Leaving Apple

The Clapout

This day is dragging. An indiscernible weight sits firmly on my chest, and the more I struggle to move out from under it, the more it presses down. I can’t escape it. I’m trapped. I find myself stealing a few quiet minutes–some in the bathroom, some in the south stairwell back near the bike rack, some in the cavernous underground storage room we lovingly refer to as “The Malkovich”–throughout my shift to try and ease my heart, to catch my breath, to quiet my racing mind. I can only fall back on a worn cliché: the anticipation is killing me.

Very little of my work gets done today, and it fills me with guilt. People keep joking with me, “So you’re totally checked out, right?” I laugh, of course, but deep down inside it makes me question myself. I’m not that person. I don’t check out. I care too much. But between being stopped every other minute, and the exit interview, and the assurance from my colleague I am leaving behind that, “It’s okay, Keenan. I’ll be fine,” it’s very hard to concentrate on anything of any importance. So instead I repeatedly draw the phone from my pocket to glance at the clock. The minutes have slowed to a crawl. My future is filled with panic. I’ll never be free of it.

Just breathe. It’s not the end of the fucking world. Or is it?

Is this the end of the world as I know it?

Mercifully, time does, in fact, march on. Despite my relentless clock-checking, which feels obsessive and futile, I send a text to a dear friend who has come to see me off.

 
 

It’s here. I’m ready.

I say goodbye to the few blue shirts I see on my way out of the basement. Then I climb the two flights of stairs. Stark, white walls lined with promotional posters of all of the talented artists and speakers that have performed here. They serve as a reminder that significant people are frequently invited to make their mark on us and our customers, before being hastily relegated to mere memories. The most important guests get recognized via their posters, our trophies. Hung up in the stairwell for all to admire every day and feel like we were a part of something important.

I emerge into a dark hallway that leads me past one of the Genius Rooms and into the auditorium on the second floor. I make my way toward the Genius Bar. A blue shirt, Dan, marches down the aisle, checking in with customers. He clutches an iPad. A man of such massive stature, Dan holds that iPad in a single hand about as easily as I hold my iPhone 4S. We’ve joked about it before. Dan and I have fun.

Dan’s the first to see me as he glances up from directing a customer to their seat at the Bar. When he does, he sets the iPad down and runs over and wraps his giant arms around me in the warmest embrace. He’s such a nice guy, and it’s hard to not succumb to the welling emotion. Then he lifts me up in the air and I’m suddenly very self-conscious of my weight. Doesn’t seem to phase him, though. He sets me down and my legs somehow hold their own against the unsteadiness reverberating through them.

A pregnant pause. It takes me a moment to recognize an all-too-familiar sound. The violent shattering of windows? The furious grumbling of thunder? The sharp, staccato pulses of hail clattering upon the roof?

Wait, no. I know this sound. I have produced this sound countless times in my tenure here.

The energetic, jovial clapping of hands.

I wander to the staircase and peer down. A sea of blue stands before me. The claps–waves crashing incessantly against the bluff–the claps don’t stop. And they are for me. Clap. Wide smiles. Familiar faces. Raucous cheers. Clap clap clap.

It’s for me. All of it. I can’t contain myself. Try as I might, with hands drawn to my face, I can’t contain myself. There’s nowhere to hide. I thought I was ready, but I’m not ready. I’m not ready at all.

I’ve descended these stairs hundreds of times. Before this moment, I’ve nary given the long, thick slabs of glass before me any meaningful thought. Thick glass. Patented by Steve Jobs. I always laughed to myself at the trepidatious steps of our customers as they climbed them. Wary, fearful. One slip, a single crack, and you’re met with a violent introduction to physics.

Standing above the glass slats now, my colleagues cheering me on, a sudden realization:

I am so fucking scared.

I’m scared of falling down the stairs. I’m scared of saying goodbye. I’m scared of what it means to walk through the giant glass doors that await me at the end of the valley of people.

But I can’t back down now. So I step forward. Though I am deafened and confused by all of the blue shirts cheering me on, I suddenly remember the iPhone in my pocket. Halfway down the stairway, I stop and snap a quick photo–like any good Millennial would–the sensor struggles to compensate for my shaking hands.

 
 

Years later, I’ll be grateful that I captured it. For as blurry as it is right this second, it will provide infinitely more clarity than the images my brain holds onto after time slowly erodes them, a fleeting vision no more vivid than ethereal wisps in a darkened forest.

