In our inaugural episode, we sit down with Tyler Mincey to talk about the early days of his career at Apple, working on the first generation iPhone, and what it takes to be on the bleeding edge of consumer-facing technology.
Cameron Koczon: Hi, my name's Cameron Koczon and this is The Lager Podcast where we interview hardware leaders on their personal journeys and their career defining hardware projects. But before we jump in, if you are a hardware team, or if writing firmware is part of your job, then head over to Lager, L A G E R D A T A.com, and we will both literally and figuratively change your life for the better. That's L A G E R D A T A . com .
On today's episode, we interviewed Tyler Mincey, partner at Bolt, a hardware centric VC in San Francisco. We talk about his career at Apple, starting out on the core team for the first generation iPhone and moving on to manage the new product roadmap for the iPod division.
If you like Apple and you like people named Tyler, you're going to love this episode. Welcome, Tyler, to the podcast.
Tyler Mincey: Appreciate you having me.
Cameron Koczon: So I thought we would just start with Apple, if you're cool with that, Apple's a little company people know. So you can tell us about it, find interesting things about it. An interesting thing, I've known you for a very long time.
I knew you when you were considering going to Apple. And at that time we did not have Macs and neither you, nor I, or any of our friends had a Mac and we didn't have any. There wasn't an iPhone. We had a Motorola Razor, I believe. What drew you to Apple or what even put that on your radar as a place to go.
Tyler Mincey: I definitely had some experience with Apple products in the past. My first computer that I ever got was a Mac plus that I got as a hand-me-down from my grandpa. And so that was very meaningful for me. I learned how to program on it, playing around with HyperCard and had a lot of self-guided educational experiences on it. So that definitely was, you know, tuned me into the company. And I was just very aware of the product experience from some level that way. But then I think got really…
Cameron Koczon: I’m always jealous of HyperCard.
Tyler Mincey: It was amazing. I made a lot of like flip book animations and that was around the same time that some of the first-person perspective, adventure games like Myst came out which I was just obsessed with. And so I would basically try to make my own version of this, where you could click around, explore environments and things like that.
Cameron Koczon: How awesome. Do you think you have that somewhere?
Tyler Mincey: Definitely. No, yeah. The computer and the hard drive’s like at my parents' place somewhere, but I don't, I don't know if it's actually retrievable or even how you emulate it right now.
Cameron Koczon: I think that's a thing you can do. That's a good little project for some time.
Tyler Mincey: I think they definitely dropped off the radar. Like I think Apple did a good job of putting computers in classrooms for awhile. And so I think there was always a Mac somewhere in classrooms that I was in growing up, but we didn't, I don't think we really used it a ton, but definitely I think when the iPods were starting to come out again, they really crept back in mylife. So I didn't, I actually didn't personally own an iPod until I started working there, but there were a couple of them floating around and I really, you know, I'd started basically right when the first nano came out. And that was totally mind blowing that such a small thing could do what kind of larger. Based music players could at the time. It's crazy to think about how long ago that was.
Cameron Koczon: I remember around that time, I thought that the mini disc player, the Sony mini disc player, was the future. Cause I was like 16 megs. You can't hold much. It's like very short-sighted What’s that guy's law. The law word is.
Tyler Mincey: Moore's law?
Cameron Koczon: There you go. Thank you. So I was like, not really, totally keyed into that sort of, I think we're maybe still not, but I was like, oh yeah, I'll carry around all these cool mini discs. And then they were just like, oh, a thousand songs in your pocket. And I was like, oh, okay.
Cameron Koczon: Yeah, that's way, way, way better.
Tyler Mincey: Totally. I think I was still pretty cheap at the time. So I was still burning a lot of CD-Rs, where you could play the data disks on a CD player, but then those ones had all the horrible problems with skipping and losing disks and things like that.
Cameron Koczon: Yeah, you just like, don't quite get the mix right. And then you have all of the-I would always have a burned CD that was a slight variant of the other one. I was like, I got that song wrong. And it's like, you know, summer mix 2.5 and I would just sort of be out there.
Tyler Mincey: When I was in grad school. I was a mechanical engineer. But I had also always been into digital arts, did a lot of video production and digital photography when I was in school and really enjoyed the blend of the technical and the creative side of things and in grad school, I had done a lot of control systems design, and I went through the specific smart product design class at Stanford. That was really great, taught by Ed Carryer, and was a TA there for a while too. And when I was looking at what I wanted to do next, there were a lot of technical jobs. I was thinking about working in the printer design group at HP because they had, they actually were amazingly good at control system design and clever mechanisms and consumer products, but it was a little bit hard to get excited about going from eight pages a minute to ten pages a minute, printing and office environments
I actually knew another guy who had been working at Apple for the last year. He just made his job sound really, really cool. And when I joined, I was an engineering project manager, so it was still very technical, but my job was mostly trying to make the, you know, the process by which we design the products and ship them run smoothly, healthy decisions were getting made and things getting prioritized and risk was getting managed as opposed to doing a lot of the actual hands-on design engineering myself which I ended up really loving, like the experience of being a TA in college really helped me appreciate how much fun it was to have a pretty broad scope of the problems that are getting worked on and get to jump in on specific issues with people and troubleshoot things and kind of manage the larger work happening as opposed to doing the individual things. And that was a really good fit for me.
So I think with that experience, being a TA and hearing about someone who had a similar background working at Apple, that just seemed like a really exciting fit. For what the day-to-day job would look like. And it was a place I knew blended the kind of technical and creative side of product design.
Cameron Koczon: There was a guy there, who-is this Kirk?
Tyler Mincey: Yeah, it was Kirk.
Cameron Koczon: Ok, so Kirk’s there…
Tyler Mincey: Kirk Phelps, yeah.
Cameron Koczon: Kirk Phelps who's at what's he at now? Not Pax.
Tyler Mincey: Juul.
