Creative Selection is simply the best book I've read so far about Apple. Not because it touches on internal drama or the lives of key people and their families behind the scenes. It doesn't. Not because it was researched or assembled from the outside looking in. It wasn't.
Ken Kocienda worked at Apple. First, as a member of the Alexander Project that built WebKit and the Safari Browser. Next, as a member of the Purple Project that became the very first iPhone. The virtual keyboard that was intended to, but by no means certain to, replace a decade of BlackBerry and Treo tactility? That was him.
But Creative Selection isn't about Ken either. It's about his distillation of the process used at Apple, from individual contributors on the engineering teams to executives like Scott Forstall to Steve Jobs himself that led the company to success after unprecedented success.
It's about the process of solving hard problems, like shipping the fastest renderer or typing on glass, by making software, having that software tested, and ultimately demonstrating that software to Steve.
Ultimately, though, it's a story of craftspeople at the height of their craft, truly caring about what they create and exhibiting incredible levels of empathy for those for whom they're creating it.
You can listen to the podcast embedded above, or check out the transcript below, where Ken and I chat about what went on both at the time the book takes place and during the writing of the book, or you can just go buy it and start reading or listening.
Rene Ritchie: Ken Kocienda, welcome to the show. How are you?
Ken Kocienda: I'm great. Thanks for having me.
Rene: Thanks for being on. The last time I saw you, I think we were at Bitter + Sweet. There was a lot of red velvet lattes and affogatos on table.
Ken: You remember very well. There was a whole table full of red velvet lattes, yes.
Rene: I think, as it inevitably does, the conversation turned towards cars.
Ken: You would think, with that group, that it would turn to computers and software, but no, cars was what we talked about. Think I take as much blame for that as anybody else.
Rene: No, it's great. It's interesting how you see certain trends. I'm sure we'll touch on this. There's a lot of people at Apple, and in software development in general, who love cars, love racing, love photography. There's just a wide range of similar interests, it seems.
Ken: That is actually an interesting combination of things that you say, cars and photography. I was just sitting. I think probably Gordie Freedman was there. I just was with him at Bitter + Sweet a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about cars. He brought out a new Leica camera, put it on the table.
Ken: We were talking about that for a while. It's funny. Maybe there's something about that. There's a nexus around Bitter + Sweet, of cars, photography, and computers of course. It's in Cupertino.
Rene: He's fantastic. He had the Batman decals on his...
Rene: ...Lambo for charity, which is just phenomenal. [laughs]
You've got a new book coming out. This is no exaggeration. It is the absolute best book about Apple that I have ever read.
Ken: Thank you. Thank you for saying that.
Rene: I think a lot of them make the mistake of trying...First, very few people are primary sources for the information. A lot of them were written second-, third-hand. Even fewer of them were actually engineers, designers, or product people to begin with.
A lot of them seem to not want to focus on Apple, but to focus on the people in Apple. That's almost never an interesting story when it comes to how products are made.
Ken: For me, in my career, I really just focused on the products. When I decided to leave Apple, which is kind of a long story. Maybe we'll get to some of that later. After I decided to leave, I didn't really know what I was going to do, but then within a couple of weeks I had a book contract.
It became a process of thinking about, "OK. How can I sum up what happened and what it was like to work as a software engineer on the original iPhone, and what was the company culture like, and how did that inform how the products turned out, and in case of a product like the iPhone, how it turned out pretty well?"
Rene: On previous shows, we've had your friends, your colleagues, Don Melton and Nitin Ganatra, say that their biggest concern when leaving Apple was trying to figure out how to get an iPhone as a civilian.
Ken: Yeah. I just went to a retail store. It was really easy.
Rene: I think they were trying to order them when they first came out. You have those massive queues and order it at backlogs and deadlines. [laughs] What is an AT&T contract? How does that work?
Ken: [laughs] Exactly. How does that work? It's for so long. I had a desk drawer filled with iPhones, new ones and prototypes. I can tell you, a couple of those prototypes were...If I could have snapped my fingers and had a wish on my last day at Apple, it would have been to take that early prototype that we called a Wallaby away with me.
Of course, that was impossible. I had to turn it in with all of my other Apple gear. Always having all of these devices around, having pockets and desk drawers filled with them was just the way that it was for me and for them for a long, long time.
