Work Habits at Apple

In Debug 47, former Apple managers Don Melton and Nitin Ganatra talk about, among many other things, work habits at Apple. Here’s a transcript of the relevant section, starting at the 23-minute mark (edited for clarity, emphasis mine):

Don Melton: I wrote that blog post a couple of years ago after I retired about how Sunday is a work night for everybody at Apple.

Nitin Ganatra: Right.

Melton: Because it’s the exec meeting the next day. So you had your phone out there, you were sitting in front of your computer, it didn’t matter if your favorite show was on.

This was especially worse after The Sopranos ended because for a while there, you could count on the hour that The Sopranos was on that Scott [Forstall] wouldn’t bug you ’cause he was watching The Sopranos. And that was your reprieve. You could go to the bathroom, you could have a conversation with your family, you know, whatever. But after that—

And Scott was a late-night kind of guy. He was not a morning guy at all. You were basically on until, like, 2 o’clock in the morning. How many times do you feel you got emails from him at 1:30 or 2:00?

Ganatra: Maybe we can piece together the way Scott actually worked on Sunday from this. I remember my emails from Scott started at about 11:00 am on Sunday. And if they didn’t start at 11:00 on Sunday, then I always felt he must be doing something fun today. […]

Melton: Oh really? ’Cause I used to get the stuff from Bertrand [Serlet] early Sunday morning and I didn’t start getting the stuff from Scott, it was random through the day. But he would always panic at the last minute.

I think part of the reason why I got the last-minute things, and probably that happened to Henri [Lamiraux] and Kim and I ’cause we reported to him directly. And so he just took extra special joy in squeezing us, I don’t know.

Usually, once he was going through Kim’s status that she prepared, my line managers would hear from him in the morning and I would get cc’ed on it. I didn’t get the direct stuff from Scott until usually late at night.

And later, starting at 00:36:03:

Melton: And by the way, when you hear the so-called apocryphal stories about Tim Cook coming to work in the wee hours and staying late, it’s not just some PR person telling you stories to make you think that Apple executives work really hard like that. They really do that. I mean, these people are nuts. They’re just, they are there all the time. I know that for Bertrand, certainly when he was there, you would never know what time of the day or night you would get email from that man.

Ganatra: I mean, he didn’t really make it a secret, either, that I don’t think he slept more than three or four hours a night, right?

Melton: No. And neither did Steve.

Ganatra: […] Don, I completely agree. […] You get an email forwarded to you that’s not to you. It’s from Scott, but it’s a forward from Steve and it’s just coming at this crazy hour, right? You just know that there’s this firehose of emails that are just going out at 2:45 in the morning and there are VPs or executive VPs who are scrambling to get answers. And that was just week after week, month after month, over the years.

Guy English: So what would the people that reported to you guys tell us about reporting to you guys?

Melton: That it was wonderful, Guy!

Ganatra: That we were the best managers they ever had.

English [laughing]: Okay, so problem solved.

Melton: […] What I told my folks, and you found yourself doing this, if you forwarded something to one of your people at 1 o’clock in the morning and they didn’t reply promptly, you got a little annoyed at them. A very tiny bit, but—. I explained to people, and I have said this to Rene on the last show we did when we were talking about hiring and stuff, …

Rene Ritchie: Yeah, team building, on Vector.

Melton: … yeah, team building. When someone came into my office and said they wanna be a manager, I asked them, “How did you sleep last night?” And they said, “Oh, fairly well”. and I said, “Good, ’cause that’s the last good night’s sleep you’re gonna get.”

Because it is like that. It’s a stressful job, there’s a lot of responsibility, and you always have to be on. I mean, it’s not that it’s not fun, it’s not that it’s not fulfilling, it’s not that you don’t get to work around all these brilliant people. The bad side effect is they’re all, like, workaholic, psychotic brilliant people.

And I have also tried to explain to people by using analogy, ’cause they ask, “What’s it like being around Steve and Avie [Tevanian] and Bertrand and Scott and Phil [Schiller] and Tim [Cook]?”

And I said it’s a lot like working in a nuclear power plant, but you don’t get one of those protective suits. It’s a lot of radiation and you either learn to survive it or you die. ’Cause they’re not mean people, they’re not spiteful people, they’re not trying to trip you up, They’re just very intense and, you know, things emanate from them, right?

Ganatra: Right, they’re intense. They’re looking for the answers, you have the answer, and you cannot get the answer to them soon enough.