Cameron Koczon: He was making it sound like a good job. Did he tell you what product you'd be working on or was it just like Apple mystery of like, just trust us?
Tyler Mincey: Yeah, he couldn't talk about exactly what he was working on, but you could tell just by his level of excitement and, and he, you kind of talk about some of the types of problems that he was solving that seemed really cool.
Cameron Koczon: Is he also 218?
Tyler Mincey: Yep.
Cameron Koczon: Okay. So that's, this is, I always hear about this 218 and Ed Carryer as this like mystical place? Can you just tell us a little bit about that- this class at Stanford, what made it special and why everybody who did it is such a big passionate fan of it?
Tyler Mincey: Absolutely. Yeah, it was called Smart Product Design. It was almost like an electrical engineering class or a computer science class for mechanical engineers, even though people from lots of different backgrounds- I think Kirk was computer science actually, for instance- so, it was a very cross-functional project-based class. But basically, we learned everything from doing a board PCB, design system level electrical design and some low level programming from our development. But we always had to do that for a larger project that we were working on.
So, it was like building swarms of robots to play a game autonomously or to be remote controlled by human operators. And it was very, very challenging system level engineering design that really spanned mechanical electrical and low-level software as well. So it was just an amazingly challenging and educational course.
Cameron Koczon: And it's like tons of late nights. Is it just because to design any product and make it in that period of time is difficult or just like the quantity of learning is also pretty intense?
Tyler Mincey: Yeah, I think it's a combination of all that. You’re really absorbing new concepts by doing it. I think it really just gave you a deep appreciation for how much is left, even after you design something.
Like once you start to bring something up and integrate it and test it, how much debugging and polish there is to actually get it working appropriately. And there's just as much debugging, probably more, than there is the design and initial buildup.
Cameron Koczon: That's something I can appreciate now having done digital product stuff for so long but did not get then. But I'm like infinitely jealous that you, and so many of my friends, took that class. I'm dying to know; I'm dying to even just see Ed Carryer. I'm like, what does this guy even look like? I don't know. I've never looked it up. Kirk was, he was 218.
Tyler Mincey: He was my TA. And then I was the TA after him.
Cameron Koczon: So, there's a lot of respect that gets built into just being a TA for that.
Tyler Mincey: Definitely. Definitely.
Cameron Koczon: So you decided to go to Apple, and from an operations perspective, I'm curious about so many things. Is there any kind of onboarding or do they just sort of throw you into the mix? What's like day one of joining Apple circa Steve jobs time?
Tyler Mincey: There definitely was a fair amount of larger corporate onboarding. Just getting you set up on all the internal systems. There's a particularly famous-slash-scary security onboarding where they tell you not to speak about anything you shouldn't externally.
That ultimately always came from a very healthy place. I think they do get a lot of flak for being overly secretive. But really, that comes from a place of being passionate about the products.
It's like, if you've ever done any truly personal creative work, if that's writing, working on a piece of music, it's scary and you don't necessarily want to share it with too many people until it's ready. And that, I think that's really where a lot of the secrecy comes from there, is just that feeling of really the work being a passionate personal project.
But you do have a little bit of fear of God put into you when you started on that as well. You don't fully appreciate that, the passion level of things at first, but I think you come to overtime. So there was a little bit of that. It was also just amazing. So, I started in the iPod and iPhone group that Tony Fidel led at the time, and it was an amazingly small group still. We still got together in one of the auditoriums and stood up every time a new person started. So, I think, I don't know, it was maybe like a hundred something, a hundred, maybe 140 or something like that, people in the group when I started.
So, I still like had to stand up in the big auditorium of people and say hi and introduce myself. We were still small enough that that happened with every new hire. After that you got thrown right into your job. There wasn't-there was very, very little just introduction to other people or specific training besides that.
I think you learned very quickly but the attitude was to give you a large amount of responsibility and a large amount of trust to start with too, until you messed it up. So I think it was really, it was definitely getting thrown into the pool to some degree.
Cameron Koczon: Did you ever mess it up at all?
Tyler Mincey: Yeah, for sure. And, actually I think that was in some ways. Not encouraged, but I think people really understood that you were trying to move fast and take risks, and sometimes things went wrong or went ways that you didn't intend. And I think everybody as a group circled up on issues, prioritize them and manage them down.
And that was kind of the attitude and teamwork that was within the group. To a certain degree, that was almost expected. I think if nothing ever went wrong, you weren't moving fast enough or you weren't, you were being risky enough. But, obviously that-it should be more of a rarity than a commonplace.
Cameron Koczon: When did you find out what you were going to be working on? Like what product you're going to be working on?
Tyler Mincey: Very, very soon. So, I was doing a little bit of LCD displays but was working on the touch panel almost immediately. So, we had a couple parallels design paths running at the time. There were some that were slated for the phone. Some like proto-iPad things that were getting worked on. And then some larger format iPods as well, too. So, there was a lot of, concept level things we were working on, but it was mostly focused on the first phone which was very interesting.
My actual immediate manager, when I got hired, didn't always know what I was working on. So, I was kind of in this
Cameron Koczon: Because of the secrecy of the phone?
Tyler Mincey: Mhmm.
Cameron Koczon: Oh shit. Yeah. That's wild. “Need to know basis, manager.”
Tyler Mincey: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it was. I mean, he knew at a high level, but not the details of what was going on at any given time. And that was kind of just the information firewall they had set up there, but it was classified as a black, maybe super-black project, that not everyone knew about. And even specifics of information was on a need to know basis.
Cameron Koczon: So did you get like a mission impossible cassette tape or something that let you know you were in the club or how did that-who told you?
Tyler Mincey: I don't know. Like, I, I guess I just learned about stuff as I went. There wasn’t like a particular momentous reveal.
Cameron Koczon: So you just sort of stumbled into being the touch screen on the first iPhone?
