Commentary: Steven Sinofsky knows what it’s like to ship code at scale, which is why he’s perfect to call out Apple for “some of the most remarkable product engineering…in history.”
For most of us, we’ll just be grateful Adobe Lightroom works well on our new ARM-based Macs. But for Steven Sinofsky, who once ran Microsoft’s Windows business, the most impressive thing about Apple has nothing to do with anything that consumers will experience with the company’s products. Rather, it’s “some of the most remarkable product engineering…in history” that has gone into Apple’s steady drumbeat of delivering product updates, as he recently gushed.
If “gushed” seems derogatory, it’s not meant to be. Because Sinofsky, who knows a thing or two about shipping product, waxed eloquent in a long series of tweets on the topic. It’s worth reading his views on how unprecedented Apple’s execution has been.
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“Done more and executed better”
What is it about Apple that causes Sinofsky to declare, “Under the hood, [Apple product engineering] is a team that over time has done more and executed better than any I can name, ever”? That’s incredibly high praise, especially given the source. Sinofsky hones in on three things that Apple has done remarkably well:
Fearless multi-year strategy
Clear unified planning/prioritization
Wildly unprecedented execution
Let’s take the first one, to start. On the multi-year strategy, every company of size does this. Few, however, hold to those multi-year projections beyond the immediate fiscal year, as Sinofsky calls out. In Apple’s case, its announcement of a two-year move to ARM-based architectures for Macs is tremendously aggressive, while also being dangerous. In Sinofsky’s words:
First, that’s like no time at all. Second, that’s an incredibly long time to tell everyone how long it will take and that they should be patient. Seriously. But really that is incredibly brave when so much could potentially change, more importantly could go wrong….The big thing about this is how Apple’s overall model…enables this to work. Every aspect of the system has to come together to create an environment where choices can be made AND supported that allow these plans to have integrity.
It’s precisely because Sinofsky has attempted to do this at a company known for solid execution that he’s well-positioned to comment on Apple’s achievement. Microsoft’s delivery of various Windows operating systems, he related, were constantly (and consistently) delayed. As for Microsoft’s shift to 64-bit? “It took 20 years for it to happen…[and] still isn’t done.”
This isn’t to demean Microsoft. Far from it: The company has a different customer base and has tended to prioritize backward compatibility over most other things. “We didn’t do anything wrong,” Sinofsky said. Even so, this commitment to easing customers forward, while preserving their ability to take a long time to get there, he said, “does…make it much less interesting/important for customers to move forward with you.”
It’s not about agile, scrum, or waterfall
How does Apple pull this off? According to Sinofsky, it’s by fixating everyone across a massive engineering organization (he estimates it at 20,000) on the whole, rather than the parts: “It is incredibly clear that everyone at Apple puts strategy requirements above anything ‘local’. When you wonder why there isn’t more new in Notes or why Mail is missing stuff it’s because supporting a multi-year strategy trumps individual teams and that’s a good thing.”
Microsoft’s approach, by contrast, wasn’t worse, he stressed, but very different. “Microsoft operated much more locally and hence was far more resilient, in many other businesses, and served many different customer types. Some would even say [it was] more responsive to customers.”
It is this laser-sharp focus on a holistic strategy that makes Apple unique, Sinofsky argued. It’s not about a particular product development methodology. It’s all about the supremacy of strategy: “This isn’t scrum or agile….[M]ost would call it waterfall BUT IT IS NOT. It is planning, iterating, prioritizing, discarding, restarting, and more. I argued most of my career that having a strategy and prioritizing is the only way to execute to have this impact.”
So could you do the same? Possibly. To do so requires exceptional people, but also that exceptionally strong commitment over prolonged periods of time to a central strategy. Turns out that’s really hard to pull off in practice, which is why Sinofsky celebrated Apple in the singular, not an array of Apples.
Disclosure: I work for AWS, but the views expressed here are mine and don’t reflect those of my employer.