourself before you even read the article. These 'authors' always have more information than they print but if you read closely you can see where they are hesitant to write something because they don't want to give it away or get cut off. If you think they are just winging it then you're naive. Read the opening paragraph of the quoted article. Over and out.
  • Agreed. When you lose the creator of the basis for the future of all your software, it's time to ask why and learn. (And open sourcing Swift lets him work on Swift and leave Apple.)
  • At absurdum: Let's say the creator of Swift wanted to be CEO. That likely wouldn't be a possibility at Apple but it very well could be at another company.
  • At this point I might contemplate giving him the position. Lol
  • Once again you are running interference for an Apple shill who masquerades as a journalist while selling Apple products on this site. Just unbelievable how naive some are.
  • Then why are you here other than to work out some personal issues? Rene is one of the most informed observers around and that is why he is asked to regularly appear on shows like Macbreak Weekly, Daring Fireball, etc. He reports objectively on Apple from an enthusiasts point of view, which is what this iMore site is for. There are all sorts of Android and Google sites for you to spew forth your anti-Apple tirades.
  • You nailed it, but I suppose it's just futile to point that out: the anti-Apple/Apple is Doomed or in Decline/Rene-haters etc. etc. will always be drawn here because of Apple's great success and envy about how much they see Apple users enjoying the products and ecosystem, as well as Rene's fine job as editor, extensive knowledge, and excellent analysis. To the trolls, being an Apple enthusiast and fan of iMore must mean you're a "fanboy," a "shill," or simply naive.
  • i never called you a fan boy, and I notice you've changed your mantra to 'in decline' also. I suggest you go back to 12 years ago and take a look at Microsoft.
  • It's not all about you, stevie: others frequently use that epithet, and the "Apple is Doomed!" meme is constantly bantered about here. You did claim they were in decline. (Hint: the slash and double "etc." were clues to the general nature of my comment).
  • LOL, you are replying to my comment so from now on if you want the make a general statement then reply to the article.
  • No, stevie, I replied to Thoughter's reply to you and, again, I made general comments about iMore commenters to build on his well-put rebuke of you and positive assessment of Rene. So, from now on, read carefully and consider context.
  • Maybe you should talk to Rene and get the comment section changed cause it's hard to tell who the replies are for. Well-put rebuke? Ok, don't respond to my comments anymore, I won't be responding to yours. It's clear you have some issues and I hope you get help for them. Peace.
  • Nice try.
  • Absolutely, when those projects exist and there's room in them. Sometimes those projects don't or the specific space someone wants is already filled. For example, if one of Apple's best engineers dreams of making a smart fridge and Apple decides they simply don't want to make that product, that engineer might still want to go make it elsewhere. Or if Apple decides they do want to make it, but they want a team lead with a different skill set (say more UI or marketing experience beyond engineering), that engineer may look at another company that has smart fridge ambitions. Or they may simply want a change from Apple.
  • Rene, you should really stop trying to use logic and well-informed arguments. You must simply accept that Apple is in decline and DOOMED because 2016 wasn't its best year and now they've lost an good engineer. Resistance is futile! And don't try to tell me that critics have long stated that Apple is going in the wrong direction or something is...wait for it..."rotten at Apple" just prior to being proven wrong--I won't have it because my agenda is to continually lobby for interweb fortune teller extraordinaire.
  • Of course, all of those are valid reasons. But we keep hearing about Project titan, and that seems like it could have been something that may have garnered some interest. Instead they brought back Bob Mansfield, iirc, to lead that project. They seem to keep recycling the same people instead of allowing new people to take over or fill the gap. Hence the striking first para that's quoted from the article.
  • That's a good point RE: Project Titan but there's a very good chance that the position to lead the Autopilot Software at Apple has already been filled http://ottawacitizen.com/business/local-business/qnx-founder-dan-dodge-n...
  • Ya, thats kind of my point, was he aware the position was available? did they even entertain the prospect of him doing something in that area? Or was he tied to Swift forever in Apple? More ?'s than answers but the end result is losing a great software talent.