Tyler Mincey: Well, that was the role I was hired in for. And that was a similar role that Kirk was working in too. So it was specifically kind of getting hired in for that role through him basically, but there was definitely like a-there was kind of a secret hallway that has special badge that I got led into, but otherwise you're sort of like, I don't know what happens in that hallway.
Cameron Koczon: Did you have any sense-I mean, it's obviously such a big deal device right now. But did you have any sense then of like how big it was or were you just more pumped on the like, “Hey, this is a perfect marriage of like technology and creativity,” or what were you thinking when you first found out about it?
Tyler Mincey: Oh, definitely super excited. I mean, there were, there were rumors swirling for a while, that Apple was working on something like that. And so it felt like a very natural thing. But also, the imagined scope of it was still pretty narrow. Like it was kind of just like, oh, Apple is maybe going to do a phone. It's probably going to be mostly like a phone that I know about, but maybe it'll also play my music, like an iPod.
And I think even some of that was defensive, cause it was very clear that phones would eventually eat up the music player business. That was definitely one of the strong considerations for the product definition, but I don't think anyone was imagining that it was going to-well, I mean, some people were imagining, but I think it was for, most of the people on the team, it was still hard to see how truly large it would be. There was definitely a sense that things would be great. We could basically get the whole group of the iPhone core team together in a big room.
There was a couple of meetings with Steve later on in the project where we were definitely getting a rallying cry because people were pretty close to burnout. It was a crazy amount of work that everyone put in personally. And. Steve really was talking about us feeling a little bit like the original Mac team and acknowledging that people weren't seeing their friends and family nearly as much as they'd like to, but really encouraging us that putting in those extra level of work and the extra level of detail was really how we communicated love and care to the people that were going to use the product afterwards.
And those little finesse details just speak to a level of craftsmanship; where the people creating the products and their intentions really bleed through and you can feel it in the products themselves.
And so that was very inspirational and, you know, he said that more people in the future would be working on this product category than anything else in the company too. And it seemed like, “oh, maybe…” at the time, but it was a little bit, hard to believe. But I mean, obviously, spot on.
Cameron Koczon: I was one of your friends at the time and I do remember you working very hard. Is that something that is shared across Apple or do you think that's unique to the kind of specialness of that moment that you're describing? Or does everybody work that hard pretty consistently?
Tyler Mincey: I think it ebbs and flows. I think that was an especially difficult time. Just everyone was very conscious of how momentous the task was and how important it was to stay on schedule and how hard everyone else is too. I think that there's definitely a team responsibility and kind of egging each other on, in a positive way to, all work really hard and sort of hold up your end of the work because you're seeing other people work just as hard. So, I think that's pretty common for the most part, but was just especially true at that time.
Cameron Koczon: Yeah. I was curious about if they actually explicitly said to you, like, “Hey, get ready. You're going to be working crazy hours.” Or if it was just a team dynamic that emerged, or it was the deadline that forced it. What kind of pushed that?
Tyler Mincey: Everything was very, was always very, very scheduled driven. But still iterative. I mean, we wouldn't, you know, we knew when something was right, and we would keep going and going and going until it was right. But I think there was just a lot of implicit high-level mission in everything we were doing. I don't know if it was really explicitly said, but it was, everyone was working to ship this product and a lot of the other details of, for good and bad, your personal life, weren't always the priority during that period of time. You were on this mission and that's why you're there and if, you know, there are other things that are more important for you, no hard feelings, but maybe should go do those instead of working on this specific thing.
Cameron Koczon: Let’s say you did feel that way-it kind of reminds me of the Navy seals a little bit. My cousin's a Navy seal and he was saying that what makes hell week so hard is that you can give up. Somebody can like go away and it's your choice the whole time. But you stay. You know, if somebody were to kind of give up, would they go to a different part of the organization? Or like, did anybody ever sort of feel like, “Hey, I can't.” You know, I could imagine a bunch of people, not necessarily being able to do that for that long.
Tyler Mincey: I don't really remember many specific instances of that. I think most, people really busted ass to stay on board. There wasn't a particular falling out time, but that happened constantly at the company too. Like we would have these all-hands meetings too, where there’s, you know, Q&A time afterwards and usually Steve would be leading those. And inevitably, somebody would raise their hand and ask about some other product category, like enterprise servers or something. And he would always say, “oh, enterprise servers, that's great. We could probably build some great products there. That's actually also really good business.”
You know, he didn't say that's not worthwhile. That's not a valuable business, but he was just like, well, that's not what we're doing right now. So, if you are really passionate about that maybe you should go find another place to work. And it was kind of crickets. But that-like something along those lines would always happen.
It was not necessarily a bad thing, but it was always very clear, what was the most important thing, why we were doing it. And that was what everyone is aligned to.
Cameron Koczon: Do you think other people would feel left out? I guess like, if you knew that that was the most important thing, and he's saying stuff like that, where, “Hey, in the future, more people are going to be working on this” or do most people just think of you as the tip of the spear that sort of opens that opportunity up down the line for everybody?
Tyler Mincey: Yeah. I think everyone really believed that the individual products that we're working on or were part of an ecosystem. And there was so much that bled in between two as well.
There was learnings from the Mac on track pads and touch and displays and batteries and radios that carried over to the design, and lots of things from the iPod around form factor and power and tightly-integrated handheld devices. People always saw that there were the different product lines and how they would co-exist for users, but also on the design language and technical capabilities that really bled together.
So I think everyone, as a whole company felt like they were pushing together, pushing forward the, you know, the future of personal computing and the individual products themselves all kind of fed into that. So, it really felt like everyone working on the same higher level thing.
Cameron Koczon: A big part of your job was going to China, right? Like when did, when did that, did you know that going into it, or when did that kind of pop up?
Tyler Mincey: I knew that that was going to be a big part of the job, that there's going to be a fair amount of regular travel. I would say that it was maybe like two thirds of my time, for a long time. It really felt like I was living in China and would come home for vacation and to visit headquarters and have meetings and show people things for a while. So I think that was really cool.