Melton: That is the best description of that I think I have ever heard, Nitin. That is just so true. That’s exactly it.

Ganatra: […] one of the things that I loved the most about managers that I think very highly of was that there is this balance between shielding me from the bullshit as much as they could, or shielding me from whatever interference is happening as much as they can while at the same time informing me and letting me know what’s going on and helping me, giving me all the information I need to do as good a job as I can.

And so when these emails would come down and Scott’s looking for the answer, and it’s 11 o’clock at night or whatever the hell and he needs the answer right now, if I can get that answer myself without going crazy […] and if it means that I can not bug one of my managers in the process, then I do that.

[…] if I can get the answer myself, I’m gonna do it and just shield my team and let them have a good night’s sleep. But if I can’t get that answer, if for whatever reason I don’t have that information, then I have to pass it down and find out that way.

Melton: Yeah. And it was sometimes a roll of the dice. Like, you get the email from your boss, like from Scott, and you would not be quite sure about [the answer], and then you would reply or forward, include Scott so he gets a reply, and you would send it to one of your people. And the death was if that person didn’t reply until the morning. Then that person has a black eye and you’ve just made them look bad in front of your boss.

Ganatra: Right.

Melton: And that’s what I tried to explain to people. It’s very subtle. It’s not required of you, but let’s be honest, it’s expected.

Ganatra: Right.

Melton: And that’s what you have to do. And still to this day, people ask me why I retired.

Ganatra [chuckling]: Really?

Melton: You know, there comes a time when I could actually enjoy Sunday evening in a whole new other way. And by the way, Nitin, I’m sure you’ve done this: you’ve been on vacation and taken your laptop or taken your phone or taken your pad, and I don’t know how many managers I’ve talked to or had really long conversations in email or on the phone only to find out later on that they were in another fucking country.

Ganatra: Oh my God yeah, absolutely. And to me, that’s where it started to feel a little dysfunctional when—

Melton: A little?

Ganatra: I’m on vacation and I got my laptop, I’m gonna have internet access all the time and I’m probably gonna check my email four times a day. And that’s on vacation.

Melton: Slacker! Four times?

Ganatra: You say slacker and I know you’re joking, but I think you’re probably also a little serious. You do feel like a slacker if you only check it four times. Like, if you let an email go from your boss and you let that email languish for three and a half hours before you got around to answering it, oh my God! Why am I here?

Melton: Oh, Christ! Yeah, exactly, I couldn’t do that. I had to do something right away. I said in the article that I wrote for The Loop magazine, when Steve asked you a question you didn’t ramble and whatever you did, you didn’t make up an answer. And if you didn’t know, you said that you didn’t know. And more importantly, you told him when you would have an answer.

So sometimes, when you would get these emails, you’d had to be blunt and say: “I don’t know. Here’s what I’m doing to get you that answer and when I expect it”, you said as your kids were begging you to go out and see this nice sight in France or wherever the hell you were at. I mean, that’s just what you did.

And I have sometimes have young people come up to me today and ask me about being successful in this business. And part of it is just dumb luck, being in the right place at the right time. Thank God I listened to my wife when I took that job at Apple.

But the other thing is, you have to realize to really be successful to a sin, it’s kind of a Faustian bargain you make. If you’re not willing to pay that price, it’s not gonna come to you. I hate to say that. And so you have to ask yourself, is that really the way you wanna live your life? ’Cause it’s not like I recommend it, either. You have to think long and hard about that.

And I know I’ve read a lot of studies how this is a stupid way for the tech industry to function. And that’s certainly true. But this happens all over, and it’s not just the tech industry, it’s just I think in the tech industry it’s on steroids […]. But damn, there is no way you can cruise through a job at Apple, Inc. That just does not happen for anybody I’ve ever seen.

Sure, von nichts kommt nichts, but that doesn’t sound at all healthy to me, neither for the individuals involved nor for the company as a whole (though Apple’s success seems to prove otherwise). I guess it’s fine for the executives and senior managers to work themselves to death, but expecting everybody to respond to emails at 11:00 pm on a Sunday is no way to run a company if you ask me.

I would hate to work at a company where enjoying your time off is seen as “cruising through the job” by your superiors.

The full podcast is long, but it’s definitely worth listening to for all the other great stories, as are the previous Debug episodes with Melton and Ganatra (part 1, part 2, part 3) if you can find the time.