Up, down, sideways: Apple’s personnel changes point to its priorities

Recent stories about Apple personnel changes let us glean just a little bit about what's happening inside the company.

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Back in December, I wrote about what we could glean from Apple’s expansion into new physical locations in the U.S. While studying the company’s personnel moves may cross a bit into reading tea leaves, you can often divine at least some big picture indications from where the company is putting its resources. Make no mistake, Apple’s biggest and most significant resources are its personnel.

Granted, those personnel moves are happening on a consistent basis, though they don’t always rise to the level of reported news. They may not always be as splashy as expanding campuses, but there are plenty of hirings, firings, and reorganizations that can point to how Apple is adjusting its operational priorities. Over the last few weeks alone, for example, there have been several stories about Apple personnel changes; look closely enough and you can start to get a clearer indication of where the company’s interests lie at present.

Executive functions

john giannandrea Apple

John Giannandrea, Apple Senior Vice President, Machine Learning and AI Strategy

One area that got a lot of attention in those Apple’s job openings in December was Siri. The company has been stressing the importance of its machine-learning technologies for some time, and that was brought home in a more tangible way when Apple hired John Giannandrea in April of last year. Giannandrea had previously served as chief of search and AI for Google, and his profile rose quickly at Apple: at the time of his hiring, he reported directly to Tim Cook and headed up all machine learning and AI efforts. By July he’d been put in charge of Core ML and Siri as well, and at the end of last year—less than months after he first came onboard—he was added to Apple’s executive team.

Apple doesn’t add people to its executive team very often, and even then it’s mostly when the company is filling existing roles. The last time someone joined the top ranks of the executive team was senior vice president of hardware technologies Johnny Srouji in 2015. Given Srouji’s position as the head of Apple’s custom silicon efforts, it’s no surprise that he was considered a strategic enough asset to merit a spot in the company’s top echelon.

The fact that Giannandrea has now been added to the ranks speaks volumes about Apple’s belief that machine learning, AI, and Siri will be instrumental to the company in the foreseeable future, on par with custom silicon, services, and retail, all of which have been critical to Apple’s success over the last several years.

Questions of battery

If you’re placing bets on who might be the next person to show up on that list, you may not have to look very far at all. A Bloomberg report this week said that late last year, Apple brought aboard Soonho Ahn to head up its battery technology program. Ahn was previously a senior vice president at Samsung SDI, a division of the conglomerate that develops existing and new batteries. (And, unsurprisingly, the biggest supplier of batteries to Samsung’s own smartphones.)

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Soonho Ahn left Samsung to join Apple to lead the company's developments in battery technology.

Batteries, while not perhaps among the most sexy technologies, are as important to Apple as custom silicon. After all, iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches, MacBooks, and even AirPods all rely on batteries, without which they would be useless bricks of glass, metal, and plastic. And though power management and batteries have improved over the past decade or so, we’re still relying on the same basic technology.

Any way that Apple can improve its devices’ battery efficiency would be a major coup and give it a potentially significant competitive advantage. Given that Ahn’s area of expertise at Samsung SDI was apparently “next-generation batteries and materials innovation,” it’s pretty clear why Apple hired him away. Mix in the company’s acquisition of several hundred experts in power management chips from Dialog Semiconductor last year and Apple’s obviously pushing hard in this direction.

Car-ry on wayward son

While staffing changes at the top of Apple’s organization tend to get a lot of attention, changes among the company’s rank and file are often kept under wraps, falling into the realm of speculation and sketchy report. This week, however, there was a rare exception: a CNBC story reported that 200 members of Apple’s autonomous driving project were “dismissed,” a development that was officially confirmed by the company.

Apple’s statement on the matter refers to some personnel also being moved elsewhere in the company, including to machine learning teams, but such a massive adjustment on a program that has already reportedly seen some substantial changes would seem to further indicate a shift in priorities, if nothing else.

A self-driving car is surely an ambitious project—perhaps the most ambitious that Apple has ever taken on—and questions have swirled about what the end product might look like ever since the first rumors of the program’s existence began. Most recently, Cook has spoken of developing autonomous systems, with a car of its own not being a foregone conclusion for the company.

Certainly, this autonomous systems project remains an area of intense focus for the company—it has been said to have a staff of more than 2,000, so a departure of even 200 still means that plenty of people are hard at work on the project, whatever form it might ultimately take.

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