Cameron Koczon: Can you like give some insight into what that lifestyle is? Is it like seven days a week? What does like a typical day look like when you're, when you're doing that?
Tyler Mincey: Absolutely. I mean, it's, it's very intense and a lot of the factories are working two or three shifts per day. So you were definitely going in for the morning shift, usually staying for the second, sometimes the third shift at least to start the third shift before you went home. So, it was very much like being awake at the factory as long as you could and going back to the hotel to sleep a little bit, when you could too. Usually, you know, you are on handoff phone calls at the end of the day to California, it was morning time, and in China vice versa. Sometimes you would stay up on the other side of things too.
So there was lots of baton handing off between China and California too, that actually makes for like an extremely efficient work cycle when somebody-there's some engineers, somewhere in the world, working 24 hours a day, not just eight hours spans once a day. So, there was lots of things where we would you know, have calls where we're handing off issues or talking about things we needed help with to another team. And when we woke up the next day, sometimes there'd be new software build or people had debugged things or given us next things to work on. I think that was, very common, but it's very difficult. There's, you know, the whole reason you were there was to go to the factory and work on things.
Cameron Koczon: How many of you were there?
Tyler Mincey: It would really depend, but like specifically for the touch screen at the time, I mean, Apple really fully designed that system themselves from the cover glass that had industrial design requirements that had to be laminated with an LCD display. That was. Totally cutting edge at the time too.
The chip set that managed it all. And all of the circuits and flex circuits and interconnect and that was extremely complicated. It was really a whole product in and of itself. So we were trying to figure out how we could go, you know, manufacture that thing. And it was really piecing together bits and pieces of other supply chain and expertise that had never come together in the world before.
So there was lots of things on the thin-film side of the glass that came from LCD manufacturers and, and expertise of people that had done sputtering and etching and, and things like that. And then there were other things around doing rigid lamination that only people that had maybe been doing watch faces or automotive windshields and things like that knew how to do so we were really building a supply chain that didn't exist before with bits and pieces of these other legacy systems or people that had expertise. So it was very creative in that sense and lots of flying around in region. It wasn't just one factory all the time. It was many different factories at many levels of the supply chain.
There were some people at the airport that knew me, you know, by face I would just walk up to the ticket counters and be like, oh, give me a ticket to so-and-so again, it was just like I was getting a bus ticket and I'd be, you know, doing that many times.
Cameron Koczon: For those other experts, did Apple just hire like a, you know, a super talented watch person or did they like partner with some other company or just use some friendships to sort of say, “Hey, can you lend us someone for a little while?”
Tyler Mincey: It's a mixture of both. I mean, there's, there's definitely some people within Apple who are subject matter experts on specific things that are really-they really get deep in the, in the technical design engineering manufacturing of certain parts. But at the time we definitely leveraged other partners as well, too.
So a lot of the vendors we were working with had expertise in those areas. And oftentimes they knew as much about the specific thing they're working on as the Apple people, as well as a very, very deep partnership and lots of, creative, valuable work from both sides.
Cameron Koczon: I think the thing that always struck me, listening to you talk about it, just like right now is everybody thinks of Apple as a design company and they've got great commercials and great visual design and very visually beautiful, but you always made it seem like the real competitive edge is applying that same stuff to hardware and actually designing a process in the same way, with the same sort of care and attention that you would the actual touch screen initially or something like that. Can you just talk about that as like an edge for apple?
Tyler Mincey: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, there was, there's definitely a strong culture around design. I mean, at some level design is making arbitrary choices, or choices that would otherwise be arbitrary, according to some goals and intended outcomes. And, and I think there's definitely an art and a craft to that.
But that applied to everyone, whether they were an industrial designer or they worked in finance or manufacturing, operations, like everyone looked at the way they did business as a thing that they were designing for certain reasons or certain outcomes that they were going to iterate and make better over time.
And so I think that, you know, obviously applied to every engineer and the same thing for every like quality operations person we work with. And I think that really just shows the depth of the company. There's just as much innovation on relationships with vendors and operations and supply chain and logistics as there was in the, UI and industrial design.
Cameron Koczon: Do you remember the story that you told me about? The lady who would draw on the PCBs or something like that? Do you know that story? Do you remember that?
Tyler Mincey: Absolutely. I don't necessarily want to, I guess mention her by name, but she was one of the the lab technicians who worked with us, who, you know, worked very closely with the electrical engineers and would do lots of just incredible rework on PCBs. And a lot of times during the development of a product, you're making changes to the design that need to be prototyped ahead of time. And that usually involves doing literally microscopic rewiring circuit boards to see what the new design would look like.
And this woman is one of the most incredible craftsmen I've ever seen in being able to do that. But it was interesting because we were working very closely with Samsung at the time on some large development boards where they were validating some of the new Silicon that was feeding into the new projects.
And, you know, every so often we would have the execs from both companies get together and talk about the relationship and the priorities of the project and things like that. So a bunch of the Samsung guys were over and the meeting was breaking up. And you know, they're chatting around the table a little bit, but they said, “Oh, before you go real quick, we really wanted to ask you what machine you're using to do all the rework for these boards cause it's amazing. We want to buy a bunch of them. We can’t find them anywhere in Korea. We really want to get this machine that does the best work.”
And it took a long time to figure out like, what are you talking about? I don't even know what that is. And they finally had to get one of the engineers to take out one of the boards and be like this, the machine that did this work.
And then it finally-the light bulb went off. I was like, oh, that's, so-and-so, it's just the person that's in the lab. And she's, she's amazing at her job. So that's just very telling, you know, the people from Samsung hadn't seen rework done that well. So, yeah, pretty amazing.