Stepping down onto the sandstone floors, I look at every face around me. These significant people that made me feel like I was part of something important. Many smile behind their claps. There are others look on with confusion, some of confused ones even muster up the courage to whisper to the blue shirts around them. I’ve had that conversation dozens of times.

“What’s happening?”

“It’s his last day. We clap everyone out when they leave.”

I want to hug every last one of them. I suddenly don’t want to go. I want this moment to last forever. But, out of practicality, I don’t let it linger. I’m drawn to some of those whose impact will resonate within me long after I leave. I hug Lindsey. Then Juli. Over to Amanda and William. And then I see my confidant. My counterpart. My very dear and wonderful friend who has helped me through countless moments of personal and professional tumult. Allexia. No point in even trying to keep it together. I melt into her arms. I’ll never know someone quite like her again. Someone who always has an answer, who can inspire passion and creativity, who can drive me to constantly strive to be the best version of myself.

Here I am. The doors are right in front of me, ready to let me out. I’ll be gone forever. A final wave back at my family before I’m outside on Michigan Avenue, swarmed by the crowd that has gathered at the entrance of the store. A couple passersby ask me who I am. What I did. What’s the deal with the clapping. I mutter something about leaving and I walk away. I’m so absorbed in this moment I don’t even realize my wife is following me until she darts forward and grabs my hand, jolting me back into reality. We walk around the corner and I hug her. I pause to think. Every minute moving forward from now adds to my life after Apple.

Am I Completely Wasting My Time?

Recently, a wrote a piece that garnered a reaction I am not yet well-acquainted with: derision. I wrote it in good humor, commenting on another article, and I tweeted a link to my finished post to the author of the original piece.

“You entirely missed the point,” he said.

I clicked on the Tweet, and saw that a colleague of his chimed in as well. “The wannabe Gruber got you. Neat.”

“Imagine how devastating he’ll be when he learns how to write.”

I’ve never been physically punched in the gut before, but I am pretty sure I know exactly how it feels now. Anger like I haven’t felt in a long time welled up from that spot and festered within me. Whatever else I was intending to pay attention to that evening became quickly irrelevant. My existence was now dedicated to mitigating this horrid feeling. I’ve had my moments of creative despair in the year and some change since I started this site, but nothing has ever made me question everything quite like that three Tweet exchange. This feeling was amplified exponentially due to the fact that I truly didn’t understand what would cause the author to react this way. My post wasn’t mean. Silly, maybe. Lighthearted. I reread it a dozen times searching for any hint of malice I may have overlooked while writing, and couldn’t detect it.

(It should be noted that I did reach out to the author, explained my intention, and asked why he felt the need to be disparaging. He responded when he awoke and clarified that he was overtired, in a bad mood, and misread my piece. He apologized, said he actually thought it was nicely put, and we’re cool now. All is right with the world.

Though I imagine the other guy still assumes I want to be John Gruber, which I guess I’ll just have to take as a compliment.)

My wife, one of the few people who truly knows me, immediately recognized something was brewing inside me. When I finally let my guard down and showed her the catalyst for my distress, she reassured me.

“They sound like dickheads.” Measured and thoughtful and endlessly supportive. Classic Gia.

I couldn’t shake the rage, though. How could I? This was (surprisingly) the first instance of true criticism I had experienced. It attacked my reading comprehension, my motivations and character, and my writing abilities.

“You’re putting yourself out there. Not everyone is going to like what you have to say. You can’t please them all. Don’t let it to get to you.” She’s a very sweet person, and I knew she was right. Rationally, I knew she was right.

Insidious are the thoughts of an irrational and hypercritical brain. It continued to eat at me. I thought I was going to be sick.

Do I shut down the site? Is this even fucking worth it? Am I completely wasting my time? These thoughts occupied my mind for a great deal longer than I feel comfortable admitting. Even now, when I think about it, I wonder if maybe there’s a little bit of truth burrowed in my internalized interrogation. But Gia was right. I can’t please everyone. As I write more, and more people get exposed to what I have to say, it’s inevitable that there will be more criticism. The nature of anonymity on the Internet has taught me that what I experienced was relatively tame compared to the horrors that lie waiting in the nebulous expanse of the web. If I’m going to react this way to something that's ultimately so benign, what will it be like if and when the time arises where people tell me I should kill myself because I make fun of Samsung’s latest abortion? Maybe this isn’t worth pursuing. Life under a rock seems far less confrontational.

