When the Apple Curtain descends on your friends and colleagues
December 4, 2019 9:37 AM   Subscribe

Brent Simmons Names It: "The Apple Curtain" Writing on his inessential blog, Brent Simmons notes a strange/sad set of events that happens when someone you know goes to work at Apple: "I’m always happy for a friend when they start a job at Apple — but I’m also sad when it means they have to stop their community activities: no more podcasting and blogging, developer meetup organizing, presenting at conferences, writing side-project apps, contributing to open source things."
posted by zooropa (44 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Another friend of mine at Apple, who worked in an area relevant to some trouble we were having with NetNewsWire, wanted to look at the source code – and they had to go ask permission before they could even look.

wha? madness.

I work for a company that was acquired by a near-FAANG company (not a FAANG, but a name you will definitely know) and did not really read the fine print on the new hiring contract, and now I'm starting to wonder if I'm making trouble by, you know, making open source code contributions in my "free" time.
posted by dis_integration at 9:47 AM on December 4, 2019

Occasionally, good things come from it. The SuperCollider audio/music programming environment was a proprietary product with a small community until its author, James McCartney, was hired by Apple (apparently to write the AudioUnits framework). Rather than burying it, he open-sourced it; the result was that its user base expanded massively, and its back-end ended up as the standard solution for programmatically emitting sound, used by many livecoding tools like TidalCycles.

OTOH, after McCartney left Apple, he teased some new creative-programming experiments, though AFAIK, he never released them; perhaps they fell under the Apple legal department's long shadow?
posted by acb at 9:48 AM on December 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

All of this security and secrecy is necessary, otherwise the public might learn that next year's iphone is faster than the current one or has a square camera wart or something.

(lol that all of their ~product secrets~ have been leaking pretty reliably anyway lately)
posted by Vulgar Euphemism at 10:01 AM on December 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

When I started at Microsoft nearly 12 years ago, there was a lot of paranoia about engineers looking at random external code. This was slowly ratcheted back over the years, and now the line seems to be that your extra-work activities need to be sufficiently unrelated to what you do at work in order to be okay. That is, if I work on SQL Server I can't contribute to Postgres (or maybe even look at its code) but if I work on ML tools then it's probably okay.
posted by Slothrup at 10:07 AM on December 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

There are (or were) similar policies for developers working at Amazon, if I remember correctly.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 10:19 AM on December 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

I was kinda sad for Brent Simmons that you described his blog as inessential, until I went there and saw for myself.

It looks like a nice blog, but it is definitely inessential.
posted by AgentRocket at 10:29 AM on December 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

As someone on the inside, I highly disagree with the framing of the blog post.

There is no "Apple Curtain". Besides being forbidden from building apps and selling them on some sort of online store, I am not restricted from doing anything as long as I do it as a civilian and not officially as a Senior Software Engineer of Apple Inc.

Besides "developer meetup organizing", I have often done 100% of the things I am supposedly not able to do. I haven't done the developer meetup stuff because I'm just terrible at setting that kind of thing up. One of me teammates runs a series of JavaScript meetups however, he just does it as himself and not as someone representing Apple.
posted by sideshow at 10:30 AM on December 4, 2019 [22 favorites]

A lawyer at my previous company told us (software developers), when pressed, that we shouldn't use _any_ other software, including made by the employer, since it would open up the possibility of getting sued for copying it. We all had a good laugh about that one.
posted by meowzilla at 10:41 AM on December 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

I had a friend who worked someplace in marketing. She not only maintained the “radio silence” but, worse, was kind of smug about it. I eventually just stopped asking her about how work was going.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 10:47 AM on December 4, 2019

policies for developers working at Amazon
Amazon had the additional 'interesting' constraint of a combination of effects:
1. General policy of "can't be anything which competes with Amazon", but you have to cut a ticket & run it by Legal
2. Developers coming on with game-dev backgrounds or who are interested in game development, naturally ask their recruiter about this, and would be told "Amazon doesn't have a policy forbidding making games"
3. Upon creating a game or a prototype or an idea for a game they wanted to follow policy on, they would get a response to the effect of "Amazon Game Studios exists, so thus all things game-related compete with Amazon, so your idea is getting locked away in our vault and you don't get to have it anymore"
4. Naturally, this seems outrageous to a fresh developer, so they take to one of the social mailing lists (or maybe the general seattle@ mailing list if they're really peeved). At which point the old hands reset the Time Since Someone Ran Into the Game Legal Policy countdown, and the rest of that cohort of new developers since the last time the clock was reset get very unhappy about the policy.

They probably still have "Unnamed Runic Viking Unicode Roguelike" buried in that vault.
posted by CrystalDave at 10:53 AM on December 4, 2019 [20 favorites]

I don't know the situation at Apple specifically, but have worked at a few tech companies HQ'd in the Bay Area. My experience has been that the "community activities" Simmons mentioned are almost always allowed... but that employers vary widely in how many hoops you need to jump through to make them work, and what the culture around them is.

