A small number of former Apple employees — or at least people claiming to be such — have written a Quora thread answering the question, “How does Apple keep secrets so well?“
Apple, of course, is famously press shy. It’s incredibly difficult to get insider news out of the company, compared to its peers.
The former employees range from people who joined the company in its earliest days in the 1970s to those who’ve dealt with it recently.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many say that founder Steve Jobs set the tone in ways small and large.
We’ve excerpted a few of the answers here (under Quora’s licensing rules). But this is only a small part of the entire thread. Apple fans who want the full details — the story of Apple’s secret plan to switch to Intel processors in the mid 2000s is eye-popping — should read the thread in the original.
Here we go:
Brian Hoshi: Having worked at Apple for a few years, I can say that the need for secrecy is mostly ingrained in the corporate culture to create innovative and revolutionary products from within the otherwise bland and evolutionary markets that Apple chooses to compete in. The secrecy is upheld throughout the organisation knowing that there is a corporate security team pretty much looking over your shoulder at all times and where even minor violations are grounds for immediate termination. There’s nothing to “fear” at Apple as long as you are able to follow these very basic rules of conduct.
Ken Rosen, Partner, Performance Works: In the early days, everything was open to everyone. There was even a binder in the CFO’s office with everyone’s salary. We were told we could go check it out any time. Few cared to. Steve told us, “Inside NeXT, everything is open. Outside NeXT, we say nothing.” In wonderful Steve fashion, he added, “This will continue until the first leak. As soon as we prove we can’t keep a secret, we go back to being like every other company.” No one wanted to be the one to kill the open goose.
Kim Scheinberg (on Apple’s switch to Intel): No one has ever reported that, for 18 months, Project Marklar existed only because a self-demoted engineer wanted his son Max to be able to live closer to Max’s grandparents.
Robert Bowdidge: I couldn’t tell my wife anything; she knew I was working in a different building across the street and pulling very late nights, but she didn’t know what I was doing. When I had to travel to Manchester UK to work with more of the Transitive folks, she asked to come along. I had to say “no way” – she worked for IBM at the time, and I knew that the project lead would freak at the thought of our chip vendor learning about the move.
Chris Connors: Even within the company the culture manifests itself in interesting ways. If you have friends in other groups, they will never ask you what you are working on. They know better, and the courtesy is reciprocated. So usually conversations are personal, or about outside elements, or someone registering complaints about how the shipping version of your product works now (wink wink). “Have you filed a RADAR for that?”
Anonymous: All prototypes are laser marked with serial numbers and tracked by a central tracking system (called iTrack). Physical security is also highly prioritised, with prototypes required to be locked up when not in use. Access to prototypes is also restricted, and the default assumption within the company is that your coworkers do not know what you’re working on.
Robert Scoble: My brother in law used to work there. But David is right, this has always been part of the culture. Back in 1977 when Apple was a one-building startup they had a sign in the lobby that said “loose lips sink ships.”
And here’s how one reporter did get a secret out of Apple:
Adam Banks: I was editing MacUser (UK) in 1998 when rumours surfaced that Apple was working on a completely new kind of Mac. By a series of flukes, we became the first magazine to print what turned out to be a pretty accurate description of the machine a couple of months ahead of its launch as the iMac. We got the details from someone who worked at a third party site where Apple had seeded a test unit. Probably safe by now to mention what the site was. It was the Pentagon. Compared to the real secrets they were keeping, when it came to some plastic PC they’d been asked not to talk about, I suspect nobody gave a shit.