Improving Learning & Development @ Apple Retail


I don’t care how retail companies spin it: for retail store employees, learning and development is LAST on their list of importance. Even when they invest a ton of money into Learning & Development, they don’t make the appropriate decisions to make their Retail Stores into an environment of learning for their store employees. It’s a place of transaction (and experiences that support transaction), and that’s how Retail has been designed for years. This includes things like connecting the store to the internet.

The Apple Retail Stores were some of the most well-thought out, beautifully designed stores in the entire world. But even they didn’t factor a space for learning and development into their design. This was my team’s challenge.


When Apple Retail started designing their internet connections for stores in 2001, they had a simple design: Two “T1” lines for the operational & secure internal Apple traffic (we’ll call this “back of house”) & two “T1” lines for the customer Wifi traffic (we’ll call this “front of house”). This amounted to 3 Mega Bits Per Second PEAK throughput for POS transactions, inventory control, emails, etc and 3 Mega Bits Per Second for customers who wanted to test machines and get online. Those stats weren’t bad back then because we weren’t an “HD-4K-8K” driven universe with massive videos and files coursing through the internet. Today by comparison, the 5G network AVERAGES 100+MBps; that’s 33x the amount we used to have on Broadband into Apple Retail.

Myself and Joe Ferry setting up the “back of house” Genius Bar machines in 2005 before the opening of Apple Store Staten Island.

Our Point of Sale & Genius Bar Macs were all wired into our “back of house” secure traffic, as well as any machines that were controlling our inventory and operations. Then, almost as a design afterthought, our training machines were placed on the “back of house” network. Due to the fact that Apple Stores had to lock down security because the network handled all money transactions and inventory, you could not place WiFi devices (AirPort or AirPort Express) onto the “back of house” network to extend it. So we used iMacs in a small and cramped area to “learn.”

This is an example of tethering in one of our flagship stores in 2006. While there seems to be a lot of space in the “back of house” in this example, most of it was used for the heavy moving of inventory. The Training Area was sandwiched inside the break room, and the machines were tethered to an aging network. This particular store had over 700 employees.

Fast forward to 2007. The internet was now in the hands of everyone with an iPhone. Some of the larger stores had complaints from customers when it came to the Apple Store WiFi experience being too slow. So Apple Retail did a huge capital project and removed many of the T1 lines over time in the “front of house,” replacing them with new “DS3” lines, which upped the throughput to 45 Mega Bits Per Second.

What internet connections looked like in most Apple Retail stores in 2008. Note that all internal traffic went over the old “back of house” internet, further straining that resource and making it more difficult for employees to have a dedicated learning environment.

With all of this great and engaging stuff we were building with RetailU (see previous blog posts), we were still constrained by these network decisions. Our traffic was still reaching our Retail Stores via the “back of house” connection, and it was competing with both space problems of the store and other internet traffic. ESPECIALLY with the advent of the iPhone, my team and I saw a future in which people could learn where they wanted to, how they wanted to, not constrained or forced onto an iMac where a lot of distractions ensued.


Before my team arrived in Apple Corporate, the message around Learning & Development was clear: wait for “them” to upgrade the “back of house” network to a higher throughput. After talking with the networking teams across Apple, I quickly realized a project like that was years off. So, I had an idea to move our RetailU servers into an Apple “border zone,” an area that had secure access to the public internet. We worked with InfoSec to come up with a solution that 1) required secure authentication of our employees to access RetailU and 2) whitelist the application to ONLY include the IP addresses of the stores (so you can only access the application at the store, no where else).

Early design of RetailU’s servers in 2008 to demonstrate our goals to our RetailU users. We also added CDN capabilities which allowed our employees to have better learning experiences.
Design by Mark Bush & DJ Bowser


The result of this work? RetailU was the first internal application in Apple Retail to have full access through our WiFi in the Retail Stores. This means that you could train anywhere within the four walls at any time, and you could take advantage of the fast internet that was being provided by our WiFi networks. Learning engagement continued to soar after we released RetailU on the “front of house” network, allowing things like validations for Red Zone Foundations to happen on any of the demo machines in the “front of house.” We even opened up local IPs in a few nearby Starbucks to allow employees to leave the store and go there with a laptop to validate.

Even though Learning & Development teams don’t typically think of these types of problems, they need to. It’s one thing to provide a learning experience that checks a box to solve an immediate problem. It’s another to create environments for learning and development. I’m proud to say that’s what we did by solving this really complex challenge.

The Expansion of Apple RetailU (2008)

Behind every good product is a design that solves the problem it was asked to solve, AND solves twenty others it was not asked to. Please read my previous blog post to get a sense on how this all started.


