How Steve Jobs Thought Different with Ken Kocienda | Disrupt SF (Day 3)
11:28PM Sep 7, 2018
I'm just gonna bring up our next guest. He's the author of creative selection. Please welcome to the stage Ken Kocienda and your moderator, Romain Dillet.
I'm very excited about this interview because usually we have a bunch of entrepreneurs. And finally, I'm interviewing a developer. I think it's going to be a bomb, more honest interview, and maybe less, you know, prepared.
So you just wrote a book. It's right here. It's called creative selection. It was released just a couple of days ago, three days ago, I think, and it's about your time at Apple. You worked there for 15 years, something like that.
Yes. 15 almost 16.
And as you say, you were at like one of the most interesting times for the company. So maybe let's go to the very beginning when you first joined Apple.
How did you feel because there was no iPads, no iPhone? It was just the Mac, Steve Jobs was back. But it was just a laptop company and desktop computer company.
Right, right. When I joined apple in June of 2001, mac os 10 had just come out three months earlier, but the iPod was still four months in the future. And so Apple was an underdog. It's kind of hard to remember back to those times.
But Steve really had this this mission in his mind for the company. And a vision for it is to make apple relevant again, you know, the Mac had 5% market share and and probably most of us were using Microsoft Windows. Yeah, yeah. And, and so with products like the iPod and then the iPhone following it. Apple became, yeah, relevant not only in the market, right, but in people's minds again.
Yeah, you even say in the book that at the time there was the time magazine cover, I think.
Right where there was actually wired. Wired? Yeah. Yeah. Wired with the Apple logo with barbed wire around it. And the one word beneath said pray because Apple was still may be in danger of going out of business.
The first thing that surprised me in the book is that when you started working on safari yes for the first couple of years, and the size of the teams is incredibly small, right, at first was just like two engineers, right, with Don Melton, I think that's right. And then Richard Williamson join you but even at the end of the projects were like 12 or 15.
Yeah, it there was probably a dozen people checked in code to Safari and WebKit before we released a beta. So the teams were very, very small. And part of the way that we did that was we relied on open source, we found a terrific open source project to use as the basis of our work and yeah, we stood on the shoulders of giants, as they say. Right?
Yeah. And Safari. I think it's a great example of the culture at Apple, which is pretty top down.
You had one mission and that mission came right from the top, from the top executives, even Steve Jobs, right? Yeah. And how do you feel about what was this mission? And how do you feel about following someone's word who is like six levels above?
You see that you know, to me, Apple was this great combination of top down management from Steve he was always very decisive. He knew what he wanted and and he had great taste as well.
But he what he did was he set these assignments and gave them out to the project teams but then we were responsible for coming up with the answers, original answers. And and we could meet the goals that he set for us in the way that we thought best. But he wasn't micromanaging us. He just gave us this this high level goal and then told us go so.
Like a semester homework assignment?
Well you see, the most many if really most of the projects that I worked on at Apple had these year to 18 months 12 to 18 months timeframes from from the moment that that you started work to customers were getting the product or or Steve was standing up on on this stage holding up a product.
So it was it was the time frames were pretty compressed. In other words, these weren't years long research and development efforts you were given a an idea and and you had to get started right away to make it start making it happen.
And Safari was your first experience of seeing Steve Jobs on stage introducing a project that you worked on, right. How did you feel at the time when you were in the room watching Steve Jobs talk about Safari?
Yeah. Well, nervous, of course. Yeah. There's no doubt because the, the demos, Apple demos are live. And so there he was on stage. And as actually with Safari, one of the pages that Steve wanted to load was the New York Times and we had a crashing bug about one or 2% of the time. We don't know why, I don't think even to this day, when you loaded that page. Yeah, the browser would just crash. And so we're sitting out in the audience hoping that that we wouldn't just hit that, that that uncommon bug, and of course, we didn't, thankfully. But these demos were meant to show the real product. And so there was no there was no fakery and and so we we were, yeah, we were we were nervous and hopeful that people would like what we made.
And obviously people in the audience many of us have seen this demo demos. But even internally, you have a ton of demos like throughout the book you keep talking about the demo for the iPad, keyboard and, and, and Safari and other stuff. It feels like Apple's culture comes down to demos all the time. It's not even a conversation between people. It's a conversation between demos.