Rene: It's weird. I don't know if people fully appreciate this or not, but it's something I'm always really careful about. It's that people at Apple are literally living in the future, but in a very unstable future, because you're using prototype carry devices with PurpleRestore like unfinished software all the time. [laughs]
Ken: It's true. I actually got to the point pretty soon after I started working on the iPhone and then the iPad and the Apple Watch. Even as much as the iPhone is that my Mac, I admit, I really didn't install too many of the development builds on there because there were too many things that were unstable.
I was working really, really on the cutting edge trying to figure out what iOS would be before we even called it iOS. In some ways, I wanted some stability in my software life in order to develop what was going to be coming next.
Rene: Is it like getting off a highway, when you leave, where suddenly you're on release hardware, you're on release software, and you don't have to worry about that velocity anymore?
Ken: Yeah. I honestly on my phone right now...Let me even put it this way. I don't even have an Apple Developer account.
Ken: I left Apple a little bit more than a year ago, but not quite a year and a half, and I've written a little bit of software since I left, but mostly I've been writing the book. Like I said, I didn't even think yet of...I probably will, eventually, and download some betas and look at them. I've actually just been enjoying having things be stable.
Rene: And you save yourself a lot of grief for something like, "Ah, what are they doing? This A key is two pixels to the left. Come on."
Ken: Right. Usually those things get worked out by the time the release software hits the net.
Rene: I buried the lead at the beginning. The book is "Creative Selection," and it's about your time on Alexander, the Safari project, and Purple, the iPhone project.
Ken: Right. I've gone through, and I tried to talk about those experiences, my first-person account. It's not quite day-to-day, but it really is in many respects just a linear narrative. In some ways, I think that gives a sense of what it was like to develop these products before any of us knew how they would turn out.
Then, also, to try to think about, "Well, you know, what did we do? Why did these products turn out the way that they did? How did the company culture, during the Steve Jobs era, function?"
I came up with these seven essential elements that informed our work, inspiration, collaboration, craft, diligence, decisiveness, taste, and empathy, and how the stories, as they unfold, are a combination of all of these factors. Let me just even give an example of that.
While we were developing the iPad, the iPhone was out and it was starting to really be successful. It then became my job to develop the software keyboard for the iPad. I worked with an absolutely terrific designer. I don't know if you've ever had Bas Ording on your show, but he was one of the...
Rene: I have not.
Ken: Boy. If you ever get Bas, he's such a brilliant, brilliant designer. He and I worked on a demo for what the iPad keyboard would like, how would we take advantage of this larger screen space to offer people a software keyboard.
He came up with a design that looked more like a laptop keyboard, and I came up with a design that looked more an iPhone keyboard. Bas came up with a terrific animation to stitch these together, so you could actually change keyboards without changing languages. You could go for a keyboard that had more keys, and then change to another one that had bigger keys.
We thought this was a great idea, and then we showed it to Steve. I demoed this to Steve, which is this daunting, intimidating experience. Steve immediately looked at that, and he did what in a way he always did. He was very decisive.
He applied his great taste in software, and when he saw these two designs, he looked at me and said, "We only need one of these, right?" It was such a shock to get such a decisive pronouncement on this demo just maybe after a minute or two of looking on it, and embodying this Apple way of just choosing the best default trying to be empathetic for people. Don't give unnecessary choices.
You see how just even in one little demo Steve saw two options, he decisively chose one by applying his great taste, and trying to be empathetic for people and not giving them choices that maybe they don't need. That's what goes on throughout the book, throughout the stories, throughout developing these products.
Rene: I think there's two things that people get startled with when you hear stories like this. I remember hearing this about the Remote.App 2 when it came out. Is that quite often, you imagine, especially if you're used to other companies, hundreds of engineers working on every project, and then it's like, "No, Ken made the keyboard."
Rene: And people don't believe it especially at Apple scale.
Ken: Yeah. The small sizes of the teams...It's really a remarkable aspect that people wouldn't guess, but in a way, I can prove it. When the iPhone came out, Apple filed a patent -- and regardless of what you think about patents, maybe we can set that aside -- but the interesting thing is the list of inventors on the iPhone patent.
The first inventor is Steve Jobs, but there's 24 other names on the patent, and that's it. Those are the people who came up with the concepts, the inventions for what became UIKit and iOS and the touchscreen system for the iPhone. It wasn't a team of hundreds or, never mind, thousands. It's just a couple of dozen folks.
