A year after executives admitted in a closed door meeting that their management techniques were more comparable to the military than a corporation, Apple is starting soften up and offer employees better perks. Like its neighbor in Mountain View, the Cupertino company is piloting a program called "Blue Sky" that, among other mysterious things, invites a select group of employees to spend a few weeks working on unique special projects. One of those mentioned in a just published Wall Street Journal report about the program is a "a pet engineering project." We have absolutely no idea what that means, but we're hoping it's cooler than Sony's robot dog. (R.I.P.)
Like all things Apple, the details of Blue Sky are extremely secret. Most of those The Journal's Jessica E. Lessin was able to confirm are sort of boring perks regarding compensation. Apple is starting to get more assertive about keeping good employees from being poached by other companies by offering more handsome counteroffers. The company is also putting a new spin on compensation packages by showing the dollar amount of stock options to employees, rather than the number of shares. (There's not word yet on whether or not they've started paying their retail employees a living wage or not.) Non-boring perks include water slides, all night hackathons, all-expense-paid trips to Budapest and, of course,
free lunch death benefits. To our knowledge, Apple offers none of these. They are offering employee discounts on iPods now, though!
Perhaps the greatest perk of them all, though, comes straight from the top. Apparently, Tim Cook is actually being nice to employees. This was not Steve Jobs's forté. Whereas Jobs was known for making employees cry and destroying prototypes that took months to build because he didn't like the shape of a button or something, Cook is the kind of guy who says that his employees "are doing the best work of their lives" in front of millions of onlookers at major public events.
The inevitable down side to all of this is that underneath this glossy new veneer, Cook is still dealing with Jobs's legacy, and in many ways, nothing has changed at the company. Last week, ReadWrite's Dan Lyons ran a fascinating interview with former Apple sales executive David Sobotta, who recently wrote a memoir about his 20 years at Apple. Sobotta left the company in 2004 but worked closely with Cook on a number of projects. His impression of the company still sort of new CEO is not altogether positive. "Tim will react to the numbers or his fear of being wrong quickly," Sobotta told Lyons. "Fear of being wrong is a managerial trait that runs strong and deep in Apple because of the way Steve ran the company. Even the appearance of being wrong when in the end you might be right is dreaded at Apple."
Well, that doesn't sound anything like the kind of atmosphere you might find at the Razor scooter-stocked Google offices. Or the geek theme park-like atmosphere at Facebook HQ. Apple is a serious company. (A seriously successful one too, but that's for another blog post.) Sobotta added, "You don't make mistakes at Apple and get a second chance. That often hinders decision-making and creates a lot of passive-aggressiveness between teams that should be cooperating."
In conclusion, Apple is now letting employees embark on their own creative projects. But they'd better be awesome. Or else.