Cameron Koczon: Today's episode of The Lager Podcast is brought to you by us, Lager. The Lager Podcast people are talking about Lager, go figure. If you made it this far into the episode, that means you're interested in hardware, which means you're probably interested in Lager. So go give it a look. Lagerdata.com L A G E R D A T A dot com. XO, XO. We love you. Bye.
Cameron Koczon: I spent so much time reading about business. I follow a lot of business people and you hear a lot of people try to emulate Steve Jobs. I mean, he's the go-to for people trying to copy and they say, they'll say his exact sentences. And it's, I find that so bizarre, but I think that he has something about everyone being an artist or something like that. It sort of sounds like bullshit. But then I feel like I hear that story and I'm like, well, you know, kind of, it does seem pretty cool.
Tyler Mincey: And I mean, there was a lot of that floating around. I mean, some of it is, to a pretty luxurious degree, but I mean, even in the cafeteria, we had a noodle bar that had soba noodles and a sushi bar too like, you go up-actually none of it was free.
We had to pay for everything too, forever. So it wasn't, it wasn't as cushy as some of the other big tech jobs, but the soba guy would hand-make soba noodles every day. And the sushi was amazing, and they were both people that Steve found someplace else in the world, but he was like, you are my favorite noodle maker.
Would you, would you like to move? And so some of that was, you know, you, you knew about those things and yeah, those are definitely influential.
Cameron Koczon: There's one that I thought was kind of funny too. Is can you talk about the black PCB?
Tyler Mincey: Yeah, for sure. For sure. There's a few maybe related stories around that. I mean, Apple definitely bites off big meaty projects all the time that they believe are really important. And sometimes those are-would be shockingly contrary to what other people would think were important. One related story I'll tell first is just around environmental impact for the products.
So, you know, they were really pushing to get fully lead-free and to be halogen-free with lots of the PCBs before there was even a standard. And certainly before other parts of the electronics industry was really prioritizing that. There's always been, there's been some level of the like RoHS standards have, you've heard of those for being lead-free, but there are lots of things that were exempted, like solder paste and things like that.
So, Apple really pushed to get a lot of those harmful and toxic chemicals out of the supply chain at great technical risk. There's tons of things that make the products less reliable when you use those different materials that need new engineering to get up to the same level of performance and reliability. They've always established internal standards that are literally a decade ahead of where the rest of the industry is in prioritizing.
But some of those are for cosmetic reasons as well, too. So, you know, I think there was always tear downs that would show up, you know, online after the fact, of a new product, of people looking inside the guts and inspecting things.
And, and there was, you know, they wanted those to look really good too. There was a huge project on being able to ship black PCBs and getting the solder mask black on all the products. That was even done to extreme degrees with getting all of the wiring harnesses black sometimes, which are super functional to have the different wires color-coded so you can see what was getting picked up. That was especially challenging but changing the color of the solder mask sounds totally innocuous and the smallest change but it was a huge deal because only certain vendors can do it. And all the components were so small that actually the viscosity of the color mask itself would change the aperture and the footprints of the individual components.
And so literally they had to had to redesign the footprints of every single component on the board so that they could be soldered the same way with the different color solder mask. I mean, just ridiculous amounts of engineering and operations work to make that happen. But they did it just because that was a priority for the group.
Cameron Koczon: On the one hand, I feel like you could be grumpy about that or just think like how ridiculous, but on the other hand, if you're going to say that the details are important, let people go nuts with it and have that satisfaction that like, yeah, perfect. It's like really done, done and not have that nagging feeling that you didn't-that you left something on the table.
Tyler Mincey: It's definitely a balance. There's some examples, I think, where that was taken to too much of an extreme, but I think yeah, for the right things, I think everyone really appreciates that. It's nice to have the support to work on those level of details.
Cameron Koczon: You were very proud of the original, I think it's the original apple TV remote the aluminum one. And you mentioned that it was all cut out of a single piece of aluminum. I remember when that came out, you were like, “you have no idea.” I'm curious, could you talk a little bit about how hard that is and then why that is also a good thing to do or why you think that they decided to do something like that?
Tyler Mincey: That was industrial design driven too. I mean, you know, it's, it's just really beautiful to work with elemental materials like that, have your object just really feel like it's a solid block of material. So I think we always paid a lot of attention to how something felt in the hand and weight balance and density and things like that.
And you know, if you hold a, a plastic thing, it just feels less dense and cheaper than you do when something is cut from more dense, sturdy materials too. So I think a lot of the, just a lot of the handful of the aluminum product was really nice. And again, had lots of amazing environmental benefits.
The aluminum is basically infinitely recyclable if treated in the right way and same thing with glass as well, too. So those are all very difficult materials to work with, but ultimately, have benefits on the environmental side, the strength and durability side. And lots of beautiful design aspects as well, too.
Apple's also very strategic in experimenting on small products. So there's things you can see in relatively simple products with some of the accessories or the remote controls on the TV that they're almost test running some complicated things that will trickle up into the phones and the Macs, on the iPads later on, too.
So it's really interesting to follow the evolutionary path of some of those technologies, But yeah, I mean, I don't even know the number of steps and tools it took to make that Apple remote, but it's crazy with some, I mean, some of the mechanical machine cutters are literally- look like little toothbrushes that will reach into openings, like a ship in the bottle, and start to take out material that have little cutouts for tall components inside of the product.
But it's literally like a ship in the bottle construction. And you have to cut that out with small, specially designed machine tools.
Cameron Koczon: I remember you'd been working there for a while and I asked you like, Hey uh, do you ever like, see Steve jobs? He goes, yeah, sometimes, but like, you don't really want to talk to him. And do you remember the reason that you gave, you said if you see him in the hallway, you don't really want to run into him. And if not, I can tell you, but I'm just curious if it rings a bell.