Apple in 2008 was an interesting time. The iPhone had just launched. The iPod was still the standard. Steve Jobs was our leader and Apple Retail Stores were the most popular place on the planet. The lines were out the door, and the employees had no time for anything but customers… certainly little time for development of their careers.

A typical launch day in New York at the Apple Store in SoHo. And the non-launch days were extremely busy too.


After we launched Third Party Products, the Head of Stores came to me with an idea. “Our leadership teams need to know and understand who is proficient with our Apple applications in our stores,” he said. “Right now, there was no way to be able to zone people appropriately because we don’t have full insight into what our people know.” He gave this to me and our team to think about (myself, Cortland Klein, Zach Kennedy, and Jaxon Ketterman).


There are three types of learning opportunities that people embark in when they want to develop their careers: Experience, Exposure, and Education. Experience is the most widely accepted and used where people do things on the job to give them better skills. Exposure is when an employee is exposed to senior or executive leadership to help develop them. Education is the one that most people think of in L&D, providing content for learning & assimilation.

Many times, Learning & Development organizations strive to solve the Education component without looking for opportunities to address Experience and Exposure areas. Our team had already shifted the L&D focus to “Experience” by allowing employees to own the product with 3PP (last blog). So we were looking at innovative things we could do in all three areas with this new endeavor.

By 2008, the only “learning” tool we had was a tool called iLearn, an application used by our Sales Training organization (created during the CompUSA days in the late 90s) that allowed you to read about a product and take a quiz. If you passed it, you would get points towards becoming an “Apple Product Professional.” It didn’t require you to demonstrate what you knew, and the quiz was fairly general and easy; I could pass a quiz on GarageBand and have no idea how to create music.

So how did we create this notion of including Experience and Exposure into the learning mix? We looked at some of the ways that managers were keeping track of what employees knew in the back rooms of our stores. Then we thought about incorporating levels of knowledge (Novice, Consumer, and Professional), and making the employee DEMONSTRATE what they knew rather than regurgitating information back to a manager to check a box. It was better to ask the employee to create a song in GarageBand than it was to ask them a question about what to click in the app. All of the demo machines in the Apple Store had the applications, so they could all be validated on those machines without ever having to leave the floor.

Example in an Apple Store of keeping track of employee knowledge. The Apple apps are at the top, and employees are on the left.

We needed to create a Validation system. Who would write the validation scripts? How is a person validated as a Novice, Consumer, or Pro of an application? For that, we turned to our Product Marketing, Retail Marketing, and L&D teams to write the scripts for each application (Final Cut Pro, iMovie, iPhoto, etc.) as well as what an employee would need to demonstrate at any given level (Novice, Consumer, Pro).


Within three months, two new applications were created inside of what we were calling “RetailU.” The first was Materials, which was a simply a place to host the scripts. We needed something global based upon Apple’s worldwide needs, and Zach & Cortland played with this idea around a localization & translation grid:

This was the interface for Materials for people who were uploading documents. Note the amazing grid on the upper right hand side that allowed you to keep track of translations and localizations.

The second was Red Zone Foundations, the validation, management, and recognition app all rolled into one.

Red Zone Foundations gave everyone in the store what people knew and the level they knew it at a glance.
Managers could designate someone as “Novice,” “Consumer,” or “Pro” in any given app after that person demonstrated their knowledge, as well as designate Mentors to assist them in validating others.

People were immediately excited about learning and becoming validated. Having the screen full of cards of people in the store gave teams competitions. Employees took it upon themselves to learn the content, and L&D engagement took off. The scripts gave them the on-the-job Experiences they were craving, and the recognition piece gave them Exposure with senior leaders in their stores.

After we were done with this project, we knew we had something extraordinary: Red Zone Foundations and 3PP discounts) brought our L&D online engagement to unprecedented levels within Apple Retail (from 6% all the way to 80%). Zach’s killer design allowed us to add small applications onto our RetailU platform. And our team had proven twice that we can be nimble.

3PP discounts, Red Zone Foundations, and Materials were the foundation for RetailU, our new killer Apple Retail web app. App icons designed or adapted by Zach Kennedy.

There were spatial and technical challenges that we had to solve for our platform that had nothing to do directly with the application. In my next blog post, I’ll talk about the Apple Stores and how they weren’t originally designed for Learning & Development experiences, leading to challenges of our own.

The Creation Of Apple RetailU (2008)

The Retail Industry has evolved quite a bit since 2001 when Apple launched its first store in Tyson’s Corner in Virginia. A lot of that evolution is because of Apple’s innovation in the industry. Thinking about how you bring something like the Genius Bar to the masses required imaginative ideas that were also practical. Much of the positive experience that customers had with the Genius Bar developed out of nothing that existed before, such as a dedicated parts depot and trained in-store technicians who were also good at customer service.

