Rock in a hard place
By Alex Lash
Staff Writer, CNET NEWS.COM
No personal questions.
That's the stipulation for an interview with Ellen
Hancock. The Apple Computer executive
vice president wants to talk business. She also wants to be a CEO, but not badly enough to walk away from Apple, at least not yet. But that's not the business at hand.The former IBM exec casts a wary eye on personal
intimate questions, distractions that won't bring Apple back
Hancock joined the company last July with the mission of lining up the
company's software strategy. She immediately served notice that a new
sheriff was in town by canceling the Copland operating system project and
looking for outside technology help. By some estimates, Copland had chewed
up four years and half a billion dollars; the just-completed merger with
Steve Jobs's Next Software will
ultimately cost Apple well over $400 million. That's almost a billion
dollars of decision-making in less than six months. That's serious business.
Hancock put plenty of experience behind those decisions. In her 28 years at
IBM, she worked her way from programmer to lead the networking hardware,
networking software, and software solutions divisions, ultimately becoming
senior vice president in 1992. In the world she came from, experience plus
loyalty equaled rewards. She had paid her dues.
When the top spot opened in 1993, however, Big Blue brought in Lou Gerstner from RJR
Nabisco, not exactly a high-tech choice. Hancock resigned soon after. The
same scenario played itself out early in 1996 after Gil Amelio
left National Semiconductor. Thought
to be Amelio's hand-picked successor, Hancock was again passed over and
again left the company.
Now at Apple, she's part of one the highest profile high-tech stories of
the year, a story that she feels is obscured by journalists' fixation on
personality and in-house politics. She's also immersed in an environment
that flies in the face of her values. "The Silicon Valley model," as
Hancock calls it, is one where job-jumping is encouraged and where brash
young CEOs are the flavor of the day.
By most accounts, the new Apple OS strategy is a smart, judicious
blueprint, and the cross-platform Next technology at the heart of the
next-generation Rhapsody operating system gives Apple intriguing
opportunities to sell its software on a variety of platforms besides its
own. The Copland experience has developers and customers alike wary about
timetables and delivery dates, but the OS team passed its first test in
January by delivering on time a minor update of the current System 7
Ironically, Hancock's move to bring in outside help in the form of Steve
Jobs has brought the contrasts between the new Amelio-Hancock team and the
old Apple guard into sharp focus. Under Jobs, the Apple of old was
iconoclastic, if not downright anticorporate. Hancock strives to bring what
she calls "professionalism" to the ranks. (Others have called it "adult
supervision.") Hancock is waging a war against what she calls the
entrenched "not-invented-here" snobbery that has made Apple turn up its
collective nose at outside technologies. And the greatest irony of all?
Jobs, initially brought back as a part-time consultant, has his Next people
in charge of hardware and software.
The recent round of shakeups at Apple have knocked "chief technology
officer" from Hancock's title. She still runs the technology office but is
now simply "executive vice president," a move that some reports have
labeled a demotion and sparked rumors late last week of her imminent departure, rumors Hancock and Apple decisively dismissed. Hancock explains the shift with careful words.
Hardware, now under the auspices of Jon Rubinstein, was never Hancock's
domain in the first place. Avie Tevanian, who ran Next's software efforts
as chief engineer, was an obvious choice to take over the software
development. Those two departments now report directly to CEO Amelio.
Both men also worked for Steve Jobs, which kickstarts whispers of a "palace
coup." But this is not what Ellen Hancock wants to discuss. This is
She also does not want to discuss religion or family, although the photo in
her office of her presenting the Pope with an IBM ThinkPad makes one wonder
aloud if she'll give John Paul II a discount on a PowerBook. She laughs
politely and looks anxious to get back to what matters. Back to work.
NEWS.COM discussed business, life at Apple, and a women's place in the
corporate world with Hancock in Apple's Cupertino, California, offices.
NEWS.COM: You left IBM and National Semiconductor after being considered
and not chosen for the top spot. Will you be a CEO one day?
Hancock: I would like to think so. It is certainly something I've aspired
to. On the other hand I have to say that I certainly have done more than I
ever expected. I don't wake up every morning worrying about becoming a
CEO--if it happens, it happens; if it doesn't, I think I've still had a
very nice career.
One Apple employee said that Apple executives have to realize
that they are akin to movie stars. That's not something you feel
comfortable with. How much have you had to compromise?
I'd say we've all compromised a little bit. It's not like we were
unfamiliar with dealing with the press or unfamiliar with giving keynote
speeches. Several of us have had years of doing that. I would say that most
of us have tried to go along a little bit with the flow and spend more time
externally. There are more interviews like this than perhaps other places.
So I think we've compromised a little bit.
But we are also attempting to make this much more of a business and deal
with it as a business. We are trying to establish more professional
management here at Apple. I mean that in every sense: better information
systems, better data, we need to make decisions with facts vs. pure
instinct. There's a whole underlying nature here at Apple that some of us
feel that we need to improve.
NEXT: Apple in the press