A rare peek inside Apple University, or how to think like Steve Jobs

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How will the culture Steve Jobs cultivated at Apple continue to live on after his death? That was the main question being asked when Jobs lost the battle to cancer in 2011.

Part of the answer is a program Jobs put together around the time of the original iPhone launch. Apple University, which works almost exactly like you would imagine, teaches employees about the company’s history and ethos. Real class names include “Communicating at Apple,” “What Makes Apple, Apple,” and “The Best Things.”

In the most in-depth look at the educational program to date, The New York Times sheds light on the kinds of classes Ivy League professors teach about everything from designing like Picasso to choosing which buttons go on a TV remote.

In a profile published Sunday night, the Times detailed Apple University based on speaking with three anonymous Apple employees who went through the program.

Apple University was briefly touched on in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, and here’s what the LA Times reported in 2011:

“Steve was looking to his legacy. The idea was to take what is unique about Apple and create a forum that can impart that DNA to future generations of Apple employees,” said a former Apple executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve his relationship with the company. “No other company has a university charged with probing so deeply into the roots of what makes the company so successful.”

Jobs brought on Joel Podolny, the former dean of Yale’s School of Management, to run the program in 2008. Its full-time faculty members come from schools like Harvard, Berkeley, M.I.T., and Stanford. New and existing employees can just sign up for classes like college students.

One particular teaching moment the Times shares is how the Apple design process is like Picasso’s, who ironically is the source of a famous quote that is commonly attributed to Steve Jobs.  Designing to simplify is the idea:

In a version of the class taught last year, Mr. 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,” recalled one person who took the course.

The whole article is definitely worth a read.

  • Brian Wright

    There isn’t such a thing as an Apple University to ‘think like Steve Jobs’. If such a thing existed, Tim Cook wouldn’t be scrambling to keep Apple’s stock price up by producing has-been-but-claimed-to-be new hardware designs. For example, a fold over combination iPad and Mac Book Air could have been a reality two revisions back. Yet, instead, we have been handed an inconsistent biometric thumb scanner button, but only on some devices. An iPad with 256G should have been a reality at the iPad 3, yet we’re still at a 128G iPad Air. The iPad Air should have shipped with a 1TB version. And a stereo iPhone or iPad is something that could have been a reality on the iPad 2. No one over at Apple is pushing the innovation envelope and that’s exactly what Steve Jobs did. Clearly, they are not teaching innovation at ‘Apple University’.

    Considering I’ve now seen a transparent touch display on the front of a drink cooler at Whole Foods, this is now something that’s a reality. Apple was known for using cutting edge technology to ‘tell’ people what they need instead of copying from other companies. If the the ‘biometric button’ and ‘blinding white UI interfaces’ are all the ideas that are left at Apple, the innovation there is gone.

    • Grunt_at_the_Point

      That’s weird. Reading your comment I’d think Apple would be dead. Yet the company is thriving while the PC industry is struggling. Apple’s future could not be brighter. The iPad and the iPhone are the hottest devices on the market. Essentially your list of improvements are things that you want. Hello! the world does not revolve around you.

      • Brian Wright

        Like many people, you’ve made one critically incorrect assumption, that innovation and keeping a company in business are somehow tied together. Both IBM and Microsoft have more than proven that you don’t have to innovate to remain in business. All you need to do is change a few icons, rearrange a few color schemes, add a new (unnecessary tool) here and there, tack on a new version number and release it. Oh, and steal ideas from other companies. That’s not innovation, that’s stagnation and mediocrity. And, it is catching up with Microsoft in marketshare erosion, lost revenue and inability to keep up. Even the latest Xbox One from M$ is not being well received due bad design decisions by Microsoft, removal of key features from the previous version and lack of new games.

        Apple is following (the word ‘following’ being key here) in these same footsteps. Once the leader in innovation, they have quickly fallen into a repackager and a follower of trends. Instead of pushing the envelope (smaller, lighter, faster, more memory, new form factor) and now take an existing device, slap a pretty bow on it and call it new, but with one critical downside, it offers us nothing new functionally and solely pulls and uses ideas from other companies. Why would you want to re-buy what you already have with one new thing that really doesn’t even matter (i.e., biometric thumb scanner)? If you like throwing your money away on new devices, enjoy.

        As one shining perfect example of rehashed mediocrity, if you think iTunes 11 was a ground-breaking redesign, you clearly have no clue about what is considered innovative or good design. iTunes 11 took something that was completely functional (iTunes 10) and turned it into a jumbled design mess full of inconsistency, added inefficiency (3 or more clicks where there used to be 1), reduced the UI speed, buried functionality that used to be right on top and outright removed useful features. And someone greenlit and approved this at Apple. Don’t even get me started with that blinding-white kindergarten mess of a UI in iOS 7.