Rene: People always think that Apple can just throw money at every problem to get it done, but it seems like the companies that do that never turn out with the quality and consideration of products that the small teams...I know it's destructive [laughs] for you on many levels, there have to be one person doing it, but artistry seems to come from it.
Ken: Yeah. I think it's a matter of less is more. When you think about what happens when you add people to a software project, this is actually one of the fundamental findings about software engineering that comes through to us from the 1960s.
This has been known for a long time. There's a famous book in software engineering, "The Mythical Man-Month" written by Frederic Brooks. He wrote this book based on his experiences at IBM developing the OS/360 system for mainframes decades ago. This is one of his fundamental findings.
It's that adding people to a late software project only makes it later, and it's counterintuitive. He provides this analysis that when you add people to a complicated project, there's overhead. There are more communication paths, and that tends to slow things down.
Bringing on new people requires training, and so even people who were existing on the project need to stop what they're doing and bring the new people up to speed. Eventually, you don't wind up making up the difference. This is what he found such a long time ago.
It's interesting that this one of the concepts that informed how people like Steve and Scott Forstall put together the team that developed products like the iPhone.
Rene: There's another amazing story in your book that goes to this topic. Apple wants to make a browser, and they want to get rid of their dependence on IE, they want to stake their own claim on the growing Internet which came to monopolize huge amounts of computing life.
In the very beginning, it's you, Don Melton, and then Richard Williamson. [laughs] . It's not 50 people again. [laughs]
Ken: No, it's not 50 people. No. Of course, on day one it was just Don Melton and me. You would say, "Well, how can two people make a big software project like a web browser?" Really there's two key points to the story of how we got started and how we built our momentum.
In a kind of a funny way, two people isn't enough. What we did was Don and I went out and found open source as a strategy so we could leverage the work of other people out in the free software community, and bring that software into Apple, add our contributions to it, and then of course, eventually, share that out with the free software community, and then ship a product with customers.
That's one way that two people wasn't enough, so we needed to lean on the great work that people had done out in the world and made available to us under a free software license.
Then, there was another way that two people wasn't enough. It's that Don and I had a little trouble of kickstarting the project. We initially tried to make Mozilla, the software that was initially developed at Netscape, to try to make that work, and that was a bit difficult because the software didn't build on OS10, which was still really new at the time.
I had no experience writing web browsers and didn't really know how to kickstart the project. It was only when that third person, Richard Williamson, joined us...He came, and it just turned out -- lucky for us -- that Richard was absolutely brilliant at bootstrapping software projects.
Within a couple of days, he had found another open source code base and got it running on the Mac under X Windows. It took a couple of really key technical shortcuts, and he made this absolutely brilliant demo in just a couple of days.
When Don and I saw that, I almost wished there was a camera in the room, because we must have done like this slapstick-style double take, "Holy cow! This guy has made this terrific demo, and boy, do we feel like that we made the decision to hire him, and gosh, let's get started with that cage DML and Conquer."
The browser that people use today on the Mac is really just the direct descendant of that demo on that day all those years ago.
Rene: Another thing that strikes me is that at some large software houses, your manager is whoever is next in line for a management position, and they may not have any direct knowledge about the project you're working on. [laughs] They may not even be from the same division that you work on.
That always seems to lead to catastrophe, but at Apple whether you go from Avi to Bertrand to Scott to Gregg, consistently you hear that they can manage three or four levels down. They understand maybe not the details of everything everyone is working on, but the bigger picture in terms of where the software has to go.
Ken: Yeah. All the people that you mentioned have this really incredible grasp on details. You say that they don't know all the details, but I was always amazed by people like Scott Forstall who, of that list of people, I interacted with most directly myself.
He had an amazing ability to know the linchpin in the work, the software that I was trying to develop. He knew what the linchpin was, where the critical work was going on at any particular time. Of course, he knew that not only for me, but everybody else on the team as well. All of these people could just hold an incredible amount of detail in their head at one time.
Rene: That's the other thing that you find. You mention this again in the book with Steve saying the browser had to be fast or just on this show when you talked about being emotional or being understanding about your customers.