Desperately, I tried to relieve my anxiety. This drove me to seek out someone, an objective third party, a person I could trust to tell me what’s what. Set me straight. I took to Facebook and contacted a good friend of mine, pleading for his blunt honesty in a couple frantic messages.

“Is what I am doing with my site stupid and worthless?”

“Am I a terrible writer?”

I assured him it wasn’t a ploy to fish for compliments, but reading back on the conversation now, I can’t help but feel downright pitiful. It’s way up there on my ever-growing list of weakest moments.

To his credit, he lived up to my expectations and provided a compassionate but pragmatic and well-reasoned response after letting me ruminate on the events for the evening.

“I think you offer an interesting perspective on Apple. It’s a crowded field of bloggers,” he said. “My problem with all Apple blogs is that Apple is a big, terrible, smugly capitalistic megacorporation that shrouds itself in the costume of righteousness and unbridled creativity.” Spoken like a true former Apple employee.

Everyone who leaves Apple leaves for a different reason, and they all seem to have a very unique takeaway from their experience. I’ve heard the sentiments run the gamut from, “I really miss it,” to, “Fuck this place and its Kool-Aid drinking zealots.”

I don’t fault my friend for his perspective. I completely understand where he is coming from, though I personally disagree with the assessment.

He continued. “I know your writing comes from a personal place, and it’s thoughtful and often very eloquent.” Coming from a scholar who is in the midst of writing a four-year long dissertation, a man on the editorial board of a peer-reviewed academic journal, I’d be a damn liar if I said this didn’t inflate my ego a considerable margin.

“Corporations are not people.”

“Apple is not people.”

“So if you’re wasting your time, it’s not at all because you’re not good at what you do.”

“It’s because maybe what you do doesn’t need to be done.”

Four messages drove home his point. He said that’s about as brutally honest as he could be. I was at the same time emboldened and disheartened.

I know your writing comes from a personal place.

Apple is not people.

Over the last few days, my thoughts have revolved around a common inquiry: what is it about Apple that I connect with on such a personal level?

October 5, 2011

The operator stations in the North Michigan Avenue Apple Store are nestled in a corner of one of the stock rooms. One or two Specialists are assigned to the phones in shifts that typically last no longer than two hours each, and during that time they field every phone call that comes in from the outside world. Most people don’t revel being on phones, though there are some who find ways to secret themselves away down there for extended periods of time. They’re not feeling well. The person taking over for them hates phones. They busted their knee and can “literally barely move.” To them, anything is better than going back up to the floor and talking to another person who won’t buy AppleCare on their iPad. These are the people who won’t be successful at Apple.

On the afternoon of the fifth of October, 2011, I was assigned to phones. I never minded manning the station. I liked helping people solve problems. I also liked when sweet old ladies told me I had a voice that sounded like it should be on the radio.

It’s the little things.

This particular afternoon was quiet. Not a lot of people ringing the store. Inexplicably, there were two of us assigned to phones, and between trading every other call, we’d peruse the Internet on the iMacs at the station.

I was scrolling aimlessly through Twitter (clearly, nothing much has changed in my life). My timeline was pretty unassuming that day. Boring even. Until a new Tweet notification showed up on screen and I clicked it.

“Holy shit,” I said. My colleague looked over and asked me what was going on.

“Steve died.”

Three years at an Apple Store, and I never experienced a day quite like that day. It didn’t take long for the news to spread between every employee in the store. The term “viral” was never more fitting. The solemnity that filled every room in the building was bewildering. Staff and customers alike commiserated with one another as reality set in. Everybody shared in the grief over Steve’s passing.

Inexplicably, I felt an immense void deep within myself. As though someone had removed a part of me, but didn’t bother replacing it. In the coming weeks, that void would slowly fill in with each incredible gesture the residents and visitors of Chicago showered upon the store. The giant glass windows that lined Michigan Avenue began to fill up with myriad Post-It notes. Heartfelt well-wishes. Expressions of sadness. The lovely memories of those whose lives were forever changed by Steve and the things his company built.

 
 

But before all of that, on that night, I felt empty. And that emptiness transcended sleep, burrowing itself into my gut to accompany me to my early shift the next morning.

