Inside Apple’s software design

Ken Kocienda: Creative Selection. Inside Apple’s design process during the golden age of Steve Jobs

MacMillan, UK, 2018

In Katz book we got a general view of design in Silicon Valley. In it, the design activities at Apple were mentioned many times, but with a broader, historical viewpoint. This book deep-dives into product development at Apple, and gives a personal view into it. And if Katz book described product development and design more from a classical industrial design -point of view then this story is written with the eyes of a software engineer. The book is written by Ken Kocienda, who has worked as a software engineer at Apple for fifteen years. Design, in his view, is developing new software products, like the Safari browser, mostly through writing the code for them.

The book is interesting in many ways. Firstly, it is a very good description of how the work of a software engineer happens in practice. Kocienda goes through various development projects from first idea to finished product. He describes were the ideas came from, how he and the team developed them, where there were hurdles and how they overcame them and how much work they had to put in to get a fully functional end product.

Something in his way of describing the work reminds me of the classic book by Julian Orr: Talking about machines. An ethnography of a Modern Job. In this book Orr meticulously goes through every detail of how a field technician repairs a copying machine. He also describes how these technicians talk about what they do, and how they find the right solution of what to do next through this.

There is something very similar in Kocienda’s text. You understand how he has been thinking through the process, what he has had to do in order to get forward and solve the challenges he met on the way. And what parts of the process felt most rewarding to him during this.

You can (re)live his joy through the successes; “We finally got the browser to show a black slab!” , “Steve liked it!”, and so on.

Secondly, if you are not very deep into software development it’s a good and very hands on description of how this work is done. Kocienda tries to make software development more comprehendible to those who aren’t so familiar with it. 

Thirdly, it is interesting to understand how Apple works (worked?), how it is different and how it is similar to other big tech companies. Some of the events, like presenting something you have worked on for months to the highest management, sounds very familiar to my own experience of presenting new projects for big companies’ upper management.

Other things are different. Kocienda talks about a very strong demo culture. He mentions numerous cases, where they have had the general idea, but then just tested away within the team. They created multiple solutions to any given challenge this way, and then constantly improved and honed them. This very intensive culture of doing small and quick demos to test a hypothesis, to make quick decisions based on them and to move forward, is something a lot of management books talk about, but I don’t think I have seen it in such depth in practice as what Kocienda talks about. (And now I mean in huge and well-established technology companies, startups are a very different breed) One must remember this is just a description of one individual, not the entire company, but as such it gives a very positive view of the development process at Apple. And a nice compliment to many of the books which have focused just on how difficult a leader Steve Jobs was. This description is more from “within the trenches”, rather than an outside- or top-management view of corporate practices.

Kocienda sums up that three things are needed to create a great product:

  1. demo-making creative selection process, including the concept of working in the intersection (multidisciplinary exploration)
  2. the seven essential elements of the Apple development process: inspiration, collaboration, craft, diligence, decisiveness, taste, and empathy.
  3. a combination of people and commitment

Fourthly, the book can also be read as an interesting example of management practices. Kocienda talks about leading teams, supporting colleagues, and people (and their skillsets) in the organisation. In addition to this, although Kocienda doesn’t implicitly mention it so often, he constantly talks about culture. About what the culture of Apple was. About what the culture of the team was. About how they made sure that this spirit of making things together would cherish. The small practical things they did to make it happen. Between the lines in Kocienda’s text you can read that this was actually the most important thing – the creative and supportive spirit in the organisation. 

In the end of his book Kocienda also notes that this culture was dying after Steve’s death. He started missing the collaboration with his colleagues, and realised it was time for him to pursue something different. I think this view (from a specialist and a member of middle management) is a good reminder to all of us: a creative and supportive environment needs to be created, but it also needs to be upkept. If we take it for granted and don’t foster it – it will die. And when it starts dying, we will lose the best specialists and people working for the organisation. 

Maybe something to think about – how can we all make sure our environment stays inspiring?

2 thoughts on “Inside Apple’s software design

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