        And those examples I list, are just that, examples. They are not on my ‘wishlist’ as I don’t care if they exist or not (all except for the extra memory which would be entirely useful). And note, other tablet manufacturers are already doing many of these things that I list. There are plenty of other ideas that I haven’t and won’t list here. It’s unfortunate that people only see what they want to see in a company. You keep telling yourself that the next great thing is coming out of Apple. In reality, it’s not… not with Tim Cook at the helm. Eventually, hopefully, someone over in Cupertino may wake up and understand this. Until then, enjoy your rehashed devices and reused operating systems wrapped in pretty new bows, but with few truly innovative features. Unfortunately, Apple has squandered precious time when it could have kept its innovative lead. Now it’s having to play catch-up with other companies.

        It’s certain, Apple is in no danger of closing. If there’s one thing Tim Cook is very good at, it’s the business of keeping the devices flowing out the door. That’s critical to keeping the money rolling in and in keeping Apple in business. However, there’s a marked difference between being great at running a business and being an innovative leader. This is the reason Steve Jobs was there. Tim was there to run the day-to-day operation of the business, Jobs innovated. You lose one half of this equation and you get iTunes 11, iOS7 and the iPhone 5c.

      • Grunt_at_the_Point

        Apple has become a victim of its own success. Through a cleaver marketing campaign Apple has built itself into a company where many of its customers have high expectations. In the eyes of those who want more and different gadgets each year, their attitude is what have you done for me lately.

        There is a limit to the number of new products that can be created over a certain period of time. Innovation by one company is influenced by the innovations of other companies. For example, the work Intel has done to miniaturize its CPUs as well as making them more powerful enable Apple to continue to reduce the size or bulk and weight of its devices as well as increasing the capacity of those devices to perform more tasks. If there are no new components to innovate with then innovation is curtailed.

        There is a tendency by some to devalue IOS and OSX enhancements contribution to innovation. More people and companies are realizing the value of Apple ego system. Apple’s partnership with IBM was driven by its desire to improve its enterprise capacity. From my point of view it is not necessary for Apple to come out with a new product every year. Making current products more useful is just as innovative as the anticipated iWatch. There is no need to saturate the market with products that may not sell and do not provide the profit margins that Apple wants.

        I think Apple’s slow and steady approach is the right one. The iPad and iPhone were major breakthroughs. I don’t foresee, at least in the near term, products of that magnitude being developed. Apple is not sitting around resting on its past successes, it continues with its research and development at an increase pace. It is expanding into new markets. It is incorporating new software projects, e.g., Healthkit and Maps, to name the most obvious, into IOS and OSX. The software enhancements might not be as clamorous as the hardware but it is nonetheless just as innovative and useful.

        When compared to the PC, smartphone, and tablet manufacturers individually, Apple continues to lead.

        I sense you are a Steve Jobs disciple and your perception that Apple has become a “follower” is the fault of Tim Cook. Who knows, maybe Jobs would have come up with other devices. One thing is certain though. Jobs is not at Apple anymore. Apple today is what it is.

    • T Rauncher

      So much that you don’t know and so much more that you haven’t even considered. Myopia much?

      • Brian Wright

        Bad debater much? What kind of a comment is this? No substance and name calling? Typical internet troll. Learn some skillz before jumping on that-there device with them-there Internetz.

      • T Rauncher

        Again,, So much that you don’t know. So very much… perhaps Messieurs Dunning & Krueger could shed some light on my comment for you. It was obviously several thousand feet above your head.

        Your first problem is that you assume that anyone wishes to debate you. You pretend to know why Apple, Microsoft, IBM make decisions, but you actually know only what you read in trade rags… and eagerly regurgitate it… Again, you might want to read the epic work of Messieurs Dunning & Krueger. Self help is just around the corner for you.

        Cheers,
        Good luck with…. well… everything….

      • Brian Wright

        Once again, cryptic trolls. No thanks. Though, I suggest you read them as you, like most sheeple, clearly believe everything you read from random individuals who purport to know everything about everything. Enjoy.

About the author

Alex HeathAlex Heath is a senior writer at Cult of Mac and co-host of the CultCast. He has been quoted by the likes of the BBC, KRON 4 News, and books like "ICONIC: A Photographic Tribute to Apple Innovation." If you want to pitch a story, share a tip, or just get in touch, additional contact information is available on his personal site. Twitter always works too.

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