Shifts at Apple Stores typically begin with the “Daily Download,” a meeting led by someone on the Leadership team. Some common topics discussed are: sales numbers from the previous day, and the goals for the current day; tactics for showing customers the benefits of whatever product we were focusing on that quarter; recognizing other employees whose actions personified Apple’s relentless mission to enrich the lives of its customers. Daily Downloads were usually a great way to get the team hyped up for the day ahead of them.

Depending on your personal views of Apple, the following events I describe will either seem especially touching, or insane and bizarre, fortifying your opinion that Apple breeds cult-like religious fervor amongst its fans.

The Daily Download on the morning of October 6th, though, was led by our Flagship Leader, and she told us she knew that today would be tough. Tough for us. Tough for our customers. We should be prepared for it. She was sweet, caring, understanding. She wanted us to know that we all had a support system. The Leadership Team was there for us.

At one point, we were invited to share our own memories or stories about Steve, thoughts we had on his passing, or anything else that was on our mind. Some of my colleagues had met him once or twice, usually in passing. Some of us just wanted to talk about a way that an Apple device touched their life in a meaningful way. Anyone who wanted to speak was given an open invitation to do so.

I didn’t expect to say anything, but something compelled me to vocalize my sorrow. I was confused by it. I had never met Steve. At that point, I was barely with the company for more than a year. What stake did I have in all of this?

My memory is hazy around the specifics of what I said, so I am hesitant to put anything between quotation marks. The general sentiment, however, is something I will never forget.

I opened up to my team, something that became increasingly difficult as I elaborated, since the void decided to bubble its way up my gullet and choke me while I spoke. I told them:

I never knew Steve. I never met him. I never even saw him. But when I heard the news yesterday, I felt (and continue to feel) incredibly sad about his passing. I’ve been racking my brain since then, trying to figure out why this is affecting me so deeply. I love our products, but I love technology, so that’s not surprising. I feel incredibly fortunate to work for one of the most amazing companies in the world.

I think the reason why I can’t shake this feeling is because if it wasn’t for Steve, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have the opportunity to work with all of you. More than anything else, getting a chance to come here every day, be around people that I truly care about and love working with, is the best thing he could have ever done for me. You all inspire me so much. You’re more than my peers. You’re my family. Steve helped me find a family.

I think about that day a lot. How I felt. What it means to me to have been surrounded by such warm, wonderful people that challenged me to be my best. To be a part of something bigger than myself. It’s one of my most cherished memories from my time with Apple. I expect it will stick with me for a long time.

Soylent Green

It’s been a few days now since my friend and I spoke about my work. His cynical statement continues to swirl around my head, twisting and turning and weaving its way into every conceivable fold of my brain. I know what he means. I know exactly what he means. I share his cynicism for damn near every other company out there. I try to assume the best of everyone, but there are some out there that just make it so. Fucking. Difficult. My snarky liberal sensibilities frequently get the best of me. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there that would call me a hypocrite for thinking different about Apple, if even for a second.

But this is where I have to deviate from his perspective. I truly believe that Apple is people. They are a company, sure, but a company comprised of thousands of people who share a common goal: to enrich the lives of their customers through great experiences. This is something that I saw on a daily basis in my time there, and it’s something that I continue to see from an outsider’s perspective as Tim shapes the company under his direction.

You might think me naive. You might say that the environment in a store is an outlier, that it’s not indicative of the company as a whole. Of course they want to cheer their lowest-paid employees on. Keep up the morale of the troops as they wade into battle after daily battle. It makes sense to instill them with a greater sense of importance. But I’ve worked at the ground level for those types of faceless, greedy corporations before. I know what it looks like to be an under-appreciated peon whose only practical purpose is to make more money for the people above me.

Apple has a gift for hiring talented over-achievers. Empathetic listeners who love to solve problems. It demands the best from its employees, and it inspires them to grow as individuals, to bring their unique experiences to each and every interaction. People that are capable of succeeding in that type of environment are not stupid, and most of them will be able to suss out any sort of nefarious intent and take action accordingly. This is something that I saw at all levels of the company, from the Specialists with whom I worked side-by-side each and every day, up to the leadership in Apple Retail, and those I met from corporate. I don’t believe for a second that that type of culture is wrought of a flaccid mission statement plastered on the walls. That sort of inspiration is engrained at the highest levels of the company. For it to truly succeed, those who preach it must believe it.

And if we assume for a second that someone like Tim speaks only in platitudes to inspire his employees, what purpose does that serve him? The message is still gobbled up by (almost) everyone anyway, and that call to action has found them inordinate amounts of success as a result. If the people running the company don’t believe there’s truth to their words, they are idiots.