Tyler Mincey: I don't remember exactly what I said. I mean, but like usually my boss was in meetings with him, but not being myself. Like I would never, I would basically only be getting fired. I think, I don't know if that’s what I said
Cameron Koczon: You basically said you don't want to, if you talk to him, you're probably in trouble. And that also he would know your job better than you. He was like, he would know details of your job better than you, which I thought was extremely fascinating. And you know, I work with digital products, but I don't know the API developers job better than they do. And I think it was extremely cool to hear. I also felt lucky that around the time the iPhone launched you were single. And so, I got to be your date to the Apple event where they announced it. There's that one interaction where I can't remember who it was.
It was like either Jony Ive or some other big deal person walked away from Steve. Over to our other buddy, because he was like, “you know too much, we've trusted you too much. You have all the information.” Did I make that up? Or like help me remember that more accurately.
Tyler Mincey: Yeah. I, I don't remember. I don't remember exactly what, but it was Jony walking over, like leaving Steve and walking over to our other mutual friend. Yeah. I forget exactly what he said, but it was like a mixture of congratulations and I can't believe you have this depth of black arts or black magic.
Cameron Koczon: Please stay, don't go anywhere. So you did this iPhone thing and that's pretty cool. But you’re engineering project manager on the touch screen, do they give you a break after all that push? Do you get like a month off or right on to the next thing. How much downtime afterwards?
Tyler Mincey: It was like, you could take some vacation. I think they were very flexible on how much time you wanted to take off within certain limits.
I mean, I think I probably took a week or two off, but it was mostly like wanting to jump into the next thing pretty quickly. I think you get a little addicted to that cycle of shipping something and you don't want to miss out on the next great thing that's getting designed at the time.
Cameron Koczon: So, what was this next great thing?
Tyler Mincey: After that I went to manage an entire product launch from beginning to end. So I was, I got attached to one of the Nano projects. So it was the first one after the more square, video Nano. And they went back to being gum stick shaped.
I actually don't remember. I have to look that up. I think that was like the third or fourth generation Nano. And so that was, you know, for me that was stepping up from just a component that I was managing to the full product.
Cameron Koczon: Are there pretty obvious differences or is it just more, you're doing the same thing but you cover more ground?
Tyler Mincey: Yeah, I was less deep in the technical details of the product and more thinking at the product level and the system level around what the priorities were for the product, what the features should be, so that it was really well-positioned and really hit the experience notes that we were pitching to our customers. And maybe a little bit less, in the technical details.
Cameron Koczon: So you feel like this project delivered more on the creative plus the technology kind of stuff. Like if you're actually defining features.
Tyler Mincey: Absolutely. I would say, on the touchscreen, there was so much that was related. There were lots of the technical decisions that were related to industrial design and lots of things that we were doing on the panel design that touched on UI, that were related to how smooth something could scroll or how well the color palette was represented. But it was, it was really at a different, more of a technical level than a higher creative level.
Cameron Koczon: Now you're kind of like helping to choose features. Do you remember any debates you had about features that were either going to be in or out, or even just the conversation of going from like the video square one to the-basically was the idea just that, well, we've got a phone now, let's make the nano its own category more specifically.
Tyler Mincey: You know, Apple is always very focused on the bread and butter of the products. So, the thousand songs in your pocket was always, the spiritual core of that product line. But they really just started stepping out from there and adding more things. So the thousand became 10,000, and 50,000. And then, you know, songs became songs and photos, and songs and videos, and they started adding to that, product experience.
So I think when, when we were looking at what was happening next for the product line, they really were focused on let's make those core things better. Not necessarily adding bells and whistles. So it was really about how do we make it smaller? How do we make it last longer?
How do we make it hold more songs? The product was completely redesigned. All the chips were custom silicon that were on new development. There was amazing new PCB technology that was incorporated in each one.
The touch technology for the click wheels changes dramatically every year. That was actually the first iPod that had a glass screen as well. So we're learning some of the glass machining techniques that were then later used in more and more of the phones as well, too.
So there was, again, a strong interplay there between some of the manufacturing technologies that were in the different products.
Cameron Koczon: When you're starting a new project like this, you or anybody there, do you get a brief of like, “Hey, here's the coolest shit that's happened since the last time we started making an iPod. Here's the latest advances in all of these different technologies” or like, “here's this cool thing that we really want to try to work in?” Like, how do you get that latest information to redesign it from scratch?
Tyler Mincey: I think the enabling technology always came second and it was always, it was always driven by what do the customers want? So it was typically a combination of the industrial design teams and the human interface designers as well as the marketing team that, I think, really developed a evolved vision for what the experience would be.
And then the rest of the team also kind of contributed. The new palette of techniques and technologies that were out there, kind of based on what we knew, but that was usually a very tight partnership between design and engineering to kind of work at that, intersect.
Cameron Koczon: You're such a good Apple person. I think there's even a video of Steve Jobs saying almost the same thing. I think there's some grumpy guy at one of the Apple events who's like, “what about PageMaker?” He's upset about some software and his response is look, we don't start with what the thing can do. We start with what people want. And I think the, the b’s copy that too.
Tyler Mincey: Bluetooth is the classic example for that. There are so many products. For a long time, they were like, now with Bluetooth, you know, what is it that you're going to do with that? And they're like everything you can do so many things, you're like, really? Like what? They're like, you can print wirelessly, you can share contacts with anyone.
And you're like, I already don't want to do more than that, you know, by the time they're adding the fourth or fifth thing, isn’t making me want to use those anymore. Just do one thing well. Wireless capabilities were always in consideration for the iPads as well, too.
Like, can we make a streaming music player? What's going on with wireless audio? And even just now, it's truly at the point with AirPods, where you can actually deliver on a good experience like that, but a Wi-Fi enabled music player, at the time, would have lasted like 30 minutes and then the content wasn't there, and the reliability wasn't there.
So, it really just didn't deliver on a great product experience. It wasn't a matter of bells and whistles and checking a feature box. And they took that exact same path with cameras as well, too. I think that's another big standout example.