Yeah, yeah, the Apple product development culture is based very much on showing rather than telling. So if anybody ever had an idea for a new feature, an addition to a product or perhaps even a new product, the first goal was to go and create something concrete.
There was it wasn't a matter of drawing a picture on a whiteboard and making arrows between and and and trying to get somebody to see something in your mind to get two people having the same picture in their mind is pretty difficult yet it gets to be easy. It's much easier if you can show. So,
if I had two chocolate chip cookies in my hands right now I could ask you to taste one and then taste the other. And you could tell me which one you like better. It's simple.
And it's the same thing with software. If I create a demo and load it on to an iPhone and I show it to you, you can tell me right away what your reactions are. You don't really have to think it's like, Yes, I understand what you're trying to show me or not. And of course, the standard at Apple was to always make it very, very clear what the product was supposed to do. And so we started building that in from the earliest demo from the earliest prototypes. That was the the working methods is that we had to show something concrete rather than talk about abstractions.
And the highlight of your career at Apple. I think it's working on iPhone software.
And this is clearly the best part of the book. It's, as my boss said, it reads like a thriller for project nerds. So you follow along the pages, all the dots and self reflection out, is it going to work, we are going to be able to ship this project or not. It's It's very good. And many people actually still use today some of the mechanisms that you've developed at Apple, including auto correct, for instance.
Right, right, well, that was my that was my project for the for the original iPhone. Of course, one of the challenges for the product was to make this software keyboard make a touchscreen keyboard so you could type on a sheet of glass and so of course if you think back to smartphones in the
Pre iPhone era certainly we had smartphones. But and the one that sticks out I think in most everybody's mind is the Blackberry. Yeah. Right. With the smaller screen, keyboard, smaller screen of type. Exactly. And, and the plastic keyboard underneath that you could feel you could touch those keys with your fingers and feel them. And a lot of people got used to the crack berry right was the was the nickname because people were addicted to how well the product works. So this was this is what we were up against. And and so my challenge was to figure out how to get rid of that hardware keyboard because the iPhone was never going to have one. There were no plans there was there was never part of the product concept. The keyboard had to be in software. And of course, the real advantage of that. I mean, part of Steve's mission for the product was to make the keyboard software so that he could get out of the way you know, when you weren't typing to open up the device for apps to give that screen real estate over to apps.
And so you could have a better experience and then of course once third party apps became available then the iPhone really took off so this you know the the keyboard was a part of the whole vision of the product from from from day one.
How do you feel today when you both Twitter and you see jokes but like I was trying to type the F word and it was dark that appear for instance?
Right right well, you know it's this is part of of the of the apple approach it's okay to all of you out there who have who have had that happen to them. I'm sorry in a way but thinking about from from from the design standpoint,
you wanted to type a word that begins with F and instead you got duck Okay, so maybe that's that's wasn't what you were looking for. But consider the other situation let's say you were trying to type the word you were trying to type duck and instead you missed and the keyboard let you have the dirty word right? And maybe you're texting to your to your grandma about,
you know a vacation how you saw docs on this beautiful pond where you're staying, you know this house near the water you don't want the other word to go through to her and so you know again I mean if it's a matter of of making a choice it's probably better to make sure that the dirty word isn't inserted by mistake rather than you know some sometimes having the inconvenience of having to correct for your foul language to make sure you get it.
So let's talk about secrecy for a second. When you joined the iPhone team, the purple team, you had no idea what you were getting into. You had to sign an NDA.
Most people at the company didn't know that Apple was working on the phone. How did you feel when you realize that? Okay, I signed this. And then five seconds later, somebody tells you it's a phone. How did you feel?
It was really a wonderful surprise. I I really, from the very beginning, I realized that I had an opportunity to contribute to a whole new class of product for Apple. And, you know, but the thing is, none of us at the time had any idea that the iPhone was going to work out as well as it did there was you know, I would like to sit here and say, Oh, yes. Well, we had a vision and we were sure that touchscreen smartphones, we're going to be the future and whatever.
We didn't know. We we were hopeful. And of course, we were working hard and we did our best and and and we believed in the vision of the product, but there was there was no way we could really predict the things were turn out as well as they did. And so there was a lot of stress and a lot of pressure.