Apple knows, tends to know, who the customer is. They don't get caught in a quagmire of, "This kind of user will need this and this kind of user. We've got to make 18 different options." They have a general idea of the type of person that they're aiming for, the larger, I guess, user base. You make software that's very sympathetic to those people.
Ken: I like to think of it as not sympathy. Sympathy is a fine word, but I like to even upgrade that a little bit to empathy.
In a way, the products that I worked on at Apple -- I think this applies generally to most all of the products that Apple makes -- is that the people who are making them are very often, almost all the time, also in the target audience. This confers a great benefit.
I could even make it concrete. When we were developing the iPhone, we were living on the software as we were developing it. We had these prototypes. We were trying to use them and trying to live through the experiences that people out in the world would eventually have.
To give just a counter-example, it's not like that I was developing medical software for a doctor, where there's no real way that I could use the product as the target end user would and that I don't understand medicine to the extent that a doctor...
We had the advantage that we were users. These are general-purpose devices that will hopefully fit into your everyday life. We could take that approach of "How do these products working for us?" and then also try to imagine other people, how the product will work for them.
It wasn't that far to go to try to imagine what experiences might be like for other people, to walk a mile in their shoes.
Rene: With some of the products, you had the benefit of hindsight, like there were other browsers on the market when you were working on Safari.
There were other phones, [laughs] famously, on the market when you were working on the iPhone. Microsoft tried for 10 years with Tablet PC when you were working on the iPad.
Arguably, very few watches yet, Pebble and a couple other things, when you were working on Watch, but you still sort of had the ability to look at how this technology was interfacing or failing to interface with the larger portion of humanity and exactly what you said, design something that was maybe more humane.
Ken: I like to think that Apple, throughout its history, has done a very good job of making products that are intuitive. You hear that word a lot, software that's intuitive. What does that really mean?
I like to think of it as a combination of taste and, to use the word again, empathy. If you have software that is carefully designed and that all of the aspects are good in and of themselves but then balance out with each other.
We use this subjective taste as designers and developers to create the product, applying our emotional involvement to the product, trying to bring that out in a tasteful way, but then also in an empathetic way.
Again, trying to think, "How is this software going to fit into people's lives?" Another good way to think about empathy is the word that Greg Christie, who is the leader of the human interface team at Apple for a long time...
If, say, I developed a demo and I brought it to him and it was maybe a little too technical, a little too in the weeds, he would say, "No, Ken. This isn't any good. It's too computer-y." Here we have this high-tech product that certainly has a CPU in it.
Ken: It's obviously a computer, but he didn't want the products to be too computer-y. In other words, he wanted them to be more empathetic, to fit into people's lives so that they can take advantage of the technology without being overwhelmed by it.
Again, how do you get to intuitive? It's this process of trying to make each individual element good in and of itself, balance them all out, and then think about how the product is going to fit into people's lives.
Rene: I don't even know if this is true. You can tell me if it's not true. In the beginning, you're introducing a new product. You're basically giving everyone training wheels. You're teaching them how to interface.
Rubber-banding sort of set the standard for inertial scrolling. All of these things, it was all new. We were learning. As time goes on, we become, as a user base, more sophisticated.
Also, when the iPhone came out, for example, people were very much computer people. As phones got more capable, they started becoming more primary computing platforms. People started wanting and expecting them to do more.
Even something as simple as the keyboard has evolved. The capabilities has evolved. You still have to cater for the person [laughs] whose first phone on the first day, but also the person who's been using that for 10 years now and is all alone with it and [laughs] just needs to get their job done.
Ken: These balances, they don't stay rooted to one place as the product evolves. Then, as you mentioned, as people's experience with them evolves, the software has to change.
There's one really good example of this that is maybe worth reminding people of and something that we all felt back when we were developing the iPhone. We felt this apprehension when we were getting our first experiences using touchscreens.
We felt this trepidation, this apprehension, as we moved our finger close to a small touch-target on the screen. As our finger got closer, we covered up the thing we were trying to tap.
Before we developed the conventions and the mechanisms to give good feedback, we were very often, in these early stage demos, touching something. It's like, "Did it work?"
Ken: "Did I actually hit the button, or didn't I?" Of course, now you can watch people out in the world with their iPhones just going on, say, the keyboard with two thumbs and going, typing faster on an iPhone than I can type on a full-size laptop or desktop keyboard.
