During last week's iPhone leak saga, Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, reached out to us with a story: The morning of the iPad launch, an engineer showed Woz an iPad for two minutes. For this he was fired.
It's a story that paints Apple as many people already see the company: ruthlessly secretive, and even vindictive. It also sheds some light on the story of Gray Powell, an Apple engineer whose breach of secrecy was at once less intentional, more severe and infinitely more public—until now. In the words of Woz:
I don't know anything for real about this iPhone issue, from Apple's perspective.
Was the engineer not allowed to have this iPhone out of the secure areas? I don't know.
Was he/she not allowed to use this iPhone outside and be seen with it? I don't know.
It appears that no features, nothing that made it a new iPhone were shown to others, thankfully, by the engineer. The later analysis by Gizmodo has some interesting points but none that are total shockers.
I believe (and have heard) that the engineer who lost his iPhone 4G has not been fired. Perhaps the case was examined on an individual basis and determined not to have been one of violating Apple policy too much or not one where Apple was injured sufficiently. I'm glad for now. I hate to see people lose their jobs ever.
But I can tell you that the test engineer who showed me an iPad after midnight, for 2 minutes, during the iPad launch was indeed fired. I opted to spend 2 minutes with Numbers on this iPad, trying some stunts I'd seen on Apple's website demo video. I was not told that it was a 3G model and I had no way to know that. I was told that this engineer had to wait until midnight to show it outside of Apple's secure area. And I'm an Apple employee who he was showing it to. My guess is that he was allowed to take the iPad outside of the secure area but still not supposed to show it.
I myself never prod Apple friends into saying things about unreleased Apple products. I'm not in the group where early knowledge equates to value. I don't play the rumor mill game. So I had little interest in seeing this iPad beyond a couple of minutes.
In my opinion, Apple was not hurt by my being shown this iPad. And if the employee who showed it to me believed that he could show it after April 3, then that's another factor.
I did describe this to Steve Jobs the night of the iPad introduction and he said "so it's no big deal." We talked about family things after that for a short while. But that engineer did get fired. I'm sure that Apple HR told the engineer that it was because everyone in that same situation gets fired. Does that jive with this iPhone situation? What am I missing here?
Product secrecy is good for Apple and should be strictly enforced, but maybe 10% of niceness and 90% of strictness is OK too.
UPDATE: Woz has been gracious enough to hang around the comments. Of the engineer (A.J), he says:
I never knew him before. He resembled myself and Steve Jobs when we were that age, and my younger son who programs for NASA. He's a kind of person I would always enjoy talking with. A.J. said that he had an email allowing his team to use the iPad outside of secure areas on April 3 (after midnight, which A.J. waited for). I was surprised but he had an email. If I'd known it was a 3G model, which I didn't, I probably would have saved his job by telling him he can't show it.
And he only showed it to me (and a few people who read Gizmodo).
Editor's Note: Does it jibe? It's hard to say. The mystery engineer and Gray Powell both made mistakes, but neither employee meant any harm. That much is clear. And looking at Steve Wozniak's story, it seems that Gray Powell (evidently) wasn't fired because he didn't "leak" the phone, per se. He had no malice, or even intent. He didn't break his NDA. It was just a mistake.
On the other hand, Apple engineers who leak information and break their NDAs do it intentionally. They filter the information knowing that they are breaking their NDAs, betraying the confidence of their employer. That's probably why this guy got fired on the spot.
It's Steve Jobs' honor code. Like Michael Corleone's: A mistake can be forgiven, but he would kill his own brother for betraying the family. It doesn't seem to matter that the act was harmless. More than leniency and humanity, respect for secrecy is sewn deeply into Apple's culture.
You want to be able to trust your employees, especially at a company for which surprise is a sales tool. But without Steve Wozniak, there would be no iPad. There would be no Apple as we know it today. A culture where you can't show someone like that a new product, hours before it was to be unveiled, isn't a culture of innovation—it's a culture of fear. —JH