Technology

Apple’s secrecy created engineer burnout, led to new approach

Apple’s secrecy when it comes to product development is one of the defining characteristics of the company. But a former Apple HR exec said that it came at a high price: engineer burnout and frustration. Ultimately, he argues, it stifled innovation within the company.

Chris Deaver, who was a senior HR business partner at Apple from 2015 to 2019, says that the company tried an experiment with the development of AirPods Proto see whether it was possible to create a more collaborative working environment while still ensuring secrecy …

Deaver wrote in a Fast Company piece that he understood Apple’s motivation for secrecy.

Secrecy is a value it held dear, to preserve the “surprise and delight” for customers. The kind that arrives on the day of launch when nobody (not even most employees) anticipate how insanely great new products will be.

But he said that he very quickly realized the dark side of different teams working in silos.

Hoarding of critical information. Pushing staff agendas. Fighting. As a new HR business partner, I was often pulled into these escalations. And it was usually about “that team not sharing.”

He said it was so bad that engineers didn’t even know who they could and couldn’t talk to about their work.

I’d hear one new employee after another, brilliant people, asking the essential question: “How do I operate like this? If I can only share information with certain people, how do I know who and when? I don’t want to end up fired or in jail.”

The friction created by these separate silos meant that it was super stressful when they did eventually come together, even creating enemies among people from different teams.

Teams were innovating for months in silos only to finally converge in the eleventh hour before launch, ending up in five- or six-hour-long daily meetings, causing tremendous friction and burnout. People were frustrated. They wanted to leave or to “never work with that one person again.”

Deaver found that the camera teams within Apple had a different approach, creating a ‘braintrust’ which operated across silos.

We discovered “The Camera Braintrust” (as in iPhone camera, or the cameras in any hardware devices), or “CBT,” and applied these key ingredients: a weekly cross-staff transparency session, focusing on a vulnerable or open approach to sharing challenges they were facing. Each leader and team with a voice, each sharing exactly where they were in their development, and what they needed from the other teams. This led to cycles of innovation that had accelerated the camera technology to new heights, making it the gold standard of collaboration.

Frustratingly, no explanation is given for why the camera teams were allowed to operate in this more open manner. But it did provide an example for Deaver and others to point to, persuading senior Apple execs to test the same approach with the development of the AirPods Pro.

This was deemed a success, and a somewhat more open approach was rolled out across other product teams within Apple in an initiative known as Different Together.

What emerged was a culture shift to what we called “Different Together,” the next-level notion for Apple’s future. Combining the power of the historic definition of “Think Different,” which highlighted the strength of infinite variety in voices, with the power of doing it all “Together.” All of this is enabled by being better at sharing.

Understandably, Deaver doesn’t go into details on the compromise between secrecy and collaboration, but it appears that the AirPods Pro set a precedent for at least a somewhat more open development process.

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