If you look at the history of Apples, in their cameras, they really optimized around beautiful photos and that that's oftentimes meant lower resolution. So they had bigger pixels, soak up more light and that ultimately was just a better experience. And they really understood the output and prioritize that.
And then they kind of crept up over time. So when other companies were talking about megapixels at the expense of a good picture, Apple's really just showing examples of good pictures and working up from there.
Cameron Koczon: And now you've got your own iPod launch coming up. What were the stress points or what were the more difficult aspects of doing the whole thing? And were you the one applying the working hard pressure? Were you now the person having to tell people, like, “Hey, say goodbye to your friends and family?”
Tyler Mincey: Um, there was a little bit of that. I mean, I had to be the reminder of schedule and priorities all the time and would ultimately gatekeep the big checklist of everything that we needed to decide was good to go before we shipped the thing.
But that wasn't necessarily my decision to be made. I mean, I was serving that role, but I was really a facilitator of everyone doing the work. So I wasn't necessarily the expert in every instance, but I was making sure that those experts talk to each other and eventually came to consensus around something working.
So I think a lot of that just happened naturally. But people needed to have confidence that the trains were running on time and things were organized in a good way. And I think it was my job to help provide a lot of that confidence in the team, that their hard work was going in the right place, and they were helping work on the most important thing in any given moment. But there were, I mean, tons of stresses there too. I mean, I was at the Moscone center, watching the keynote announcement for that year. And then Steve introduced, to show the product lineup, he introduced a different storage size than we had fully qualified at the time, too. So I was literally like “ope, I'm getting on a plane to China,” and I literally left the keynote to go get on a plane to China that night to go finish qualifying that config that he had just announced for a couple months.
Cameron Koczon: Do you still have your iPod from this generation? Do you have one?
Tyler Mincey: Definitely. Yep. Yep. I have all the colors.
Cameron Koczon: All the colors? Oh, awesome. You have any of them like sealed mint in box?
Tyler Mincey: Yeah, I think they all are.
Cameron Koczon: Oh, that’s so cool.
Tyler Mincey: I think I have a full set. If the batteries are still doing good.
Cameron Koczon: I mean, I feel like you can't get rid of those. Those are fun for Silas or something like that later on.
Tyler Mincey: Absolutely.
Cameron Koczon: Okay. So was that the last project you worked on or did you do anything else?
Tyler Mincey: So I think that was the last one. Probably getting a little bit too long-winded but my boss at the time moved over to manage the iPhone roadmap and I really backfilled from him and picked up the whole iPod roadmap as well, too.
So, I was working on the features and then managed the project management team for a short amount of time that was tasked with delivering all those products. So it was the Shuffle, Nano, Classic and Touch. So really looking at a, again, features/technology level working with design and marketing on the product definition for those products.
So that was great. I also managed a small, new technologies team at the time too. And we did some of the technology prototyping and groundwork for things. So it would become touch ID later on with fingerprint sensors. That was really interesting at the time too because fingerprint sensors existed, but they were usually built as little USB dongles that you would plug into a laptop to sign into highly secure workstations. People were pitching, and really, we talked people down from it being this highly secure password replacement to just being an interface element.
Really all the we need to do is replace a four digit passcode on a phone. And it was really about making that small interface detail that people did hundreds of times a day smoother and more secure at the same time too. So I think that was a really good example of just kind of resetting the technical goals and constraints of the thing we're working on for more of a design led feature versus a technology led feature.
Cause they were like, “it can replace a 120-bit encryption key” and you're like, “Oh, how about we do something much simpler?” I think that was a really good example of thinking differently, but a lot of great concepts came out of that new technology group, a lot of IP and things that would both contribute to user level features like that, as well as some of the low-level hardware stuff that later became the system and package technology that you see in the watch and things.
Cameron Koczon: I miss that fingerprint. I think that was my favorite way to open an iPhone. It just felt really nice, and it always worked, even like the interface for it coming alive. You have your thumbprint and it’d kind of buzz and you'd done it. I thought it was pretty sick.
Tyler Mincey: I guess maybe the last thing I would say. That too, there was an amazing amount of momentum and experience in that team. We needed to ship every year for Christmas. We would announce it September, usually start shipping in October. And it was, obviously they were huge Christmas items every year.
And there was real competition at the time, too. Sony was working on music players. That's when all the Zune stuff came out at Microsoft too. But really, we won by just relentless execution and every year, we'd ship a new thing that was dramatically better than the last in those really bread and butter features like smaller, lower power or last longer, cheaper, you know, beautiful new enclosure that just made the old ones look old every year.
And just really being good music players and not trying to do too much more than that every year. So, you know, we would go. We'd ship in October, take a little bit of a breather, see how the market responded to two different features. And then we usually had to have the product fully defined.
So a lot of design work that was happening at the end of the year. And then the product really needed to get into execution mode by February-March the following year, and then we needed to be in mass production later on. So, it was a crazy cycle of design and execution that just happened on clockwork every year.
And then we just did that generation after generation and kept a lead in that way. But it was pretty amazing to see really in that nine-month timeframe, we'd go from not knowing exactly what the thing was going to be, to usually making 200,000 a day at the factory for most of those programs which was pretty wild.
Cause we would typically sell out of most of the popular configurations for Christmas. So it was literally like every extra iPad you could make would be more revenue for the company too. it was just an amazing execution for them.
Cameron Koczon: It reminds me of a Butch Cassidy. I feel like if you were Samsung or somebody else wanting to compete, and it's just like, who are those guys? Just constantly at a steady rate. Unsettlingly making progress. I think hardware is so interesting in that way, because you have this external schedule pressure, like holidays aren't going to wait for Apple. Whereas in software you can just be like, well, we'll release whatever we have.
You know, when we have it, if there was such a thing as like a major event, you could just release a deprecated version of it and enhance upwards in real time. So it feels like way higher stakes.
Tyler Mincey: For the software teams too. I mean, all of those products had software that were very rich, like specific embedded UI’s too.