Yeah, it feels like you worked for a couple of years. very intensely even talk about some some some moments where Scott Forstall had to take your baseball bat to let someone out for instance.
Right, well, there were some times I mean, the development of the iPhone was, was very stressful. But, but we actually kept the progress going pretty in on a pretty steady basis. But even then we did have these moments where, where a colleague was, was very upset, slams the door to an office and the door handle breaks and, and, and, you know, and and now and now she's stranded in her office and and security came and couldn't couldn't get the door open.
So. Yeah. Scott Forstall who was you know the executive in charge of iOS at the time actually beat the door off with the baseball bat in the security guard was was what's going on here. And he's like, it's like, Okay, I'm a VP I can sign for this. Nothing didn't know no problem. But most of the time, things didn't bubble over to the point where the people needed to be broken out of offices with baseball bat.
It's clear that you were driven by passion to work so hard. So when maybe a couple of years later you saw androids basically using the same keyboard as the one you worked on, did you think they robbed you?
I didn't think so. Really, you know, most honestly, my goal for all of the work that I did at Apple was to make great products and to have a a wonderful experience for people who are buy the products and and and bring them into their lives and and and use them hopefully.
To do something that they consider useful and meaningful, and, and at least from, from my standpoint, as a product developer, if smartphones got better because of the example that other competing companies looked to Apple as, as an example of what these products should look like, and work like.
To me as, as, as an individual, I, I thought it's like, well, in some ways we won. I mean, understand that there are business concerns that would maybe require a different answer. But as just a individual product designer, it didn't bother me, copying is was is a compliment.
And you're very nice to everyone in the in the book, you just have compliments to everyone. But you know for instance, Scott Forstall, he got pushed out of Apple maybe four or five years after the release of iOS and you don't talk about this at all?
Well, you see part part of that it's actually really all of that is because I ended the book at the end of the Steve Jobs era, right? When Steve departed the scene, that's when the book ends. To me, that was a moment that I think everybody who knows about Apple and practicing people care about Apple that they can identify with that this was this was the close of, of a period for for the company that the founder leaving the scene. And so, yes, you mentioned Scott Forstall then leaving the company subsequently but that was a year after Steve's.
Funny that you mentioned the Steve Jobs era because at the end of the book, you allude to something else as well. You said that you you left Apple last year or two years ago.
No it's a march of 2017. So not quite a year and a half.
Yeah, a year and a half. You say that most of the people we were working with left over the years because something had changed at Apple, the culture has changed.
What did you mean by that?
Right. Again, going back to what I said at the beginning of our conversation, you know, Apple was a different company, much smaller company, and underdog back when I joined in 2001, and with one product, the Mac and and you fast forward through then the years that I worked at the company is a much bigger company with with many product lines. And, and for me, I found that I enjoyed working on those early stage products, kind of the, the, you know, the scrappy company trying to
taught a course for itself so that it would make it so that it would survive and and I found that working at at of at a big company and, and working on version 9, 10, 11, 12 of software was just wasn't as much to my liking so so it's one of the reasons why then I went and wrote this book it was something that I haven't it right writing something that I never tried before so it was an opportunity for me to try to reinvent and and and it it it made me think again about going and working on a touchscreen operating system which was something that I had never done right it was just something new.
And I'm going to quote your book. At some points, you you define the apple way and you say it's a small group of people that build a work culture based on applying the seven essential elements through an ongoing process of creative selection. So a small group of people do you think Apple just got too big now?
I, it's it's hard to say too big because when you have these products with all of these features and and and the the press to keep improving them on these very very tight schedules This is one of the most complicated things to do in software development is to keep the schedules keep the the progression going so you know the folks that are are there now and the executives in charge our art are trying to keep a lot of balls in the air at once and you know that's their responsibility to figure out the best way to do that and and I think with with Apple becoming the first trillion dollar company and when with the new products coming out next week that everybody's really excited to see what they are. I mean this this is working.
Are you excited about it?
Of course. Yeah. I love I I use Apple products. Yeah, all the time, every day. I wrote my my book on a Mac. Of course I did. Yeah.
Cool. Unfortunately, that's all the time we have, but I really recommend reading it. It's one of the better books on Apple, I would say and it's now available. Thank you very much.