Nobody could back then. Things do change. The software does need to adapt and stay current with regard to what people expect.
Rene: I'm going to take a quick break and just ask you, "Are you interested in developing, in coding, in computer science, in solving exactly the kinds of problems Ken is talking about?"
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What are you waiting for? Check it out at brilliant.org/vector. Thank you so much, Brilliant.
Rene: Back then again, I think it's almost hard to remember, but this was the age of Treos and Blackberrys. They all had little, tiny, tic-tac, physical keyboards. Maybe they were great. Maybe they were not, but they were there all the time.
You were literally inventing something that...There was horrible...I forget the old technology. Resistive touchscreens before that. You had to use the edge of your nail to use the software keyboard. You never wanted to. It was horrible.
You had to figure out a way to replace all of the tactility and the sensory feedback and everything that people were used to.
Ken: Of course, this was essential for the product concept from the very start, is that the whole face of the phone is a screen. If there's going to be a keyboard, it needs to be in software. Then it needs to get out of the way when you don't need it.
For me, that was a pretty tall order that became my big focus for about a year, between a year and a year and a half. My goal was to try to figure out a way, which eventually became auto-correction, to make this system feel comfortable and to replace that tactility that people were used to with their Blackberrys in particular.
It turned out that giving software assistance with auto-correction was a way to do it, but that wasn't the only way. Here's another aspect of how that first software keyboard worked. In a way, it was invisible.
I realized that the shapes of the keys, which didn't change from your perspective as a user, as a person typing, but that the keys could change shape from the perspective of the software.
For example, if you type this character sequence, space and then T and then H, what's the most likely letter that you want next? Obviously, E, to spell the word "the," the most common word in the English language.
What would happen is after you type the T and the H, invisibly, the E key became larger from the software perspective. It became easier to tap, took a little bit of space, stole a little bit of active area from the keys around it, R and W and D and so forth.
The key to that was that when you tapped, went to tap that E, even if you missed, because the E became a larger touch area, you would see it pop up. In other words, it would give you confidence that "Hey, I'm a pretty good typist."
Even if you were a little bit sloppy, the software helped you to try to give you confidence that the software is on your side. Getting that key pop-up to show up above your finger was an important bit of feedback that I discovered and my teammates discovered was a big part in making, again, the software seem comfortable and useful.
Rene: It was almost reminiscent of the old days when the mechanical typewriter letter would come up and hit the thing in front of you. You just saw the world around you moving to your activities.
Ken: It's interesting because I think that probably really experienced typists, in their peripheral vision, they might have even been able to see on an old manual typewriter, if the right key actually came up to strike the page.
Of course, then you also had the tactility on your fingers. That's something, of course, the iPhone keyboard needed to replace. There was, again, that little accommodation there with the key pop-ups you maybe catch in the corner of your eye.
Rene: It's really interesting to me because I love so much what you did with the keyboard from the early days that I sort of wanted it to go everywhere, exactly what you said, the empathy.
If someone is jabbing at a button, at a touch target, and they miss three or four times you could subtly increase the size of that touch target so that they get it more often. As they get more precise, they could go back down.
Move it slightly over to the right if they keep...They're not hitting anything. They're trying to hit something. What's the closest thing that they could...The same as keyboard logic, but everywhere in the interface.
Ken: Right. There was actually a little bit of that. There is still, to this day, this notion of the active area being larger than the visual area. The back button, for instance, was something from the first version of the system all those years ago where if you wanted to tap back, yeah, you didn't actually need to hit within that little left facing arrow shaped button. The active area was larger.
In some ways, to try to even preclude that frustration of trying and missing that you just mentioned. You mentioned something that's a good idea, but it would even be better if you could prevent that frustration from happening even from the start.
Rene: What impressed me was that you came up with all this logic for the computer back before machine learning and AI were the buzzwords that we hear at every keynote. Today someone would probably just start feeding data into a machine learning model and have it do all the prediction. You built all that by hand.
Ken: Yeah. I had a set of ideas, concepts, and experiences. I'd never studied AI. I didn't have a strong background, I don't have a strong background in math. I had to think of a solution that would work for me and hopefully work for other people.
This is true, no matter where you are in creative and technical work. You have a set of tools and have to try to figure out how to use them as best as you can.
