Hey, the yellow T-shirts are back!
That’s a sign of summer in the Apple Store.
Cobalt blue T-shirts are our everyday uniform. We only get two, so when you’re full-time it can be a challenge keeping at least one presentably clean.
They give us red shirts during the winter holidays. Our one Orthodox Jewish employee opts to stay in blue that time of year, because red obviously doesn’t signify Hanukkah.
Up until 2009, Specialists wore light blue, Managers and Creatives wore royal blue, Geniuses wore navy blue, Concierges wore orange, and black was reserved for Back of House. The stated rationale was that the color-coding promoted team solidarity. The colors also helped denote which employees customers could approach for which questions.
If you had a Genius Bar appointment, you were instructed to first check in with the person in the orange shirt. If you had a question about a printer or earphones, you could ask anyone in light blue, etc.
After 2009, however, all positions were expected to wear cobalt blue. The stated rationale was (again) to promote team solidarity. We looked more unified. It may have also been a tactic to reduce overall customer confusion or the umbrage that sometimes arose when a non-navy blue shirt was assigned to help someone with a technical matter. I couldn’t believe how often I heard, “What? I don’t deserve a Genius?”
At that time, the Concierge position was eliminated, disheartening those who had excelled in the role. It’s cold comfort that their function has since been recognized as crucial and resurrected in the form of employees who take turns “On Point.”
The yellow T-shirts have come out for Camp.
Apple Stores run workshops for groups of young people during the summer. It’s not drop-off, in case you’re wondering. Parents can’t leave the store and expect employees to be liable for their children, but it is both fun and free. Kids get to play with iMacs and iPads, shoot video, create their own soundtracks, and edit their own short movies. They get T-shirts, as do whichever employees volunteer to run Camp.
So, you either bask in the delicious pain of having a crush, or, I don’t know, you’re dead inside.
You could compare the stages of a crush to the stages of my relationship with Apple Retail.
1. Crush History
You’ve had them. Everyone has. From your previous crushes, you should have learned that each is like golden paper maché wrapped around assumptions and hope. Most infatuations crumple bittersweetly, a few actually explode. It’s an unpredictable piñata you usually break open with your face.
2. Here We Go Again
But then that impossible brunette coworker happens to smile at you, or says something to the effect that you’re too good to be stuck here with everyone else, and her dimples make you go electric.
You must impress her again and soon. The mutual admiration thrills you.
Now, these two stages quite obviously correspond to the application process.
In your first Apple interview, you’re asked: Why do you want to work here?
For me, and for 99.6% of fellow employees I’ve asked, the crush history one feels for Apple as a company begins with enjoying its products. It almost always comes down to the lingering positive feelings associated with one’s first iPod, Mac, or more recently, iPhone. At some time in your younger life, that thing rocked your digital world.
Suitable applicants essentially, and probably unconsciously, answer the question by professing brand loyalty. The products have done so much for me, the company is so innovative, and the stores seem like an exciting place to join the ranks, you hear yourself say.
In return, I remember, my interviewer commended my academic record, my technical work experience, and my enthusiasm. He thought Apple and I might be great for each other. I felt like the sky was the limit.
Your senses are heightened. The world is more alive.
3. Little Things
The tiniest encounters, like a team meeting fist bump or a shared laugh near the glass staircase, reverberate in your mind. I’m talking about the crush again, but it’s happening at work. Sorry to muddle the metaphor. Work duties and home chores mewl and scratch at your peripheral attention, distracting you from the more pressing task of envisioning coffee and casual sex.
4. Next Step
You can’t take it anymore, so there are three ways this can go.
You never say anything, and one of you becomes unavailable.
Or you do say something, but she doesn’t feel the same.
Or you do say something, and you go out.
I hope you dare. That’s right, I snuck in a country music lyric.
You jump in. You go for the tangled thrill ride. This is the great, messy stuff of life well lived. Kudos!
For a crush, this is dating. For my job, this was accepting and signing on to train.
5. Next Step(s)?
Now you’re in it.
And the next stage is… what exactly? Do you have to think about it as stages, per se? Should you be careful not to overthink it?
Do you build up? If not, should you call it quits? Can’t you coast? Is that so wrong?
Before you know it, you are a year, or two, or even three into your relationship.
According to most retail business models, 2.5 years is the general life expectancy of an employee. That is fast turnover.
What can one expect during that time? At Apple, moving from part-time to full-time is considered a promotion. Without salary increase, changing titles from Specialist to FRS, aka Family Room Specialist, is considered a promotion, even though it is still essentially an apprentice position meant to precede actual promotion to Genius or Creative.
Over time, retail employees expect to climb the ladder. A legendary few graduate from Retail to Corporate in Cupertino. A few key designers, coders, and managers have made that move, though the gates have been narrowed, if not closed over the past few years. A Genius or Creative like me begins eying the senior talent. There aren’t that many Lead positions. There aren’t that many Manager spots. Maybe there would be at another store, but maybe it’s time to re-evaluate.
Just like with a romantic crush, my expectations of the company have changed. It’s often hard to tell if Apple Retail has changed, or if my perception has from being inside so long.
