Nearly twenty years at Apple taught me a few lessons. Some of them actually might benefit those working in other organizations.
There is not as much consistency as one might hope for in Apple managers so my experience would not likely be duplicated in another's career. Much of this is likely the same that you might find in any company. Yet Apple tends to be more fun to discuss because it's viewed through a magnifying glass, and there is an army of people who like to be armchair managers and analysts for Apple.
I would say the first thing I picked up at Apple is that you are your own best resource. There is no one to hold your hand at Apple. All the talk of career plans is just talk. If you're lucky someone will take you under their wing and point you in the right direction. I did learn early in my career that Apple Area Associates are the great repository of company culture and how to get things done. Apple to my knowledge doesn't even have an employee handbook. They do have some of the most talented field administrative people in the world. I was fortunate to learn from and work with many of them. I also was extremely fortunate to have one of the most talented of the bunch riding herd on my team for the last five or six years.
Perhaps the second thing that I learned is that you can tell a lot about people by how they treat administrative people. Employees that treat administrative people like disposable paper plates are most likely to be people that you can't trust to be team players. They're likely to be the ones who are only working for themselves and don't mind stepping on a few people along the way.
It didn't take long for me to learn that most Apple managers didn't want to hear bad news if there was a chance that it might get to their bosses. Yet for some reason it was okay to give an outline of bad news as long as it was tucked at the back of your presentation.
I don't know if this holds as a rule anywhere but Apple, but I soon found that the more notes that a manager took during a presentation, the less likely they were to do anything about the issues they were noting. The managers that listened and really connected with you, likely wouldn't promise the world by writing it down, but might actually try to deliver on their commitments.
This evolved into a very successful strategy for me, listen a lot, promise only what you can deliver, and absolutely deliver what you promise and more. While you're at it, it helps to communicate a lot so that no one ends up in the dark. This works for employees, managers, and customers.
Apple's very unstructured environment also led to a system of personal loyalties that determined what got done and when. You could not count on someone at Apple doing something because they were told to do it. Rank meant very little at Apple. I can still remember a large federal agency requesting some information about iChat. Three Apple VPs had approved the request for the information. Yet a Director in marketing refused to respond to multiple emails about providing the information. At Apple being successful often meant helping others to be successful so that sometime in the future they might be willing to help you. You also learned that Apple product marketing operated by their own rules and feared no one but Steve.
Another interesting thing that was crystal clear at Apple was that the level of paranoia was directly related to the closeness to the top floor at One Infinite Loop. I remember coming over to Steve's floor to pick up an executive VP for a briefing. He quickly suggested a route off the floor that didn't go in front of Steve's office. He explained the choice by saying it was safer. While Apple people on the east coast were often willing to try different things, most of the California corporate people were very nervous to be involved in anything that wasn't a certain success from the word go. I can well remember a seminar on super computing that we were giving at FOSE (the federal computer show) one year in Washington. A few weeks before the seminar when we hadn't filled all the seats for the event, the corporate person panicked and wanted to cancel the whole thing. I finally said that she could cancel if she wanted but I would guarantee a great crowd, and if the event was canceled I would let it be known who did it. The event went forward, and it was standing room only.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned at Apple was that you were in charge of your own career. No one was taking notes on your accomplishments. It was rare that Apple managers that you could trust to care about your best interests would last long enough to help you advance. I was fortunate to have a really honest and hard working manager for six of my last eight years. It made a tremendous difference in what we got accomplished. We were both working for the best interests of the company while not paying a lot of attention to the impact on our own career.
I also learned that there were people at Apple who cared more about settling personal scores or putting money in their own pockets than promoting the best interests at Apple. I doubt this is any different than what you find at most Fortune 500 companies, but many of us joined Apple with the expectation that it would be different. Unfortunately it didn't turn out that way. Like all companies there were good employees and bad employees.
Not so surprisingly I found that working in a large company like Apple could be more rewarding when the company was having tough times. It was during those tough times that employees and customers were often treated the best. Often during times of great success, it was easy to imagine that any employee was expendable or that the corporation didn't mind ignoring a few customers because there were plenty more out there to replace any dissatisfied ones.
Another secret was that you don't need to know much about long term strategy to get you job done. At least that is the case if doing the right thing by customers and employees is at the top of your priority list. A number of us have written at length about the secrecy at Apple. The result of the secrecy is often a lot of "I don't knows," but I don't think that ever kept me from doing my job.
Probably the thing I learned the hardest way is that often Human Resources in a large company is tasked with protecting the company, not employees. At Apple human resources was a special kind of beast, but I'll leave it at that.
Apple was a great training ground, and with the appropriate amount of keeping your head down, a place where you could work with some of the brightest employees around. It's not a place for people looking for a structured career or one where you can expect the company to groom you for anything but possible early retirement if you get out of line.
Apple is an American icon. I'm not sure there's a high percentage of people leaving Apple by choice, but that doesn't mean you can't have a very interesting and rewarding career there if you learn how to survive in the unique Apple world.