  • Retention is a fun topic. As a relatively fresh IT manager (almost two years - from a sysadmin background) I've had a lot of fun with the hiring aspect. Don't get me wrong it's kind of a painful process at times but I really like the change that is brought with a fresh face and ideas. It doesn't happen very often at our level so instead of being negatively dramatized (like you see in some of the IT news media) I present it as opportunity - for both the person leaving and whomever is going to step in. I think the negativity and perception that turnover is scary comes from the recent trend of celebratizing designers and engineers. Losing a Sr designer or engineer is reported as akin to losing the star of your favorite TV show . Obviously tech companies are not TV shows and no one - no one - is irreplaceable. Things will change, sure. That's inevitable - and often good. But we've become rather sensationalist when it comes to rather mundane shifts in the workforce. Incidentally, I always open our positions to the outside. No internal promotions. No favorites. Level competition. 3 of the last 5 hires were internal but they won on their own merit which does a lot for their credibility as they shift responsibilities.
  • "Incidentally, I always open our positions to the outside. No internal promotions." Not sure where you are but Is that legal? I thought all job postings in the US had to also be posted internally. Also, promoting someone that deserves it is not showing favoritism, it's rewarding productive work. From the sounds of it, you're going to be doing a lot more interviewing than you may need to along with losing good people that have a knowledge of the company, products, and culture. Good luck.
  • I really don’t think the practice of only hiring internally is required by law. I would think it’s just common practice either out of loyalty to employees or out of favoritism for a company’s existing employees.
  • I didn't mean ONLY hiring inside but ONLY posting outside the company. I believe you have to at least post the job internally.
  • Being a government office I follow legal requirements VERY closely. So no issues there. As to extra work in the hiring process - yes - it is more work for me, HR, and those on the interview panel. But I feel it's the best way to show unbiased that the best person got the job. Everyone knows it wasn't "rigged" and the person who won has the confidence that it was earned. That said - generally we don't often have turnover or growth here. People stick around for 10 years or more so when positions open up they are fiercely competitive. We've had a lot lately due to a rare combination of transition, internal restructure, and retirements. The last manager hired no one during his tenure. I've been able to hire 5 so far.
  • Oh - and just be more clear - because I think I understand the original question now: Internal employees are always welcome and encouraged to apply for positions advertised to the outside world. Sorry if that wasn't clear.
  • There is no legal requirement that hiring managers have to hire internally. Companies may have specific requirements for certain jobs to posted internally, However if the internal candidates don't have the skill set you are looking for, you should be looking outside the company. Generally hiring managers have the discretion to hire internally or externally depending on the job.
  • I believe that a lot people have more happiness somewhere else. Apple is stuck in 2014 and did not move to the next level. ok now we hear oh Apple Watch and touch bar. That's all hardware they made before. Apple can not even get a good assistant going. Apple will have more and more problems in the next two years. As soon when the iPhone is not chic anymore we see the fall and it is coming. Soon
  • "Soon" Yes! And this year is the year of the Linux desktop! Soon! /s
  • 'There aren't many people at the highest levels of the company and they don't turn over that often. " This is true of EVERY successful company. The reality is smart, accomplished people are always in demand, and they know it. No company can keep a good employee if the employee wants to move on. People managers have known this for forever.
  • Some really great points made in this piece. The overall theme that intellectual capital is critical to any organization, but maybe even more so with the way that Apple is structured.. Rene, I think you left the article too soon and should've completed your thought. Ultimately, since you end it with "It'll just never always be possible.", what is the solution then? Restructure the project type organization or just accept that talented people will always seek new opportunities?
  • Is Apple's retention (and top talent attraction) unique? or even different from the other top performing companies especially here is Silicon Valley? A downpayment for a house in a good school district with decent commute is 7 figures, netted after tax. VCs will still fund if there's a 'bankable' technical person on the team. And now every company in the globe in every industry has an 'innovation center' somewhere in the Bay Area. Apple does have a challenge in the broadly defined "open" and cloud and AI/DL/Neural Networks areas. These areas are the future. They're going everywhere with growth potential for decades. People just starting out may have trouble seeing Apple as the place to go for these areas.
  • apple running out of manpower. every product released in 2015/2016 was unfinished. appleTV, watch, iphone 7 plus and macbook pro. that has nothing to do with testing that is not enough manpower. even going out of the router business is another example. saw an interview 2014 think it was on CNN the question was "who is gonna win the battle GOOGLE or APPLE?" answer was someone we did not think about...