Apple employees call Cupertino headquarters the "Mothership". It's hard not to be curious about the place. You don't have to be a fan to appreciate the biggest company in the world, just like you don't have to be Catholic to appreciate the Sistine Chapel. Sometimes a place is interesting because you want to know why so many other people are interested in it.
This isn't brick and mortar, it's glass and steel. Pseudonymous Apple Store employee J. K. Appleseed takes you backstage at Apple Retail, the supercollider of human expectations and consumer technology.
I'd always wanted to visit the "Coop," but I didn't make enough as a retail employee to warrant spending my vacation time buying a plane ticket and renting a car just to pop into the Company store and the lobby. Retail employees don't have corporate access. I could take that selfie in front of the 1 Infinite Loop sign, but security would stop me from getting much deeper, which kind of only made me want it more.
Want — and Apple knows this better than most — can be encouraged.
Oonly Managers, Creatives, and Geniuses have their face on their employee key cards. Everyone else's card is white. How do you get your face on your key card? You get it by visiting Cupertino.
Managers, Creatives, and Geniuses, the senior positions in the store, are flown on the company's dime to Cupertino for training, Apple finishing school, if you like. You're paid salary to take classes and partake in tradition. It makes the pilgrimage seem that much more of a reward.
After a year or two in Retail, when I was finally told my trip to Cupertino had been scheduled, I was psyched.
Word spread, and soon coworkers were asking me to pick up souvenirs for them at the Company store. Maybe a limited-edition hoodie, maybe a pen, maybe just a key card chain with the logo on it. Some piece of the nigh unattainable.
Even before the trip, I'd become one of the few and the proud who could provide Cupertino schwag. They say the store has stuff you can't order online. I'd like to believe that, so I've never actually checked. They probably sell little Statues of Liberty everywhere, but it's nicer to get one from a friend who actually went to New York City.
We learned our classes were not in the proper campus at 1 Infinite Loop, but in a low building reserved for Retail Training on a side street full of auxiliary buildings. No wonder they're building a new facility — they're already flooding annexes!
On the up side, our trainers were fellow employees who used to have our jobs. They came to Cupertino for a few weeks each year to teach folks like us before going back to their stores, which means we could someday become them!
It was hilarious to share war stories from every part of the country, especially with coworkers who got it. Crazy-bad customers all seemed the same from story to story, but the great customers, the ones who make the job worth it, we found, managed to shine each in a different way.
On the Creative side, sticking to the Socratic method and empowering students truly challenged old teaching habits. On the Genius side, one particular know-it-all got embarrassed when someone used Remote to get into his training terminal and make it beep uncontrollably.
The culprit revealed himself to me over beers one night. He was from New York and liked to keep one step ahead of the game. He figured robots were going to take all of our jobs someday, so he just wanted to make sure he could get a job fixing those robots. True genius.
Geniuses take an ESD (electro-static discharge) safety test, and vie for a special skull sticker if they get a perfect score. I'd seen that in the key card carrying case of some Geniuses in my store. Now I knew what it meant.
The nights were sweet, but got a little weird. Some folks were lucky enough to hook up, just like in camp. And just like in camp, these couples of convenience usually flamed out before the last night, leaving the rest of us acting as buffers and psychologists. But we were used to that from our jobs, so it was all-good.
A trainer pointed out a clique of attractive women gliding through the cafeteria while we bumbled about looking for open seats like freshmen the first day of high school. They were the iTunes marketing team. They looked like the Mean Girls, all grown up. They were supposedly nice. They're in charge of deciding who lives and dies on iTunes Recommends, a popularity metric that can make or break a musician's career.
Nowadays, the celebrity sightings one might hope to catch in the all-gourmet Cupertino cafeteria include Tim Cook, Angela Ahrendts, and hey, maybe Dr. Dre if he's visiting from Beats. Most of my female friends would cut off a finger to bump into Brit designer superstar Jony Ive.
But back in the day, it was all about catching a glimpse of the one and only Steve Jobs.
Like meeting intermediary training layers of handlers before you ever addressed Her Majesty the Queen, you were prepped either by your host trainers or by your store leaders (or both) to never run up and talk to Steve Jobs. He's got more important things on his mind, they assured you.
There are darker legends about his quizzing people in elevators about what they did for the company, and if it sounded like bull, that person would find him- or herself fired.
This dates me, but he was still around when I visited. I missed him in the cafeteria by one minute on three different occasions, which drives me nuts.
On the other hand, I heard a story directly from a Genius that I have to share.
This Genius, like me, had been warned not to address Steve Jobs. However, one day, sitting at a table with other Geniuses there for finishing school, they saw Steve walking around, unable to find somewhere to sit. We've all been there in some lunchroom at some point in our lives.
This Genius invited Steve over. Steve said sure and sat down. Jobs was completely gracious and asked them each about where they worked. He even expressed a bit of envy. A Genius, he explained, gets to take on a case, diagnose it, fix the problem, and hopefully counsel the customer. There was a specific joy in taking something from the beginning through to the end.
Steve said that he never quite got to do that anymore. He started things others would finish. He finished things others had begun. There was such a flood of projects, strategies, markets, big-picture decisions, lawsuits, and finances for him to attend to, he asked the table of his retail employees to try and appreciate what they got to do and own from start to finish.
Only in Cupertino could Steve Jobs (to whom The Onion paid memorial tribute by calling him "The Last American Who Knew What the Fuck He Was Doing") have lunch with a couple of yahoos who work for the people who work for the people who work for him. He related. He spoke to them on the intimate, engaging level of appreciating process. Man, I dig that. Who ever says anything over lunch worth remembering?
I finally got my picture taken for a new key card. It was a bit pixelated, I have to say, but I'd been made. The Company store was small, but it's cleverly designed to have price points from a few dollars right up to the thousands. You get to pick your poison. It's hard not to think, when I will ever be here again?
It was genuinely sad leaving Cupertino, not only because I didn't know if I'd ever see these comrades again, but because it was clear it would take a serious promotion to get me inside again.
I wondered if I should try to become a Field Trainer. Because the best thing about working for Apple is the cool people you work with, much more than the Russian roulette of customers you serve. Seems like Corporate has already figured that out, if one can get back there. Cupertino is the palace, and the sea of Apple retail employees is the moat.
Can I stand a few more years of this retail crap for some perceived shot of getting back into the Mothership? Is that my dreamland, my ultimate goal? Maybe, if I had studied engineering or industrial design.
I don't know if I have the stomach or the luck to get back up there, but I can tell you, it was a sweet ride.
This article was excerpted with permission from McSweeney's and is part of an ongoing column series. Head on over to McSweeney's to read the piece in full.