I had heard Apple had great customer service. I remembered that I had received great customer service myself. I will never forget how painful it is to uphold that standard in the face of some of the customers who outright attacked me.
I am more keenly aware of tech journalism and Apple rumors than I was before. Paying more attention helps me to remember how many rumors are blatantly false, and therefore tempers my expectations. I try to share that perspective with panicked believers. The stores are where the rubber hits the road, the technology hits the public, and the public hits me.
Having had to teach the in’s and out’s of operating systems, both on the Mac and on iPods or iPhones, I finally understand why developers and tech bloggers get so excited about events like WWDC. While some employees stream the live feed into the break room during work, there was also an elite geek corps watching the keynotes from home on their day off. They want to be hardcore Apple. I get it now. I didn’t before, but I do now.
I’ve seen Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard, Lion, Mountain Lion, Mavericks, and now Yosemite, the parade of ever-updated MacIntosh Operating Systems. It must be wild to be an engineer, or an interface designer, or white collar in Cupertino in any way. The expression of these monumental advances, these breakthroughs for our customers on their devices and in their App Store, they burst like fireworks onto the stages in Northern California. But my share in the revelry, outside of my buying stock, is humble.
People don’t come into our store when their devices are working great. They only come in when something’s gone wrong. By the time we see people, technology has activated their personal psychology. It’s never that someone bought a device they couldn’t be bothered to learn how to use, it’s somehow always that Apple and I were personally out to make them feel stupid. Someone will be insulting me, my job, and my company even as I replace their device for free.
And when that’s the rut into which my so-called relationship with Apple has locked, it’s hard not to want out.
It’s sad to me that such a crush wilts.
All the best and brightest who inspired me when I joined the company have left. Two were promoted to other stores. The others all got sick of waiting and left the company. If that doesn’t bode well for me, I worry it doesn’t bode well for Apple. Was the promise of growth just a sales pitch? Is Apple Retail, after all, just like other retail? Is that what the deflated crush finally leaves behind?
6. Calling It
Relationships don’t work out, until one does, a married friend tells me.
I’m still dating, and I’m still working at Apple. I complain, though I often say I can’t.
I’d be lying if I said my eyes didn’t stray. I know what I want to believe, and I’m not one to let go of loyalty lightly.
In early May 2014, it was rumored that Apple was in talks to buy Beats, the iconic if dubiously high-price-worthy headphones company fronted by hip hop impresarios Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine.
Desperate for news, the Internet scrounged up a short video of a seemingly drunk, possibly celebrating Dre confirming it was true.
Last week, the official announcement was made, sealed online with photos of CEO Tim Cook smiling next to Iovine and Dre. They stand before a railing below which sprawls the sunny Apple Campus in Cupertino.
Apple Employees hear rumors more quickly than most. Partially, because we pay attention. Partially, because our morning briefings sometimes mention them so that we will be alerted. But mostly, because as soon as some ridiculous information gets circulated on the Internet, flocks of customers come into the stores assuming it’s true.
Reactions to the rumor often revealed more about the listener than the news itself.
One Specialist bemoaned that this was an utter waste of $3 billion, since the headphones, though popular, weren’t very high quality.
One Genius complained he was not excited to start having to service the damn cans (nicknames for the large, over-the-ear style headphones) at the Genius Bar.
One Expert just wanted to celebrate that another black man had become a billionaire.
Financial articles posited other possible explanations for the move. Beats has a subscription-based music service in place. Rather than build on the shaky foundations of iTunes Genius or iTunes Radio, Apple would do much better to simply purchase and adapt the Beats model if it plans to compete with Spotify or Pandora.
In addition, Iovine as a producer would hold great sway and influence in which artists might be willing to deploy iTunes for music distribution.
At the time of this writing, a rumor spread that Apple was investigating how to standardize the high data capacity lightning cable as a headphone connector, which could greatly improve audio quality to a lossless 48k rate, depending on the recording source.
I found these analyses reassuring. I want to feel as though my company is making smart, tactical moves. Moves smarter than I would make with $128 billion in the bank. (The thought of an Apple Iron Man suit may or may not have crossed my mind.) Like Wayne Gretzky, Apple needs to skate to where the puck will be.
There are a lot of pucks.
In 2013, Apple made 13 acquisitions, the most of any year so far. The tech media seems determined to declare Apple stalled on its innovations, but it’s hard to know what these purchases may portend.
Apple bought Novauris Technologies for speech recognition, presumably to buff up Siri.
It also bought WiFiSlam, Locationary, BroadMap, Embark, and HopStop.com, presumably for location services and Mapping.
No one pays attention to the semiconductor business buys like Passif and PrimeSense.
And it would take deeper knowledge of the App Store than I have to understand how Matcha’s media discovery or AlgoTrim’s data compression or Topsy’s analytics or Burstly’s app testing and distribution will help. How can anyone evaluate these without the advantage of hindsight? To really innovate, you sometimes go places where you don’t know what you’re going to find.
I respect that. I just wonder if I want to go along for the ride as a customer instead of a footman.
Anyway, this Camp session is over, Jenna and I are going out for iced coffees. After a few more weeks with yellow shirts out on the floor, the seasons will turn again.
It’ll be time for Back to School sales specials, college student discounts, and starting all over.