For example: if presenting at a conference about your cool spare-time app is socially encouraged, and there's zero or very lightweight management approval, then you'll see a lot of your coworkers doing that kind of thing. It's part of the culture, and there are minimal barriers.

If, OTOH, presenting at a conference is extremely rare at the company and my slide deck needs to go through an eight-week approval cycle... Sure, it's technically not forbidden, but very few people are ever going to bother.

I've worked in both types of environment, and IME adding any friction at all will greatly reduce how many people participate in the wider professional community. Sometimes that friction is there for a good reason, but it's a trade-off. For some companies the "curtain" is totally a real phenomenon, even if there are no actual rules against community activities in general.
posted by a device for making your enemy change his mind at 10:59 AM on December 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

There is no "Apple Curtain". Besides being forbidden from building apps and selling them on some sort of online store, I am not restricted from doing anything as long as I do it as a civilian and not officially as a Senior Software Engineer of Apple Inc.

This still represents a substantial curtain. A number of your colleagues have given presentations to conferences, with the explicit corporate mandate that no recording be made. This means that any presentations to Monitorama, LLVM-DM, ApacheCon, etc. are more available to attendees than Apple's own employees! Recruiting is also pretty impaired: I was at PuppetCon 2012 and apparently the recruiter wasn't allowed to talk about the role or what tech was used. Researchers, when allowed to publish are not allowed to publish articles in their own name without prior permission from Corporate (and possibly SVP + Legal), which is apparently hard enough that papers are typically bylined as 'the Natural Language Processing Team' or similar. Even when presenting at a conference the company sponsors. You can imagine how difficult it is to find new work when you cannot definitely prove which work was yours.
posted by pwnguin at 11:02 AM on December 4, 2019 [16 favorites]

Years ago back in the 80’s, at Apple, there were some leaks to the press. Executive management got vocally anxious about it. Our department then had to schedule a meeting with a vice-president who was going to come and tell us to stop leaking. Before the meeting I quickly made a bunch of labels with PRESS on them. We all put these on the backs of our Apple badges and put them on. We were all sitting around the big table when he came in and sat down. It took him a bit to notice what we were wearing. He looked around the table and laughed quietly and nervously. He then started to talk about generic security issues and not talking about secret stuff. One of the people at the table raised their hand and when recognized said, “it’s a weird ship that leaks from the top.” The VP didn’t smile. The general take on the situation in our building prior to this meeting was that higher ups had been talking about stuff for some financial advantage. In engineering we seemed to be pretty clear about keeping our mouths closed and resented being blamed for something we knew was happening elsewhere. Back then we felt free enough to stage what could be seen as an outright insubordination or disrespect to higher ups by mocking them in public. I don’t think Apple is now as it was then.
posted by njohnson23 at 11:40 AM on December 4, 2019 [13 favorites]

I've worked at companies that worked with Apple, Microsoft, Sony, and other large secretive corporations, but Apple was by far the worst. The other companies would make third party devs sign totally reasonable NDAs about not revealing specific details. But Apple's NDAs always hide every single possible detail and make it clear that they are sue happy. So if someone couldn't say what they were working on and went into a weird room with blacked out windows, you knew it was for Apple.
posted by JZig at 11:46 AM on December 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

What's worse at Apple is the internal curtains everywhere.

You can't talk to people on other teams about your project, they can't talk to you about theirs.
This stops people from being able to help each other. Managers have to set up explicit connections to allow talk across these barriers, and that doesn't happen much, or between the right people.
If your manager is out sick for weeks, as happened, you are stuck if you need something from another team.

Your badge gets you in some places and not others. On my first afternoon I couldn't even get to my desk. Later I got officially invited to meetings in other buildings through the calendar, but my badge wouldn't let me get to the meeting room. You need to fight to get yourself added to area access lists just to do your basic job, and the chilling effect further promotes siloization. We didn't even leave our building to talk to our own QA people in the next one over. I worked with a remote Ukranian QA team at another company and there was more communication with QA.

There is a heavy level of bureaucracy involved in everything, like which bugs you can work on in what order, referring to even released products by code names, not being able to see all the bugs in the database (even some bugs I myself reported). I couldn't do maintenance as trivial as rewriting a comment without a bug, a committee meeting to assign the bug, and 2 code reviews.

