Four lessons from working on the Apple Vision Pro team.
The Apple Vision Pro will define a new paradigm in computing. As an AR/VR engineer working on VisionOS for the past two years and experiencing firsthand the breathtaking magic that is the VisionOS spatial computing platform, I can say this with the utmost confidence.
How did we pull this off? What makes Apple so special? How has Apple secured its dominance as the most valuable company, most trusted and admired brand, and most notorious consumer product design house in the world? In my experience working on cross-functional projects with nearly every organization in Apple, there is a particular modus operandi — “the Apple way” — permeating the entire company. Below are four elements of this culture which I believe have been pivotal in elevating Apple to its zenith of innovation and value.
The Vision Pro software team has no product managers. Instead, product is a collaborative task shared by the design, engineering, and program management teams. Feature scoping is jointly negotiated, initial designs are handed down, engineering implements and fine tunes, and program management sets guardrails. Throughout the development cycle, the dynamic between these three arms of product is constantly shifting as experimentation crystalizes into implementation.
Even more unique to Apple is the enigmatic yet eminent Human Interface (HI) design team. Apple is organized functionally, concentrating design under a single roof rather than fracturing based on product category. This is what ensures the inimitable cohesion across all hardware and software that Apple is famous for.
Earlier, I stated that designs are “handed down.” I say this intentionally to stress the power dynamics between HI and engineering. Design must be on top of engineering. Jointly, design and engineering form a cavalry. Engineering are the workhorses — the agents for realization. While design are the riders, the workhorses ultimately have complete autonomy and final say. Thus, the only way to enforce healthy dialogue is to position design above engineering. Companies which attempt to place engineering and design on equal footing end up with engineering-dominated products once push comes to shove. Need proof? Look at Amazon or Microsoft.
The best ideas come from those with the dirtiest hands. Rather than relegating product roadmaps to senior leadership, Apple empowers its cavalry of over 20,000 to define its future. Apple is famous for its demo culture, and particularly as an individual contributor, prototypes are a potent conduit for action. Ultimately, the best idea demonstrated well wins out.
The software engineering organization (SWE) hosts annual week-long hackathons with thousands of internal participants. Each year, top projects are selected and demoed directly to company executives — the best of which get scoped out and productized. This is the magic of Apple’s demo culture, institutionalized.
“Are you disclosed?” Apple is just as secretive internally as it is externally. Even within Apple, unreleased projects are kept on a strictly need-to-know basis. While I worked directly on the the Vision Pro software and hardware platform for two years, many of its core features — even down to the product and OS names themselves — remained a mystery until its public unveiling at WWDC 2023.
While intra-company secrecy risks misalignment and duplicated efforts — when properly habituated and enforced — its benefits far outweigh the costs. Great care is taken to keep everything Apple does for the right internal eyes only. A key point of pride and ultimately cultural identity, this cultist mantra extends from within the company to without and has led to the world’s strongest and most admired brand image. Few companies can claim to have entire news outlets dedicated to tracking their every move.
Wagering an outsider’s guess, the Vision Pro product category will not turn a profit for Apple this decade. With billions of dollars spent in research and development and a niche initial market, the climb to profitability will be a slow one. What allows Apple to operate on time horizons matched by no other company is their single profit and loss center model.
During my two years at Apple, profitability was never mentioned. Not even once. Instead, our focus was on entirely on creating a wholly uncompromising user experience. Contrast this approach with the rest of Silicon Valley which is manically metrics-driven. When I worked at Lime, one of the fastest companies ever to achieve unicorn status, a quantifiable business case had to made for each and every change. Want to redesign a user interface? Design an A/B test and prove that the redesign leads to objectively higher engagement or retention. Any change not meeting this bar is a waste of company time and money.
Apple’s shared P&L center has innumerable advantages for the end user. This includes a nearly infinite attention to detail, a compulsion to place privacy and security first, and a genuine focus on sustainability. And, ultimately, it frees teams at Apple to build the very best products and experiences in the world.
Disclaimer: The opinions presented here are all based on my experience and do not necessarily reflect how Apple operates. Portions of this article are pure speculation. In strict accordance with my non-disclosure agreement, do not contact me for any further information.