Open letter to Tim Cook

Note: I wrote this shortly after the "Let's talk iPhone" event, but given the events immediately following that, I elected not to publish it. I think enough time has elapsed now. I've updated it accordingly. — MJCP

Dear Tim,

May I call you Tim? Steve never seemed to mind being called Steve, but he was a counter-cultural type and you're a bit more — how can I put this — "button-down". I don't know if the first-name-basis thing is going to be your style. Even so, you're the CEO of Apple now, and your customers would like to think that, in some way, they're your buddy. Comes with the job.

I watched you "talk iPhone" and, to be entirely honest with you, I was a tad underwhelmed. Not with the products, mind you — I think the iPhone 4S looks pretty cool and all those disappointed people should pin their hopes on rumour sites a little less. No, I was underwhelmed with the presentation.

This was, as you said, your first gig as permanent CEO of Apple, and a great many eyes were on you. The pressure must have been huge. In hindsight, I expect there was a possibility you knew how dire Steve's situation was, and that contributed to a sombre sort of mood. That's understandable. It's human, and one of the things that has always separated Apple from the rest is its humanity. Don't ever lose it.

You've been given one of the toughest jobs in the world. Not the management of the world's most valuable publicly-listed company with tens of thousands of employees (though that's no doubt tough) — you're the guy who has to follow Steve Jobs. Particularly since his passing but even before that, you must have known that you will quite simply never be compared favourably to him. That's no reflection on you, it's just reality. He's on a pedestal now — the superhuman "Saint Steve", greatest genius of our time. He's Edison, Einstein and Da Vinci rolled into one. You're in his shadow, and it's unlikely you'll ever get out.

Most incoming CEOs have an opportunity to stamp their authority on a company quickly. Usually, this is because the last CEO was golden-parachuted out of there or resigned in disgrace. The new guy can come in and say "the era of that schmuck is over, everything he planned is cancelled and we're doing things my way now" and investors respond favourably to the new "direction" even before it's necessarily been set.

You don't get to do that. If you do, you'll terrify millions of people and it won't be long before you're the CEO of something that is not the most valuable publicly-listed company in the world anymore. Rather, investors want you to do the things Steve would do, to maintain the course Steve set. They want you to be as much like Steve as possible. With that in mind, I have a few bits of advice to give you.

First, be as much like Steve as possible. I don't mean turtlenecks and 501s — that would be creepy. I mean for your public appearances and addresses like "Let's Talk iPhone" you have to be what Steve was — intense, focussed and above all enthusiastic.

Steve had a talent for seeming like he was seeing the stuff he was showing off for the first time. He was the ultimate insider, yet he was also one of us. When something impressed him, he let it impress him. When it was exciting, he let himself be excited. His joy at seeing a new product unveiled was the template for the audience's joy.

The way you drawled about how excited you were practically snapped my brain — it was that much of a contradiction. I accept that you're from Alabama and that imposes certain limitations. That's OK, we just have to work within those. You're never going to have Steve's staccato. But Alabamans do get excited, right?

Now, I don't mean you should manufacture enthusiasm — look on YouTube for videos of Steve Ballmer to see how badly wrong that can go. I do mean that what you say and how you act need to be more in alignment. If you're not excited, don't say you are. Steve wouldn't.

Also, Steve was brutally unsentimental. If something didn't work or didn't fit his vision of where the company and the industry ought to be going, he would kill it without regard to how much had been spent on it already, or how much a part of the company's history it might be. He lived in the future.

I'm told, possibly unreliably, that Steve left plans for the next few years for what Apple ought to get up to. Stories range from "he left ideas for four products" up to "he mapped out a timeline of the next twenty years". The truth is probably different, and you needn't tell me. It was wise of Steve to plan like that — any CEO should have long-sighted plans, especially one who is aware he might be leaving soon.

You have to be brutally unsentimental with those plans too. Maybe Steve was a brilliant visionary genius who actually did anticipate what the entire industry would do in the next decade and exactly what Apple should do to shape that. More likely he had a few good guesses and got some things wrong. The last thing Apple or the rest of us need is for you to cling to those plans because they were Steve's. If it turns out that the best plan for Apple five years from now is entirely different to what Steve planned, ditch Steve's plan. Steve would.

My other bit of advice is don't be like Steve. I know, it's a paradox. Bear with me.

From before the iPhone announcement, but for the past few years in particular, Apple seemed to be very consciously putting other faces up in front of audiences as much as possible. You, Phil, Scott and so on. This was smart, because there had come a point where Steve and Apple were seen as synonymous, inseparable, like Steve was the one toiling away through the night coming up with amazing gadgets for the rest of you to sell. That was bad, because it hung far too much of the company's fate on the performance of one person. That makes investors nervous.

It was very prudent to show the public and investors just how many smart, creative people there are at Apple. They may not get exactly what it is all those people do, but they know that they exist and they work in Cupertino making Macs and stuff.

The problem is, few people outside the technology industry know what a Chief Operating Officer does. For that matter, few people inside the industry do. As far as a great many of your customers know, you're a numbers guy who never invented a single thing before being handed Steve's job. (And a lot of Apple old-timers will remember that last time Apple's COO got promoted to the top job it was Michael Spindler, and that was ... well ... sub-optimal.)

You have to fix that.

Where Steve had to break the "creator myth" you need to create one. Where Steve could sit back and act more as an MC to recent Apple presentations, and indeed needed to, you need to be the guy out front as much as possible. You have to give us the impression that every device, every application, every OS update is forged in the sweat of your very own brow. We must believe that every single nut and bolt, every curve and every line, has met with your approval. We must start to believe that you're the guy toiling away inventing stuff.

Don't sideline Scott and Phil, though — they're good presenters. But when someone else is showing off their products, you still have to be on stage watching while we watch, judging the presentation just as we do. And just as we're judging you.

And the last bit of advice: don't be a bozo. Back in 1998 when Steve was maintaining the pretense that he was heading up the team searching for a new CEO rather than becoming the CEO, he said that once before he'd left his company in the hands of a bozo and he didn't want to hand it over to another bozo. Apparently he didn't find anyone who wasn't a bozo — anyone who he could trust to be Apple's CEO.

So he made one. He spent over a decade building the company, including recruiting you mentoring you and making you into the person he could see as the next CEO. I don't know what lessons he taught you, or what qualities he saw in you that he nurtured and which qualities he trained out of you. That's between you and him. I don't think that he "made you in his image" as someone suggested — that's a bit demeaning and disrespectful to your contributions. But I do believe he invested in making you the best Apple CEO you could be.

He trusted you not to get so focused on one thing that you ignore everything else like Sculley did, nor to pursue so many cool projects at once that nothing ever comes together into a coherent plan like Spindler did, nor to treat Apple like it was just any other business the way Amelio did. Those men were bozos of the highest order and under their leadership Apple stood still for a decade. Steve trusted you not to stand still.

I have every confidence that you will not disappoint that trust. I wish you every success, and hope that you will take my advice in the spirit in which it is intended.

Your pal,

Matthew