How Apple’s first COO turned ‘chaotic’ company into international powerhouse

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Yocam with Steve Jobs
Del Yocam (center) chats with Steve Jobs.
Photo: Del Yocam

Long before Tim Cook brought his operations wizardry to Apple, Del Yocam lent his logistical prowess to Cupertino. Apple’s first chief operating officer, he helped transform the company from a chaotic, scrappy startup into a streamlined manufacturing powerhouse.

He also served as an early mentor to Steve Jobs, the young Apple co-founder who sometimes seemed out of his depth in 1979.

“When I first got to know him, he was lost,” Yocam told Cult of Mac. “He was no longer involved in the Apple II and no one wanted him around, especially management. He didn’t care about money at that time. He was like an orphan, living away from home.”

In many ways, Yocam was the proto-Tim Cook, a manufacturing and operations specialist who helped transform a dysfunctional startup into a massive, moneymaking leader of the early PC industry. He also helped take the rapidly growing company international.

Yocam deserves more credit for helping build Apple than history has so far accorded him. He was one of the main players at a crucial point in Cupertino’s history.

Yocam, now 76, recently talked with Cult of Mac about Apple’s early days. In this exclusive interview, he discusses his friendship and working relationship with Jobs, Apple’s challenging, fascinating, and sometimes malodorous co-founder.

He also reveals new details about Jobs’ tearful ouster from Apple — and how Jobs later offered him an amazing job, only to revoke it at the last moment.

Apple calling

Yocam’s Apple adventure started with a chance meeting in Northern California.

“I had been working in the mini computer industry, at a company called Computer Automation, in Irvine, California,” Yocam said. “My boss, Carl Carlson, had made the leap back to the Bay Area, where he was from, to join this fly-by-night startup, Apple Computer. He was going to join as their vice president of operations. We happened to run into each other at Tahoe that summer, and he said, ‘Well, if I go, I’ll want to bring you with me.'”

Yocam was interested. He had worked at a number of big companies, including Ford, Control Data Corp. and Fairchild Camera and Instrument, but he had the startup itch. At 34 years old, he instinctively knew this was his last chance gamble on joining a scrappy startup. He flew to Cupertino to meet with Apple’s first chief executive, Michael Scott, who offered him the job. He joined in November 1979, still fully two years before Apple became a public company.

Del Yocam joins Apple

Del Yocam, pictured during his Apple days. Note the Mac behind him.
Del Yocam, pictured during his Apple days. Note the Mac behind him.
Photo: Del Yocam

“Making the move from Southern California to the Bay Area took a bit of convincing for my wife, who was an elementary school teacher down in Orange County,” he said. “But we decided to make the move.” As part of his package, Yocam received Apple stock options. Still, he was more excited because Apple promised to pay for a leased car as part of the deal. As a car guy, this held considerably more appeal than shares in a company that had only been around a couple of years.

Yocam’s first job at Apple was director of materials. His task was to take the “chaotic” Apple and create a working supply chain. Apple was in a tough, albeit envious, position: The Apple II was a runaway train in terms of sales. However, unlike today — when Apple is finely tuned to handle a breakout hit like the iPhone 12 — the Apple II was totally new ground for the fledgling business.

“When I joined, the company had done about $16 [million] to $18 million in sales,” he said. “But almost immediately we were up towards the $100 million category. It was an impossible situation to really deliver the kind of product that we needed to.”

Building Apple’s manufacturing machine

Yocam quickly added manufacturing to his job purview. Between 1980 and 1981, he set up manufacturing facilities for Apple in the United States (in Carrollton, Texas, just outside Dallas), Europe (Cork, Ireland) and Asia (Singapore). Each of these was to serve rapidly expanding markets for the company. Today, Cork remains one of the very few Apple-owned manufacturing facilities in the world.

Yocam remembers the Apple of the early days as being frenetic, but also fun. “We had huge parties,” he said. “We would always have someone like Huey Lewis and the News, The Pointer Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald, Robin Williams.”

Steve Jobs

It didn’t take Yocam long after starting to become acquainted with the mercurial Steve Jobs, a decade his junior. Jobs was interested in everything, but was also a disruptive presence. He was far from the honed executive he would later become.

“He began to sit in on my weekly staff meetings,” Yocam said. “It was hard for him to remain quiet. After the very first one, I told him that he was going to have to just observe and not go off on tangents. He did that for a couple months. Then he backed out, which was a relief to the entire staff because he stank and he wore dirty clothes.”

An unlikely friendship

Jobs and Yocam were different in a number of ways, but they wound up becoming close. Their disparate personalities somehow gelled, perhaps reminiscent of Jobs’ later relationship with the more serious, numbers-focused Tim Cook.

The pair often took long walks, a habit Jobs continued throughout his life. They also socialized outside of work. Yocam thought Jobs asked interesting questions, and he admired his passionate views about the future of computing. Jobs liked to pick Yocam’s brain regarding business and manufacturing.

Jobs also talked about his life experiences traveling to India and taking LSD, his various dates (especially, Yocam said, with celebrities), and his complex thoughts regarding his first child, Lisa.

All in the family

“He loved our family,” Yocam said. “He liked our kids, and he played the piano with them or played ball outside. I think he felt pretty relaxed around me and could ask questions that he wouldn’t want anyone else to know that he had to ask to find out how to handle something. Many times he would call in the middle of the night with some question that he had. [My wife] Janet would answer the phone and pass it over to me. And then an hour or so later, she’d grab the phone from me and say, ‘Good night, Steve.’ It was just that kind of thing, where we would start talking and we could talk all night.”