For people coming from other FAANG companies where individuals are trusted to do their job, keep the secrets, and are encouraged to help each other, it's a hard adjustment.
posted by w0mbat at 12:18 PM on December 4, 2019 [26 favorites]

I work for a semiconductor company that sells chips to Apple and we are required internally to refer to them by a code name. I usually just say Apple; no one really cares. Amazon, Google, Microsoft - we sell to them too and they have no similar goofy or extreme requirements, including on the technical side. Apple and Huawei are our most difficult* customers by far (Huawei is its own conversation). Apple strikes me as having a sort of old school cold war paranoia in terms of information flow, similar to what w0mbat describes. Apple's cachet has almost run out; they can still pay employees more than most but their approach is tilting into the sort of cargo cult vibe we've gotten from any number of vaporware SV companies that have come and gone quickly over the years.

* Modulated for technical know how - our actual most difficult customer is also our most technically competent, which I respect. Their ire is almost always backed by, you know, facts and data.
posted by MillMan at 2:01 PM on December 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

People like working for Apple. Some people like using Facebook. When you use Facebook, you should understand that whatever concept of privacy you used to have is forfeit. If you decide you want to work for Apple, you agree to the rules of the game, which are pretty strict. Lots of people are cool with that. If you aren't, don't work there.
posted by Chuffy at 2:02 PM on December 4, 2019

" If you aren't, don't work there."
Unfortunately (fortunately?) people aren't that rational.
posted by aleph at 2:27 PM on December 4, 2019

Lots of people are cool with that. If you aren't, don't work there.

In jobs, as in car sales and insurance, the inclusion of random different conditions and options in the fine print is mostly (as here) just a way of legally cheating the other party. There is no actual reason for the terms of employment at one company to be any different from the terms of employment at another. Even from a free-market standpoint, these inconsistencies frustrate the proper functioning of the market by making it difficult or impossible for sellers/employees to accurately compare the dollar amounts that various buyers/employers offer for their time.

Software devs seem like a group who could actually achieve a standard industry contract, if they were motivated to push for one.
posted by Not A Thing at 3:31 PM on December 4, 2019 [12 favorites]

/me checks statutes … yep, expired.

I worked for a utility that was pitching a solar project to Apple. Such was the secrecy that I — the resource assessment guy — could either:
  • know where the project was, or;
  • know that the client was potentially Apple.
Since you need very detailed site location information to do accurate solar estimations, it became an interesting game of who-knows-what around the office.

We didn't even come close to winning. The winner came in so far under us that we couldn't even have purchased the hardware for their total project execution price.
posted by scruss at 4:28 PM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

The FAMANGs are very large companies, and the degree to which an engineer will disappear from public view depends on the project. If you work in open source or developer relations, you're going to be active on Twitter and at conferences like anyone else.

In my 8 years at Google, I spent most of my time in secretive prelaunch mode on one project or another. It's hard to muster the enthusiasm to tweet or present outside the company when you can't talk about anything you actually do on a day to day basis. And the risk is high, due to the amount of attention from both the press and less savory characters. Suddenly my acquaintances who were journalists were *very* interested in hanging out all the time. Plus I became the target of someone who, in hindsight, I'm fairly certain was a foreign intelligence asset.

Still, at least within Google things were fairly open. The environment within Apple sounds awful to me.
posted by xthlc at 6:25 PM on December 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

Plus I became the target of someone who, in hindsight, I'm fairly certain was a foreign intelligence asset.

You can't just drop that in the thread with no further detail. You're killing us here!
posted by medusa at 7:28 PM on December 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

What does FAANG/FAMANG mean?
posted by divabat at 8:33 PM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think it's the big software companies: Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Netscape, Google.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 8:43 PM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

oh, shit, wrong century
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 8:44 PM on December 4, 2019 [8 favorites]

we are required internally to refer to them by a code name

One customer I was once aware of wanted us to refer to them as something like Religious Organization headquartered in Utah
posted by wotsac at 9:08 PM on December 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

FWIW, any large company is not a monoculture, and the experience people have varies widely. Reading a few of the most negative posts about working at Apple here, they differ substantially from my own experience, especially w.r.t. how much trouble secrecy imposes, what communication is like, how much bureaucracy there is, & ability to speak truth to power internally. I believe the other posters here had those negative experiences; but that's not necessarily representative of your average experience at Apple. (And it's not been mine!)
posted by liquefaction zone at 9:27 PM on December 4, 2019

Wait wait, the N stands for Netflix? Are they really that significant?
posted by Not A Thing at 9:56 PM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

133 billion dollars.
posted by mbrubeck at 10:14 PM on December 4, 2019

I thought the N was supposed to be an M. For Microsoft?
posted by my-username at 12:30 AM on December 5, 2019

I work for a semiconductor company that sells chips to Apple and we are required internally to refer to them by a code name. I usually just say Apple; no one really cares.