Now with all of that being said, because Apple is people, Apple is inherently not perfect. It is still a corporation, and by that fact alone there are choices it makes that don’t fit within the utopian ideals of a group of people with purely benevolent intentions. There were plenty of moments where I was baffled by decrees handed down from on high. I worked through the Browett months, for God’s sake. I watched my bright-eyed, optimistic, Apple-loving coworkers get ground down into jaded, miserable husks who stayed for the paychecks until they could find something, anything better.

I saw leadership hire new members for their own team. Many times these were external hires from places like Best Buy and Target, and they were brought on solely because they knew how to drive more sales. Those were the people who were managers, not leaders, and very rarely did they grasp the ideas that made Apple so different than other companies.

I saw hours cut. Attendance policies made more strict. People fired for offenses that would have previously resulted in a mere write-up. I once consoled a friend who got yelled at by her manager because she wanted to take an extra day off around the holiday to fly out and see her parents.

These instances (and others like them) made me question my own judgment. They drove me to look for work outside of Apple. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that many people who left in the ebb do not hold the same fondness for those who were there for the flow. I do not blame them for not sharing my perspective. The views of the world are shaped by our experiences, and every Apple experience is different. It’s also not for everyone.

Life After Apple

People occasionally ask me about my affinity for Apple. Frequently, that question will be phrased like, “You’re such a fanboy,” but I feel like I’m smart enough to parse the subtleties of the English language and glean the true meaning of their underlying query.

I don’t always know how to properly respond.

People admire things that don’t directly affect them all the time. It might be between Apple versus Google (or Apple and Microsoft, depending on how long it’s been since you threw your hat into the ring), Xbox versus Playstation, sports team versus other sports team. Jennifer or Brad. T-Swift. Katy Perry. Coke. Pepsi. Boxers. Briefs. Often times it’s arbitrary and silly, but it’s human nature. We glom onto these things with very little forethought as to why.

For me, Apple is something that I deeply connected with during my three years there. From its products, to its design, to its mission, to it being the first place that made me feel truly accepted for who I was. Apple connected me with some of the best fucking people I’ve ever met in my life. People I still think about today and consider them some of my closest friends. People I love. People who love me back. People I truly enjoyed seeing each day. People that challenged me. People that made me a better individual.

Growing up an outcast isn’t easy. Being treated poorly by others because of some perceived differences–things that, for the life of you, you can’t figure out what they are–that sticks with you. While it’s nice to think that as you get older, you can just move on from those experiences, it’s not always the case. Slights against you–especially the tiny ones that were callously spat out hundreds of times, a multitude of little emotional cuts that built up over the years–leave considerable scar tissue behind.

Apple taught me to value my differences, and the differences of my colleagues. And not just value them, but celebrate them.

It allowed me to tap into my core and use my knack for helping others. It encouraged me to do what was right for my customers; it allowed me to feel like a person and connect with others on a level unlike anything I had ever experienced before, workplace or not. It helped me learn how to mentor, how to teach, how to lead.

In three years there, I learned more about myself than I did in six and a half years in college (no, my Twitter bio isn’t an exercise in hyperbole). I overcame obstacles and learned from them. I developed new skills and honed existing ones, oftentimes discovering I possessed innate abilities that were previously unbeknownst to me.

The worst parts of the job made me cherish the best parts. It taught me about optimism. A lot of how things play out in life do so based on your attitude toward them. Apple instilled confidence in me. It taught me to respect myself. It implored that I always seek out what was best.

At the end of it all, leaving Apple was the best thing for me. Everything I learned there helped me realize it was the right time. All of the experiences I had in my three years there helped me realize that the risk was worth it.

So I guess that’s my answer. All of that is what Apple means to me. That’s why I write about it.

In that video, you can see how overwhelmed I am as I approach the top of the stairs. Even today, I watch that and I can feel my hesitation before I take my first step down the stairs. Faced with a sea of smiling, cheering family members, I remember being so terrified of walking out those doors. Back then, I think I was scared of leaving my comfort zone. Now that some time has passed, I realize that I was just scared that I’d be leaving the best parts of myself behind. My friends. The skills I had learned. My passions. That all of those things would stay forever trapped within those walls, because Apple was such a big part of me.

I know now that I brought all of that along for the ride. I may have left Apple, but Apple didn’t leave me.