How Apple's culture of secrecy 'wears down' its top developers

This week Chris Lattner, head of developer tools and creator of its uber popular programming language, Swift announced he was leaving Apple to join Tesla.

People leave their jobs for all kinds of reasons, especially when they are offered exciting new jobs at important, on-the-rise companies.

However, someone in Lattner’s circle of developer friends shared some insight at to why Lattner was calling it quits at Apple now, when one of his major contributions, Swift, had really taken off. (Lattner did not respond to our requests for comment).

One big reason is that Apple’s culture of secrecy was wearing on him, this person said, particularly because it was his job (and his life’s work) to create open source developer’s tools. It’s hard to be open/open source and closed/secret at the same time.

“He always felt constrained at Apple in terms of what he could discuss publicly — resorting to off-the-record chats, surprise presentations and the like. Similarly I know he was constrained in recruiting and other areas. Eventually I know that can really wear people down,” this person told us.

Not the first time

This isn’t the first time Apple has lost people in a big public way because it insists on secrecy over collaboration. As we previously reported, Apple’s entire networking team quit within a week back in 2015 when Apple asked them to build a bullet-proof network and then refused to allow them to collaborate with others outside the company in their field doing similar work via an organisation called Open Compute Project. (OCP is led by Facebook.)

Jason Forrester SnapRouteSnapRouteJason Forrester, founder CEO SnapRoute

The Apple networking team then took the networking tech they built at Apple, based on open source software, and launched their own startup called SnapRoute, which has since taken the network world by storm. After they quit, Apple relented and officially joined the OCP.

Apple was also forced to change its policy of secrecy for its artificial intelligence team. In December it allowed them to start publishing research papers on their work and otherwise collaborate with academia. Just a few weeks ago, the Apple AI team published their first paper.

That was a major reversal and it came because Apple’s mouth’s shut, secrecy approach was widely thought to be hindering its ability to hire the best people in the field of AI. AI is the biggest trend in the tech industry these days and those creating new ways for computers to learn and reason need to work be share information, and show off their own accomplishments to the greater AI community.

In contrast Yann LeCun, Facebook’s AI director, told Business Insider in December that at Facebook’s Artificial Intelligence Research unit (known as FAIR), publishing wasn’t just allowed, it was required.

When it comes to open source software, Apple hasn’t been completely absent. In addition to open sourcing Swift, it has open sourced a number of other of its key technologies like WebKit, ResearchKit, CareKit. It also uses open source technologies in its products (like its operating systems) and contributes back to those projects.

But Apple isn’t considered a paragon of open source involvement either. For instance, Apple has about 33 open source projects shared on GitHub, a main site where developers share their open source projects. Microsoft, in contrast, has over 1,200.

Not the only reason

Secrecy almost certainly wasn’t the only reason why Lattner left, though. His baby, the Swift language, is Apple’s relatively new language for building Mac and iOS apps. Apple released it at its Worldwide Developers Conference in 2014 and it quickly became one of the most popular programming languages around.

While Swift was always a team effort, after Apple open sourced it a year ago, it quickly built up a large community of people to work on it, inside and outside of Apple.

That means the project has a stable set of people to keep tabs on it, freeing Lattner to tackle something new. And, if Lattner wants to keep contributing to Swift, he doesn’t have to work for Apple to do it.

There’s also one more possible reason why someone so prominent would leave Apple. It’s not always easy to pour your heart and soul into an area of a company that is considered somewhat peripheral.

He ran developer tools at a company more focused on consumer tech products. He’s now moving to a job building self-driving tech for Tesla, a central area of focus for the car maker. Hard to say no to that.

In the meantime, Tesla seems to be doubling down on its poaching from Apple. In addition to nabbing Lattner, news broke this week that it also grabbed Matt Casebolt, a top engineer on the Mac Pro and the new MacBook.

Apple declined comment.

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