So, really those products were connected in some way in the fact that you would hook them up to your computer and sync music to them from time to time. But they didn't have persistent internet connection. So you didn't have quite the same flexibility just to be like oh, push a new software update anytime you want to. You really had to get it right. So, all the software and UI teams that were working on the iPads too really had had an extremely high bar of quality and polish for the software, because it was, it was way more embedded than we think about and appreciate.
Cameron Koczon: Now I'm trying to think of like how that user testing would go. It must be bonkers. It's just so much.
Tyler Mincey: Yes.
Cameron Koczon: Let me ask you just high level, then you eventually left this great place. You were instrumental. You know, when you think of the first iPhone, the thing that you think most about is the touchscreen. You weren't just like working on a component, but you're working on the most interesting component.
Then you went onto a whole iPod on your own, then you're doing the whole suite of iPods and also new technology. Feels like a pretty quality video game, leveling up thing that's going on. What made you sort of decide to look for what's next or decide, “Hey, you know, this is maybe worth wrapping up.”
Tyler Mincey: The biggest motivating factor for me was just, I, I felt like I needed a little bit of a personal reset. I think I was just very conscious of not spending as much time with friends and family as maybe I wanted to on a regular basis. And that just coincided with my dad going through some health stuff at the same time.
So that really was a motivation for me to take a little bit of a break, to spend some more time with family. He's been doing great since then. So that was, you know, had a very happy outcome, but it was really just needing a little bit of a break to reprioritize some personal stuff.
But I think also at the same time, with a little bit more headspace, I wanted to push myself to learn about new things too. I was, you know, had a fair amount of exposure to both the combination of hardware and software and how that intersected with design at Apple but I was definitely more weighted toward the hardware side of things.
I really wanted more of an experience to learn about modern software products, how web apps and mobile apps are architected, how kind of the whole internet thing was working these days. That felt like an important thing to learn about at the time that I didn't know as much about from my Apple experience.
So yeah, I got involved and that's, you know, working together with you at Fictive Kin for a while in a digital product agency was just a really good fit for being able to get that experience.
Cameron Koczon: I'm going to ask you to just a little more reflecting because I always wonder this and I'm curious, what you think is-I would like to do something really great. I think a lot of people feel that way. They want to do something really great. I think the iPhone is objectively great. You've been a part of a really great meaningful project. First, it's like a tactical question. Do you think in order to make something great, you need people in that mode of sacrifice and really compressed hard work? Or if Steve had said, “actually you guys should get three more months because we really care about the details.” You get three more months. Would it still have happened or is it like you need the pressure cooker to make it happen?
Tyler Mincey: I think a pressure cooker naturally happens. Whenever you're working on something that's very important, there will be just extra pressure in getting it done. But usually those things aren't just an invention you do once they're the result of decades or many iterations of a product, even for the iPhone.
It’s funny because it was, I think it was Time magazine, it was invention of the year too, but it wasn't like it had just been born in the last year from a single idea. You can really trace its evolutionary steps back from General Magic or FingerWorks or previous Apple products, and there's amazing lineage of that product growing up from other product lines and technologies. And it's really just the culmination of all that coming together. To do that, it really takes a lot of endurance. So, I think there always has to be a balance, there's kind of that ebb and flow of the times that are really critical, that everyone busts ass.
But you really only get there by doing that over a long period of time. So there has to be some amount of pacing, I think, too, and making sure people are healthy and I think creativity suffers if you don't strike that balance well.
Cameron Koczon: So you're like turtle for a long time with the patience. And then, when the opportunity strikes, you become the rabbit and then you got to get it done.
When you see an iPhone today, do you feel like you have a relationship with it? Like, oh, it's your baby all grown up or does it feel like a totally different thing because it's had different iterations?
Tyler Mincey: It definitely still feels very familiar, but there's been so many hands on the, product. So, I think I appreciate the small role I played, but I it's, it's so much larger, obviously.
Cameron Koczon: Do you ever do any comparisons of like, hey, you're working on a thing on a Wednesday or whatever, and you're like, well, it's no iPhone or do you just compartmentalize that? And you're like, it's done.
Tyler Mincey: A little bit. Yeah. I mean, I think everything you work on is different and it’s for different people and for different reasons too. So I still derive just as much pleasure working on something that's maybe a more opinionated product for a smaller group of people.
I think there's this always this tradeoff between how many people you're building something for and then how specifically tailored it can be to that individual. Like on one extreme, there's a customized thing that you're hand-making for one person and on the other extreme, there's something that everyone in the world is going to use and has to work well for all of them.
There's a lot of pleasure to be had everywhere you fall on that spectrum. And even if you're working on something that's not going to have as big of an impact to a larger number of people, I think you can make it impact them individually, that much deeper, by making it really specifically tailored to their needs and what they're trying to do.
Cameron Koczon: And then I guess the last thing is, is there anything that you miss about working there? You've not gone back. You've been, it's probably been 10 years or something like that, or 14 years.
Tyler Mincey: There's a few different aspects. I mean, definitely the scale of the impact is very attractive. It's awesome to see something you worked on out in the world with lots and lots of people.
You can see tons of people will take those products out of their bags and their pockets that you worked on and that's just really, really satisfying. Also, you know, they're constantly doing absolutely bleeding edge technology that, you know, is almost science fiction at the time and making it happen and they have the resources and expertise and willpower to put in that work.
And that's really exciting. I think, when you're working at other smaller companies, you just really can't take those risks. You're better off usually taking, you know, technologies or a design palette, that's slightly older, you know, a couple to five years older, to actually just apply it differently in a different context or a market. And you can't, you should not always be doing the most bleeding edge R and D
Cameron Koczon: that's super interesting. I also think a perfect place to stop. Thank you so much for being on the podcast, Tyler. I look forward to talking to you again.
Tyler Mincey: Absolutely. This was a lot of fun.