Jobs I wish I could have taken at Apple (Apple Post-mortem, part 2 of some number….)

(more discussion about Apple now that I’m no longer an employee and no longer having to worry about what I say quite as much…. see part 1 of this ongoing series here)

If things have worked out, I would have stayed at Apple. I felt there were any number of ways I could have helped the company, and (of course) I had various ideas of places where Apple could be improved and I might be a person who could make that happen.

Of course, as it turns out, it didn’t happen, but that’s okay. I felt, however, that it might be interesting (or at least fun) to talk about some of the jobs I wish I could have accepted at Apple, had they existed…

1) Apple Games Evangelist: I mean, seriously, who wouldn’t want this job? But one of the things I noticed over the years is that whoever took the job lasted about a year, then went and did something else. Personally, though, I now think the future of gaming is really the platforms (I just bought my Xbox 360) — but I sure am hoping that once Neverwinter Nights 2 ships on the PC, they’ll announce a port to the Mac (because dammit, I’d hate to run windows on my intel mac just to run a game…. but I might).

2) Community architect for iTunes. This is one I actually had some discussions about. Maybe you’re familiar with Pandora or last.fm? One of the questions I’ve had since the start of iTunes (and the Clear-Channel-ification of broadcast radio) was how people found out about new and interesting music. It’s sure not on broadcast radio any more, especially here in Silicon Valley. Pandora and last.fm are heading in that area — but what if you could turn the iTunes community into a real recommendation service? And how would you do it? there are some very simplistic tools in iTunes today that are “very Amazon” and not “very community” — and they’re nice, as far as they go. I felt that there was a lot of opportunity to build something really sharp and best of show. There was definitely interest among some folks inside iTunes, too. It may well happen — it just won’t be something I did. ohwell. Here’s hoping, though. There’s such opportunity here.

3) Community architect for .Mac. Although honestly, .Mac needs a lot more than community building. Allow me to defer detailed discussion of .Mac for later (remind me if I forget….), but while I think it’s good for many things, there are lots of things Apple really ought to do with .Mac (they should have bought Flickr, dammit, to name just one), and Mac Groups are barely adequate for organizing a church picnic. But there are some decent bones here to build from, if they’d just commit to doing so. Unfortunately, I just never got the feeling they would.

4) Customer Ombudsman (aka Chief Privacy Office, aka the Royal Avatar of the Customer). This is actually another job I talked to a number of folks about. Some understood what I was trying to do and agreed it was a necesssary thing, nobody could ever quite figure out who it should report to or how to bell this particular cat. Is this in Marketing? Legal? Applecare? Engineering? Probably Applecare, but I always suggested Legal, because Applecare is the primary support provider for Apple, and reporting into that structure creates a potential conflict of interest for a true Ombudsman. Now, let me make it clear — I feel Apple does a very good job at managing customer privacy and also a very good job at support and customer relations in general. But it’s not perfect (no company larger than about 1 person is, if ever), and so I felt having a person that was outside the system and could deal with situations where the systems failed or didn’t apply, or simply help people understand how to get into the system and take advantage of it (because from my view of Apple from the inside but not directly in the loop, most “Apple failures” were people who didn’t know the right way to use the system or people with unrealistic expectations, not true Apple screwups. But Apple screwups did occur, too, and when they did, people had a real tough time finding someone who can help them unscrew things…. Another aspect of the job, I felt, was being involved in system design and anything customer facing to speak for the customer, and to ask difficult questions like “how does this benefit the customer instead of just Apple?” a lot.

Many parts of Apple are very aware of the need for keeping the customer in mind, but having someone who’s job it is to “think like the customer” would be a very good thing, especially if they were part of a design/approval process that worked cross-functionally, so that people couldn’t, well, forget to ask those questions. It would also help coordinate and standardize these systems to make it easier for the customer… at least, in theory.

5) Town Crier, or official distributor of information. An even better job than Games Evangelist; but a lot less likely. If there’s a single key “problem” within Apple (and I use the term “problem” carefully, given how well things are going on at Apple…), it’s that there’s very little exchange of information among groups. that leads to some duplication of effort, but more importantly (to me), there’s a lack of consistency and standardization that could be tightened up, and the cross-fertilization that goes on when someone sees something and says “hey, what if you did…..” or “you know, we did something similar, let me show you….”. That just doesn’t happen enough. A lot of that is because (a) Apple is very careful about distributing information because of the history of leaks and the problems they cause, and (b) nobody really feels like figuring out what is and isn’t safe to talk about, even internally — so stuff just doesn’t get passed around enough. The Town Crier’s job is simple (and EVERY company ought to have one): their job is to talk to everyone in the company and find out what they’re doing, and then if they think it has more general interest within the company, to go to management and get approval to allow it to be talked about and distributed; he is the Baron of brown bags as well as the Deacon of Engineering docs. By making it one person’s job to help foster the cross-fertilization, you build a body of knowledge about what can and can’t be discussed, taking that off the shoulders of engineers and their managers who already have too much to do. And if it’s done right, the key information that needs to be kept sensitive is kept sensitive and private, but the stuff that can be leveraged around the company gets visibility and discussion. The idea here is to encourage people to learn from each other, while still having someone involved who’s sensitive to the need of “need to know” — and authorized to help determine which is which. Since no line engineer or manager has that knowledge, or the time to figure it out, it just doesn’t happen. By careful investing in a headcount of two, I think there’s an opportunity for huge synergies within Apple. Or, for that matter, any decent sized engineering organization. I just never had the chance to try to find the right person to convince of this before I left…. ohwell.