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.

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