Learning a thing or two about Apple’s secretive ‘university’

Apple’s indoctrination programme has become a topic of speculation and fascination in the tech world


Apple may well be the only tech company on the planet that would dare compare itself to Picasso.

In a class at the company’s internal training programme, the so-called Apple University, the instructor likened the 11 lithographs that make up Picasso’s The Bull to the way Apple builds its smartphones and other devices. The idea: Apple designers strive for simplicity just as Picasso eliminated details to create a great work of art.

Steve Jobs established Apple University as a way to inculcate employees into Apple’s business culture and educate them about its history, particularly as the company grew and the tech business changed. Courses are not required, only recommended, but getting new employees to enrol is rarely a problem.

Even two of Apple’s newest employees – Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine, founders of Beats, just acquired by Apple – might end up going back to school in Cupertino, California.

Although many companies have such internal programmes – sometimes referred to as indoctrination – Apple’s version is a topic of speculation and fascination in the tech world.

It is highly secretive and rarely written about, referred to briefly in the biography of Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Apple employees are discouraged from talking about the company in general, and the classes are no exception. No pictures of the classrooms have surfaced publicly. A spokeswoman for Apple declined to make instructors available for interviews for this article.

Meticulously planned

But three employees who have taken classes agreed to be interviewed on the condition that they not be identified. They describe a programme that is an especially vivid reflection of Apple and the image it presents to the world. Like an Apple product, it is meticulously planned, with polished presentations and a gleaming veneer that masks a great deal of effort.

“Even the toilet paper in the bathrooms is really nice,” one of the employees says.

Unlike many corporations, Apple runs its training in-house, year round. The full-time faculty – including instructors, writers and editors – create and teach the courses. Some faculty members come from universities such as Yale, Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford and MIT, and some continue to hold positions at their schools while working for Apple.

The programme was devised by Joel Podolny, then the dean of Yale school of management. Jobs selected him when the programme was founded, in 2008, and he remains head of the effort. He is also vice- president of human resources at Apple.

On an internal website available only to Apple staff, employees sign up for courses tailored to their positions and backgrounds. For example, one class taught founders of recently acquired companies how to smoothly blend resources and talents into Apple. The company may also offer a course tailored specifically to employees of Beats. That could be the one for Dr Dre, born Andre Young, and Jimmy Iovine. Neither Apple nor Beats would comment.

Some of the courses teach case studies about important historical business decisions that Apple made, one of the employees says, including the decision to make the iPod and its iTunes software compatible with Microsoft’s Windows system. This was a topic of fierce debate among executives.

Jobs hated the idea of sharing the iPod with Windows, but he eventually acquiesced to his lieutenants. It turned out that opening the iPod to Windows users led to explosive growth of the music player and the iTunes Store, an ecosystem that would later contribute to the success of the iPhone.

The classes are taught on Apple’s Cupertino campus in a section of buildings called City Center and are as thoughtfully planned as an Apple product, the Apple employees say.

The rooms are well lit and constructed in a trapezoid shape; seats in the back rows are elevated so that everyone has a clear view of the instructor. Occasionally, classes are given in Apple’s overseas offices, like one in China, and the professors travel there to teach.

Randy Nelson, who came from the animation studio Pixar, co-founded by Jobs, is one of the teachers of “Communicating at Apple”.

This course, which is open to various levels of employees, focuses on clear communication, not just for making products intuitive, but also for sharing ideas with peers and marketing products.

Picasso comparison

In a version of the class taught last year, Nelson showed a slide of The Bull, a series of 11 lithographs of a bull that Picasso created over about a month, starting in late 1945. In the early stages, the bull has a snout, shoulder shanks and hooves, but over the iterations, those details vanish. The last image is a curvy stick figure that is still unmistakably a bull.

“You go through more iterations until you can simply deliver your message in a very concise way, and that is true to the Apple brand and everything we do,” recalls one person who took the course.

In “What Makes Apple, Apple”, another course that Nelson occasionally teaches, he showed a slide of the remote control for the Google TV, according to an employee who took the class last year. The remote has 78 buttons. Then, the employee says, Nelson displayed a photo of the Apple TV remote, a thin piece of metal with just three buttons.

How did Apple’s designers decide on three buttons? They started out with an idea, Nelson explained, and debated until they had just what was needed – a button to play and pause a video, a button to select something to watch, and another to go to the main menu.

The Google TV remote serves as a counterexample; it had so many buttons because the individual engineers and designers who worked on the project all got what they wanted. But Apple’s designers concluded that only three were really needed.

‘Best things’

“The Best Things”, another course, takes its name from a quote by Jobs. The course’s purpose is to remind employees to surround themselves with the best things, like talented peers and high-quality materials, so that they can do their best work.

One of the teachers for this course, Joshua Cohen, a Stanford professor, brought up Central Park in New York. The space for the park was originally a rocky swamp. But, Cohen said, its designers wanted to transform it into an area that gave urban residents the experience of nature.

The comparison was to one of Jobs’s goals: to make complex computer technologies feel understandable and natural.

Ben Bajarin, a consumer technology analyst for Creative Strategies, says Apple University will take on even more importance as Apple continues to grow.

“When you do the case studies on Apple decades from now, the one thing that will keep coming out is this unique culture where people there believe they’re making the best products that change people’s lives,” Bajarin says.

“That’s all cultural stuff they’re trying to ingrain. That becomes very difficult the bigger you get.” – (New York Times service)

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