Hiring for and scaling this model became a lot more exciting after 2003 when two things changed Apple’s business: 1) the decision to put iTunes on the Windows platform and 2) the iPod Mini. Releasing iTunes on Windows made it a lot less restrictive for most consumers who had music on their own computers. And when the iPod Mini came out in early 2004 and launched globally in the summer, the entire world was ready for to adopt a new type of portable music player to replace anti-skip CD players.

I joined Apple Retail in 2005, right before the iPod with Video and nano launched. From 2005, the company’s growth outpaced the entire industry exponentially. There were many business lessons we learned just dealing with unheralded times. Apple went from 25,000 employees in 2005 worth 32 billion to 140,000 employees worth 1 trillion when I left in 2018.

Taken from the live feed from during the night of the opening of Fifth Avenue, May 2006. That’s me holding the camera on the right towards the line.


I think this is a problem in most growth companies, retail or otherwise: a challenge pops up, you come up with a technology solution for it, and you deal with it in isolation. Most organizations hire vendors to solve the problem. Once they solve the problem with a vendor solution, they’re rewarded. The cycle repeats. As the years go by and the amount of vendors in-house increase, you’re left with vendors who are incapable of integrating solutions, and your company’s product teams are formed in isolation, left only with the expertise of the systems they manage. It fractures companies, teams, and makes a CTO/CIO’s job exceptionally difficult to eventually clean up.

THE PROBLEM: This was what the internal tool landscape looked like at Apple Retail in 2008 for employees. Employees had a lot of web sites they needed to log in to do their jobs. This took away from helping customers, and is indicative of an organization experiencing hyper growth.

In 2007, I was fortunate enough to get a job in Cupertino as a media specialist, then in 2008 as a technology manager, building a team of incredible UX designers and developers. Apple Retail in 2007 also had this fractured mindset, but fortunately we were nascent (naive?) enough to believe we could turn important parts of the ship.

To do so, my teams needed to develop a “build first” mindset, which meant that, no matter what, we wouldn’t jump directly into the solution, and we would imagine what we wanted to interact with that would make our user’s jobs a complete joy. This joy would help other organizations eventually see the value of what we were trying to do and jump onboard in various capacities.


The first thing I was asked to do in early 2008 as Technology Manager was to prototype and pilot a new engaging training experience for employees worldwide. I’m going to skip much of the details of how our solution came to be, but there were four very important aspects I did that allowed our team to move faster than the growth of Apple:

  • Hire team members who are also users. I was able to hire world class developers and designers from APPLE RETAIL STORES. Like me, they were users of the system, and they were thinking of this problem in their own special way. Steve Jobs famously said that the reason they wanted to build the iPhone was because the teams hated their phones. The core team we put together was able to direct other teams to think about the solution the way a Retail Employee would. If your developers and designers are also users, you can move at a breakneck pace.
  • Create a solution for the problem you’re given, but NEVER with the thought that your solution is the end of the road. You design and iterate on solutions with the presence of mind that it will have future expanse.
  • Visually prototype and show every leader you can, all the time. Bring as many leaders as you can along the journey and include their thoughts and opinions where it’s appropriate. I’ve found that the best way to do that is with visual prototypes. If there’s a disagreement always counter your leaders’ opinions on data from the end users. Be your hype person.
  • Start small, and stay small as long as you can. Sometimes success can feel like failure when the demands of your solution and your team outstrip your ability to keep up. The most important part of a leader of this team is to know when to say “no” artfully, even to executive leadership. When you have a problem as large as we did, knock one problem out at a time, but always keep an eye on the greater mission.


Zach Kennedy, Cortland Klein, and myself designed and developed an idea with Product Merchandising and launched it in less than two weeks using Python/Django. This was its first iteration:

The first experience our team created was called 3rd Party Products, which simply allowed employees to take quizzes and get discounts. It was an engagement hit, and hit all of our objectives.

Notice how the design of our first solution is encapsulated in a much larger idea: RetailU. The third party products portion of the solution took maybe four days, and that’s all the real functionality that we launched with. But we knew that this solution couldn’t be everything in order to impact the training experiences in the store forever.

You may also notice that we had a dock similar to the one on Apple’s desktop at the bottom. This was the beginning of creating something much larger and more game changing for Apple Retail and our employees worldwide, and ties into the problem statement above that there were multiple sites for one employee to go to.

In my next blog post, I’ll talk about how these two weeks of work & success turned into a much larger, more innovative project for Apple Retail.