Rene: As time goes on through all of these projects, you're working on Safari. Then, you move over to the keyboard. Is that tough? Is it hard letting go of your babies? Are you in search of a new challenge?
Ken: I like to work on new things. I moved around quite a bit in my Apple career. Like you say, from Safari and WebKit, then over to the iPhone. When the iPad became the new project, I changed over to that. Later on, I did work on Apple Watch. In more recent years, 3D touch, the solid state home button on the iPhone 8.
I always tried to keep moving on to new projects. That's just my nature. There's obviously lots of other people at the company that, let's say they work on crypto. They work on security algorithms. That's what they do their whole career. Thank goodness that they do because that's an area that requires that kind of concentration and devotion.
I think of myself as more of a generalist and someone who follows...I follow my nose looking for new work all the time.
Rene: It's interesting. You need a balance of both. You need some explorers and you need some settlers. If everybody wants to work on the next big project you won't have anybody maintaining the Mac. You don't have anybody maintaining iPhone anymore.
If you don't have the explorers, you're never working on what's next.
Ken: Right. There are people who really love fixing bugs and maintaining a particular framework like AppKit on the Mac or UIKit in iOS and becoming experts in that and being the shepherd for that software over a long period of time.
Again, thank goodness that there are people who have that temperament. Maybe a greater ability to focus. I always like looking for the shiny, new nickel.
Rene: Yeah. In your career, you went from building software for the desktop, to building it for the pocket, to building it for the wrist. That's quite a transformation over time.
Ken: Again, it was a matter of following my nose and looking for what is an opportunity that's going to make me excited to get out of bed in the morning and go to the office and do a long day of work.
Rene: You had, in your career, also...What's the right way of saying it? The exhilaration and terror of presenting to Scott Forstall, presenting to Steve Jobs, people who are almost legendary for their code and product reviews.
Was that an aspect that you enjoyed, almost like trial by fire? Or is that the least looking forward to...?
Ken: I actually liked it a lot. I found that...My real goal was to get products into the hands of people in the world. Clearly, the way that Apple was structured back in the period when I worked there, and certainly in the period around the years of the iPhone, if you were going to get a significant new user interface element in a new product, Steve was going to have to see it and approve it.
This was simply a part of the company process. You had to work within it, in some respects. I actually liked it personally because I respected people like Scott and Steve. I respected their opinion. They were incredibly sharp and amazingly good at giving these quick and correct reactions when they saw new work.
Rene: I've heard this from designers. I don't know if the same thing is true of engineers so I'll ask. I've often heard that when Scott was there he was really good at getting you down to those two or three options that he was fairly certain Steve would like one of but whenever Scott wasn't there and you had a range of options it was much harder for everyone to figure out what to actually show Steve.
Ken: Scott did have this amazing ability to act as...I guess you could call it a gatekeeper. He would be the second level decider, winnowing these options down so that...He had a really good sense of, like you say, what Steve would like and what he would approve.
The thing was, you couldn't just show Steve a single option because, in some ways, it's like that's picking the winner for him. He wanted to see and be sure that the people on the development team, people like me more on the technical side, and then people like Greg Christie, and Bas Ording, and Imran Chaudhry on the design side.
Separately, each of us in our respective fields, and then, together, bringing the design and the technical work together. That we had explored the area completely and that...It's easier to decide yes for a specific demo if you've got a couple of nos around it. Does that make sense?
Rene: Yeah, absolutely.
It also seems like it gets more challenging as time goes on. Apple had the Mac, and then the iPod, and then the iPhone, and the iPad, and then Apple Watch. The customer target, but also the product target, kept getting bigger and bigger.
Ken: It does become a process of balancing things out. Now you can imagine an experience like in calendaring, for instance. You can have an experience on all of those platforms, on all of those devices. How do you make it seem similar enough so that it's not confusing, but then different enough so that the experience is ideally suited and tailored to the device that you're looking at, and that things all communicate, that it all just works.
It's a huge challenge.
Rene: It's something...Exactly like you said. It has to be respectful of the device that it's on, but it also has to be respectful of the person trying to use it on all those devices.
Ken: It is a very big challenge. When you think back to when I started at Apple in 2001 to work on Safari, the company's main product was the Mac. It was the company's only product. It was a really interesting time that I joined the company, which was June of 2001. It was three months after the first release of Mac OS X.