Before long, Cupertino promoted Yocam to run the Apple II team, while Jobs took charge of the Macintosh project. In a sense, they ran rival divisions within Apple. But Yocam and Jobs continued to work well in tandem.

Yocam suggests that Jobs viewed him as more of a resource than a competitor because he wasn’t another brash, young guy trying to climb to the top. “I never thought he felt threatened by me,” Yocam said.

Steve Jobs’ ouster from Apple

Yocam was at the fateful 1985 meeting during which Jobs was ousted from the Macintosh project. After a lot of enthusiasm on Apple’s part about the Mac, sales proved disappointing. The Mac enjoyed a flurry of early adopter sales, but then nothing. It took a few more years for it to overtake the Apple II as Apple’s big cash cow.

“I was outside the room waiting to see if I was needed back in the boardroom [to talk about the Apple II],” Yocam said. “When [Steve] came out, he just came right over to me and basically cried himself out, because they were taking [the Mac] away from him.”

Jobs losing a boardroom coup to CEO John Sculley marked the end of a period during which Jobs and Sculley were almost inseparable. But Apple employees feared things would go south. “A lot of us took bets on how long that bromance would last,” he said. “It lasted for a couple of years.”

Del Yocam kept copious notes during his time at Apple. Here is a notebook entry relating to Steve Jobs' ouster in 1985. (Note the point about a possible return for Woz!)
Del Yocam kept copious notes during his time at Apple. Here is a notebook entry relating to Steve Jobs’ ouster in 1985. (Note the point about a possible return for Woz!)
Photo: Del Yocam

When Jobs was removed from the Mac team, he stayed on at Apple for six months, largely planning his next business, the aptly named NeXT Inc.

“Once he established that he was going to do something, he began to recruit Apple employees,” Yocam said. “That got me riled up, as well as John. We let him do it to the extent of about six main targets, but then I think there was eventually something signed that he could no longer pilferage Apple employees.”

Cupertino eyes Asia with Apple Pacific

After Jobs left, Yocam took over control of the Macintosh division as well. He became executive vice president of product operations, before being promoted again to the COO role. Sculley remained the chief executive, although Yocam remembers him spending less and less time at Apple.

“John was away a lot,” he said. “He wrote a book, Odyssey, and went on book tours. When he came back, he was kind of concerned about how powerful I had become. Plus a lot of my guys wanted the top job for themselves — like Jean-Louis Gassée and [future Apple CEO] Michael Spindler.”

Yocam’s last big achievement at Apple was setting up Apple Pacific. This Apple subsidiary focused on boosting the company’s presence in the Asian market. Sculley hailed Yocam as “one of the industry’s finest executives, with [a] commitment to operations excellence, passion for personal computer technology, and embodiment of Apple’s business and cultural values.”

Yocam decided to retire on his 10th anniversary at the company, rejecting several efforts to keep him around. Not long after, in 1991, Jobs approached him to join NeXT. This was the first time they had spoken since Jobs’ ouster six years earlier.

The NeXT move that never was

One of the launch ads for the NeXT Computer.
One of the launch ads for the NeXT Computer.
Image: NeXT

“He had just got married, and [his wife, Laurene] was pregnant,” Yocam said. “The story I got from him was that he needed help, and wanted to find a way to back off of the 80-hour weeks and have more time to spend with his developing family.”

Yocam interviewed with the NeXT higher-ups, all of whom he knew from their time together at Apple. “They kept telling me how chaotic it was,” he said. “Steve would constantly change the specs of what he wanted to accomplish [with NeXT’s computers]. There was never a line drawn in the sand that they were going to deliver this computer at this time. They couldn’t do their jobs. They were desperate for someone like me to come in to help them … to be the referee with Steve.”

Steve Jobs and the revoked job offer

Yocam agreed to join NeXT as its president and COO. A contract was drawn up — but Yocam ultimately never joined NeXT. Jobs got cold feet, pushing the start date back, and then back again even further. Finally, the night before Yocam was set to start, Jobs came over to his house and said that he couldn’t do it. Sharing NeXT was a step too far for him.

“That upset me because I had already told my wife and family about it,” Yocam said. “He was beside himself, crying, and was willing to do anything — talk to my family, take us out to dinner — so that he could express that he wanted me there, but that he just couldn’t share it. I think I pushed him a little far, by having him write in the contract that all of the employees would report to me.”

Del Yocam's offer letter to join NeXT
Del Yocam’s offer letter to join NeXT.
Photo: Del Yocam

Del Yocam today

In addition to working at Apple, Yocam served on the boards at Adobe and Oracle. He also later served as president, COO and board director of Tektronix, and chairman and CEO of Borland International. Since 1992, he has lived with his family in Oregon.

“I still have the newsletters and newspaper articles where I was the highest-paid executive in the technology world,” Yocam said.

But, again like current Apple CEO Cook, he was an immensely private individual. Yocam wasn’t a flamboyant executive, and didn’t try to garner media attention. He just did his job really well, and was rewarded for it.

“I got satisfaction out of that, and was still able to stay out of the limelight and have a normal life with my wife raising our family,” he said.

He’s still a big fan of the company that he did his part to help build.