At Amazon, a code name is used internally for two customers. One is Apple, and the other is the CIA. People are a little looser with one of these than the other though.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 1:41 AM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

I worked on a big project for Apple in the late 80s (I worked for a contracting company.) Apple has a code name for the project "Eagle", we NEVER used it, we had our own code name "Pigs in Spaaace" - needless to say it was "Eagle" that leaked ..... we were in the clear
posted by mbo at 2:00 AM on December 5, 2019

" If you aren't, don't work there."

That argument is used to excuse all kinds of abuses from employers; I hate it. Obviously tech workers have more job mobility than most Americans but that's still a terrible argument. Just because you can quit doesn't give your employer licence to abuse you.
posted by octothorpe at 5:14 AM on December 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

Union, now.

Tech workers are an incredibly powerful labor force, not unlike, um, Chilean dockworkers in their potential clout.

But first they have to realize that... they're workers.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 5:32 AM on December 5, 2019 [15 favorites]

I also work for a company that works with Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. I typically know about their prelaunch mobile products way ahead of time and yeah, we have to use code names. Back when their launches and new products were really big deals (Steve Jobs days), it was much more secretive than it is now. Google products (even when they were working on essentially copies of Apple products even at the same time as Apple) never required code names or 'clean rooms'. Amazon generally makes us purchase their products for pre-launch testing. Facebook requires code names, but not much beyond that.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:34 AM on December 5, 2019

I thought the N was supposed to be an M. For Microsoft?


I've never seen "FAMANG" before this thread, and a quick internet search suggests it hasn't really caught on -- though I've seen both FAAMG and GAFAM. Neither of these has the apparent reach of "FAANG", which even has its own Wikipedia page. I think this because it was coined at a time when many people in the field considered Microsoft to be increasingly irrelevant, perhaps in part because of a Silicon Valley bias.
posted by Slothrup at 7:40 AM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's Wall Street bias, not SV: The grouping is about similarly outsized stock returns, and MS had already plateaued.
posted by PMdixon at 7:48 AM on December 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

> Tech workers are an incredibly powerful labor force, not unlike, um, Chilean dockworkers in their potential clout.

What do you think a union would accomplish? I was an SEIU member when working at a university, and still had to sign away IP rights and deal with lawyers to submit code back to OSS projects. It's not like the company doesn't pay these people well; median h1b salary is 131k, pulling from data I'm told typically underrepresents compensation, and Payscale suggests a similar story. These are people with multiple hundred thousand dollars tied up in corporate equity waiting to vest.

That's the real reason don't 'love it or leave it' -- it's pretty rare for companies to match RSUs on hire. And a nontrivial number were acquired not hired. A certain amount of chafing at big corporate is expected when a startup is acquired, but Apple's reputation goes above and beyond.
posted by pwnguin at 10:59 AM on December 5, 2019

What do you think a union would accomplish?

Making strikes feasible, for one thing.
posted by PMdixon at 11:37 AM on December 5, 2019

I consume a lot of web content related to software development, and I frequently encounter talks and blog posts from people at major tech companies, but engineers from Apple have been conspicuously absent for as long as I've been paying attention, which is about a decade at this point. I don't have any inside knowledge of what happens at Apple, but I have a really hard time believing it's a coincidence. I also don't remember ever having met anyone who claimed for work for Apple, which is pretty weird considering how many people I've run into who work for Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon. The only time I've even heard someone say they knew someone else who worked for Apple, it was someone who worked in one of their retail stores.

Now that I think about it, the fact that they don't seem to have any offices in the Seattle area is kind of weird in itself. Do they do absolutely all their engineering work at their HQ in Cupertino? I tried looking at their job postings to make sure I wasn't missing something obvious, but I stopped when they wanted me to enter an Apple ID, which I don't have and don't feel like signing up for. I'm sure that's merely obnoxious, as opposed to nefarious, but what kind of company requires you to log in just to see job openings?

There's no single thing I can point to that's even close to being conclusive, but absolutely everything about Apple, from their marketing, to their product design, to their general reputation for not playing well with others, points in the direction of a company culture that actively discourages openness.
posted by shponglespore at 6:06 PM on December 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

what kind of company requires you to log in just to see job openings?

That's some real next-level eviling. What better way to filter out anyone who might object to their abusive contracting practices than to hide their job postings from anyone who hasn't already consented to their TOS? And without looking at their TOS, I strongly suspect that job postings are just another kind of Apple content subject to the Terms, and that the Terms also include a binding arbitration clause, so that Apple can at least claim to be able to compel arbitration even of e.g. discriminatory hiring claims.
posted by Not A Thing at 11:00 PM on December 5, 2019

jobs.apple.com doesn’t require a login.

Also, decent presence in Seattle, actually. 60+ reqs open right now.
posted by sideshow at 12:53 AM on December 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Well darn. And here I was being all impressed with their eviling skills.
posted by Not A Thing at 7:56 AM on December 6, 2019

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