When I started, I was running Cheetah on my Mac. That was in March. In June, I joined. It was only October, so four months later, that the iPod was announced. I got this view of Apple right at the point where it was going to start that transition from being Apple Computer to being Apple Inc.
Rene: A company everybody counted out to a company that everybody counts on.
Ken: Right. That's a good way of putting it. Mac's market share back in those days was, I think you could be a little bit generous and say, five percent. It's a totally different mindset that you have working at the company and developing products as an underdog.
Totally different to how it is now. Apple's a trillion-dollar company. It's a pretty amazing transformation that I don't think any of us could have foreseen.
Rene: If you told that, Ken, that within a decade most people would be walking around with some flavor of Nix in their pocket, running some flavor of Conqueror on their phone or on their watch, I probably would have thought they weren't sane.
Ken: It would have been crazy. Not only having one device, but sitting around me on my desk and in my pocket, I've got multiple devices all doing this.
Of course, the key to that was to put that kind and gentle face on these systems that have their roots going back, like the kernel for the operating system has its roots going back into the '60s with text mode interfaces.
It shows the long evolution of this software and the effort that's been applied over time to make it kinder and gentler and more friendly while it all worked.
Rene: How did it feel when you decided that you'd had enough, at least for now. That you didn't have to chase after the next device, or the next product, or the next software feature and you could try something else for a while?
Ken: Try something else as in leave Apple and write a book?
Rene: Yeah, totally.
Ken: It was a very difficult decision. In some ways, I think of working at Apple for over 15 years, really almost 16, it was like a marriage.
Rene: You still say, "We," right? [laughs]
Ken: I have trouble, yeah. I identify very personally with the experience of working at Apple. I probably said "We," plenty of times during this conversation we've been having.
It came to the point where I needed to decide, "What does come next? Is it just the next product?" I've done a bunch of products. The ones that we've mentioned, Safari, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, some other software pieces even after that.
I decided that maybe there's time in my career for one more big change, one more big reinvention. I decided to make that a bigger reinvention outside of the friendly confines of Apple. It was a hard decision. I feel fortunate that after leaving that I discovered this book writing project as soon as I did. That's what I've been on for the last year and more.
Rene: One of the things that impressed me so much about the book is that a lot of people say...This happens in all businesses. "Someone's going to leave and write a tell all." This is absolutely not that. There's nothing salacious about this. It's not you saying, "I think Apple should have gone into the UFO business and they didn't. They're a bunch of idiots and I turned out..."
This is very much...I can't call it a technical manual because there are a few code examples. They're really, really well done. You get people to understand taking things out of a refrigerator versus going to a grocery store and how that applies to code brilliantly. Brilliantly done.
Ken: Thank you.
Rene: It's so relatable, but it also is philosophical. It's deeply philosophical about what makes Apple, Apple.
Ken: I have no desire to say anything negative about my experience at Apple. I loved working there. I'm proud of the work that I did. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have had the opportunities that I did to contribute to the products that I did. That may all sound hokey or whatever, but it's true.
I think there are...As a person who spent all those years focusing on developing new products and taking part in a culture that was focused on the same thing, it seemed that there were some interesting stories and lessons to tell about those times. Whatever drama there is doesn't need to be hyped up.
There are some personal ups and downs. There's some product and software development ups and downs, but it seemed that I could tell that in a very straightforward way. All of that would come through. I certainly hope that it did.
Rene: The big example I always give, I love Aaron Sorkin. I'm a huge...I watch "The West Wing" every year, love his work. I did not like the Steve Jobs movie at all because it focused on what I thought were the least important aspects of Steve Jobs.
Maybe he was a terrible driver. That's fine. You could write a whole story about how terrible a driver Steve Jobs was, but I want to know how he made Next, and how he got the iMac done, and why he went to...
There's so many interesting things that changed the world. Whether or not he could sew or knit, completely irrelevant to me. That's what I like about your book, is that it's exactly what I would love to know about Apple while you were there. That's what you deliver.
Ken: Right. I think that for Steve, to understand Steve, it's best to start with the product. Focus on that.
It's interesting. You can go back and look at Steve's interviews that he gave over the years, or perhaps on stage with Walt Mossberg and Terry Swisher at their AllThingsD conferences. You can see, time and again, in talks like that or up on stage during the keynotes, the man was focused on making great products. That's what he was about.
