Apple University preaches mantra of simplicity to employees

Three Apple employees spoke to The New York Times about the company's secretive internal training program, revealing some of the lessons the tech firm tries to impart.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
2 min read

Steve Jobs shows off the MacBook Air. Wikimedia Commons

In a class called "What Makes Apple, Apple," an instructor shows Apple employees a slide of a 78-button remote control for Google TV. He then shows an Apple TV remote, which has just three buttons.

That story, which illustrates Apple's strive towards simplicity, is part of a rare look inside the company's secretive training program, known as Apple University, written Monday by The New York Times. Three Apple employees who have taken classes described elements of the program to the publication, agreeing to speak about it anonymously.

Apple declined to provide the Times with details about the program or make instructors -- some hailing from Harvard, Yale, and MIT -- available for interview. The Times noted that no pictures of the classes have come out publicly. An Apple representative didn't immediately respond to a request for comment from CNET.

Apple University was established in 2008 by late co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs, who hired Joel Podolny, then the dean of Yale School of Management, to head up the new program. The training program followed a similar program for animation studio Pixar, another company Jobs co-founded, called Pixar University. Both are among a handful of company training programs, such as McDonald's Hamburger University.

Apple University could take on new significance in helping maintain Jobs' approach to simplifying products, even as the company grows. The program could also be a useful tool in integrating the hundreds of new employees the company took on when it closed its $3 billion acquisition of headphones company Beats this month, it's biggest deal ever.

The Times story describes one class, "Communicating at Apple," in which the instructor shows 11 pictures from Picasso's "The Bull." Each progressive slide in the series strips away details of the bull until just a stick figure remains.

"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," one person who took the course recalled to the Times.

The concept of simplification is present throughout the company, from Jobs' basic attire to its spartan retail stores to its devices -- with the iPhone and iPad stripping away the keyboard and mouse for one flat touch screen and circular home button.

The classes are taught on Apple's campus in well-lit stadium-seating rooms built in a trapezoid shape, the Times reported. Some courses teach employees about business decisions the company took, such as the choice to make the iPod and iTunes compatible on Windows. That issue was hotly debated issue among executives, with Jobs repellent to the idea of sharing Apple technology with Windows. However, the decision eventually led to the iPod's rapid growth and paved the way for the iPhone's success.

Apple's philosophy of simplicity, now under CEO Tim Cook, hasn't changed much since Jobs' death in 2011, as evidenced by the few drastic changes in the company's products. Apple University may have lent a steadying hand to the corporate culture.