For me, perhaps just because I was inspired by that, or just because of my own temperament and my own nature, that's what I like to focus on, too. That's why working at Apple all those years was such a good fit for me, because my outlook and my goals matched what the company was doing from the CEO level, Steve's level, on down.
That's the kind of book that I wanted to write because that's what I always was thinking about, thinking about the products. How to make them, how to make them better.
In the stories and the lessons that I tried to extract from those stories, that's the way it always returns to what the products are and how they could be made better and hopefully be made great.
Rene: It's funny. There's two kinds of...I'm going to totally generalize here. There's two kinds of engineers I've spoken with. One kind says they want to be at Apple. Yes, you can get more money at other places. You can get VC backing. You can get in before there's an IPO. You can do all of these things.
They have an idea that they think is going to change the world. Apple is a company where one engineer can do something like did. You can make a keyboard or can make a piece of software that ends up powering literally the computing experience of a generation.
There's another kind who ways, "I would never want to work at Apple because I am one of a thousand beige shirts sitting in these cubicles. No matter what I get wrong, no one's ever going to know that it was me."
It seems Apple really attracts those first kinds of people.
Ken: My career shows that if you have this focus on making the products, you actually can make a difference in the experiences that people have out in the world. That was always...
I'm pleased, thinking back, about how it turned out because, again, you don't know how things are going to turn out while you're in the midst of doing them. As it turned out, products like Safari and WebKit, that's how most people surf the web these days, both on desktop and mobile.
There's no way that we could have foreseen, back in the time, that it was going to be as successful as that. Of course, the iPhone with the touchscreen operating system, set the example that now this is the kind of device that people have in their pockets all over the world.
With that focus on making products and carving out a little slice for yourself, as I did, and as did so many other people around me. Yeah, you can, both individually and collectively, make a difference.
Rene: It's amazing. I have two final questions for you.
Rene: One is, now that you're part of the large consumer base is there anything in technology you're most looking forward to next? I know there's a lot of experimentation going on. There are haptic interfaces and augmented reality interfaces and cybernetics. There's all sorts of things. We can go all the way up to the "Star Trek" paradigm.
As a consumer is there, five years from now, something that you want to own?
Ken: Yeah. Augmented reality is very interesting to me. I think that has the potential to be the kind of software that is like browsing the web and the iPhone. I think it has potential up on that magnitude. Of course, I'm not alone.
The way that I would describe is it could be the kind of software that you use without thinking about it, and once we get it, it would be hard to imagine what our everyday lives would be without it.
The kind of product that gets me interested and excited, is the kind of technology that will just become a part of your life, and that will integrate into so many experiences and make your life better, make it easier, give you access to all of the information that the network has on it and deliver it in hopefully a friendly way.
Look, when I'm in the cereal aisle, I want to know whether...
Rene: [laughs] .
Ken: ...Froot Loops or this granola next to it, which one is really healthier. Is there so much sugar in that granola that's hiding that it would actually be better for me to get the Froot Loops or not?
Maybe that's an obvious question. It would be really interesting to be able to hold up my phone to these two things and have the software answer a question for me that I want answered right there at the moment.
Rene: I want that so badly...
Rene: Ever since J.A.R.V.I.S. The other question is where can people get Creative Selection if they're interested? They should be interested.
Ken: I hope people are interested. You can go type into your favorite search engine the two words "creative selection." That will get you through to probably either my web page or an Amazon page.
You could go directly to the website for my book. It's creativeselection, all one word, .io, creativeselection.io. You'll get all of the buying options for it there. I hope people do that and they get the book and they read it and enjoy it.
Rene: They absolutely will. If people want to follow you on social?
Ken: That would be @kocienda. That's K-O-C-I-E-N-D-A on Twitter. If that name is a little bit confusing, you should be able to find it, again, by just typing in "creative selection." My name should show up. Then it's just @kocienda, my last name, on Twitter. That's how to follow me.
Rene: Ken, thank you so much, not just for being on the show, but for writing this book. I said at the beginning. I'll say it again. It's the best thing...
Rene: ...on Apple that's been written to date.
Ken: Thank you so much, Rene. It was great chatting with you. Man, maybe you should do this again sometime.
Rene: Yeah, I would love that. Thank you.
As always, you can reach me @reneritchie on all the social things. Thank you so much for listening.
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