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Tim Cook: my first-person impression of Apple's new CEO

After yesterday's news, I was originally going to title this post "Relax. Apple's new CEO Tim Cook is gonna do just fine."

I was going to push back on the conventional wisdom that nobody can lead Apple as Steve Jobs has with facts about how Tim Cook has stepped in multiple times to help Apple navigate the roughest economy in at least a generation with stunning success. I was going to write about how Tim Cook is considered by many to be an operational genius and a fair but tough negotiator. I was going to write how he came from Compaq and IBM before that.

I was going to write about all that. But you can read his history anywhere. Everyone is writing about him now. So instead I'm going to tell you about the first time I met Tim Cook and why, from that day forward, I have never once worried about Apple post-Steve Jobs.

I was in my third year of a five year stint with Apple the first time I met Tim Cook. Steve Jobs had made waves earlier that year with his Stanford commencement speech, where he discussed his cancer diagnosis; Wall Street and the tech industry were still worried sick about who could possibly lead Apple when Jobs no longer could. I knew one thing for sure: it wasn't me. In the grand scheme of things at Apple, I was nobody important. I was just a sales guy that had flown out to Cupertino with other sales people one September for the annual sales conference. And though my numbers were great, I knew that I was replaceable -- just like most employees at large companies can be replaced. I could leave Apple tomorrow and the company would be just fine. I was no Steve Jobs.

No matter what your position is in the company, however, from intern to executive staff, it's always great being on Apple's campus. You see cool things, meet interesting people, and have some great food (and a few good games of volleyball) to boot. But on this particular day we were herded into one of the meeting rooms you sometimes see when Apple holds smaller press events on the campus -- the auditoriums with the projector screen the size of one you'd see in a 1950s movie theater and a stage with a small podium with some metallic stools near the front.

On this day there were about 300 sales guys and their managers in one such auditorium watching presentations from the iLife project managers about what the latest iteration of Apple's digital lifestyle suite was going to deliver. Though the presentations were interesting, you could see everyone in the room fidgeting a little as if they were restless. You see, we had been notified that Steve Jobs' #2 man, COO Tim Cook, might be dropping by for a visit.

The day went on as we explored the new iLife suite; then, sometime halfway through the iDVD presentation, a woman who worked for Apple who I had never seen before entered the auditorium and simply announced, "Excuse me. Three minutes!"

There was a shuffling on stage and the project managers halted their presentation as a murmur ran through the room. The woman who had spoken loaded something from a USB drive onto the Mac behind the podium. Three minutes later (to the second) Tim Cook entered the auditorium, flanked by his entourage. Cook walked down the steps and onto the stage.

The room was completely silent. And it remained that way for maybe half a minute as Tim Cook slowly took a few steps back and forth. He shuffled the presentation remote around in his hand. He looked out at us and smiled, but still didn't speak. Then he clicked a button on the remote and a large image of a padlock appeared on the screen behind him.

"The details of everything we talk about after this slide changes stay in this room," he said in that Southern drawl some of you may be familiar with if you've ever heard him speak on one of Apple's financial conference calls. At the time I had never heard his voice before, and it was such an odd contrast to what you expected to come out of a Silicon Valley executive's mouth.

"It stays with Apple. With us," he said. It wasn't a threat. It wasn't an order. The "us" he spoke of, the tone he used, conveyed a sense of kinship. It showed the confidence and trust he had in every single Apple employee packed into that auditorium. We were Apple and Tim Cook appreciated us for that.

Even though it's been five years since I worked at Apple and my NDA has long since expired, I'm not going to divulge the specific details he talked about, but I do want to relate the experience.

During his time on stage, Cook spoke to us about numbers and metrics, about Apple and the state of the tech industry as a whole. He spoke in that long drawl at a controlled pace, but that drawl and pace had nuance to it that conveyed passion in slow tones.

Then Steve Job's #2 guy did something many corporate higher-ups never do. He stopped speaking and asked to hear from us -- from the front-line sales people at Apple. He wanted to hear our questions and ideas.

And that's when I found myself raising my hand and the next thing I know Tim Cook pointed at me and smiled. "Yes. You, please," he said.

And as I was getting ready to speak I caught my boss out of the corner of my eye. He was sitting about five seats away from me in the auditorium and wore a nervous look on his face. And I knew that if he could have spoken to me in confidence then, my boss would have muttered, "Don't you ask him a foolish question! Don't you know who this is? He doesn't have time for silliness! He is a Very Important Person!"

I ignored my boss's look as much as I could and asked Cook what he thought about the direction of a certain software company whose products were closely tied to the Mac; about their lack of support for certain applications Mac users were clamoring to have.

Cook's answer was detailed and thorough, and everything he said about the company in question, every prediction and outlook, ended up coming true in the two years that followed. But the fact that he was dead right about the future of that company wasn't why I remember his answer to my question so well. It was because he took his own sweet time answering it.

Tim Cook is one of those rare people who stop and think before speaking. Standing in the same room with him I realized that he's comfortable with silence as long as that silence is productive and appropriate. He's not like other tech execs who ramble almost immediately and incoherently at any question lobbed at them, as if doing so will convince others they know everything about everything.

Tim Cook is a person who has confidence in his position as a leader, sans ego. Ego doesn't take pauses. It's rapid-fire. And it's that confidence and lack of ego that allows him the time to examine the issues and questions at hand, no matter how lowly or silly others may think them, and address them appropriately.

But Cook's confidence, his answer to my question, and his knowledge about the industry isn't why I left the auditorium that day pitying the people on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley who were needlessly worried sick over who would lead Apple. I left the auditorium that day knowing the post-Steve Jobs Apple would be fine because of the way in which he addressed me -- the sales grunt.

My boss's worried glances were for nothing. For Tim Cook there are no dumb questions. When he answered me he spoke to me as if I were the most important person at Apple. Indeed, he addressed me as if I were Steve Jobs himself. I know that's a big statement to make, but that's what it felt like and I've spoken with others who have told me the same thing. One just has to experience it to fully understand it, I suppose.

His look, his tone, the long pause was evidence enough that he genuinely gave thought to the concern I brought up. And that's the day I began to feel like more than just a replaceable part. I was one of the tens of thousands of integral parts of Apple and it was Tim Cook's raw leadership ability, confidence, and subtle charisma that made me realize that.

No one can ever replace Steve Jobs, the man, the genius. But Apple is not only Steve Jobs, no matter what anyone thinks. Apple is the interns and executive assistants; it's the retail employees and the designers; it's the marketing and PR departments, it's Scott Forstall and Jonathan Ive; Bob Mansfield and Phil Schiller; it's the dozens of other names you see on all those Apple patents that we talk about every week. Apple is not any single one of these people. It is the sum of them all, run by a leader who possesses enough wisdom to know that everyone in the company matters, that everyone's concerns are valid and deserve attention. Tim Cook is such a leader.

So relax everyone, will ya? I said it yesterday, but I'll repeat it again. Apple is one of the best-run companies on the planet and it's got years of growth ahead of it due to the incredible talent assembled by Jobs and Cook. People are not going to stop buying iPads and iPhones because Steve Jobs is now only the Chairman of Apple and not its CEO. And other companies are not going to suddenly make killer products that make Apple's look like last year's castoffs. Tim Cook has the reins firmly in hand; I only wish others who doubt me could spend two minutes in the same room with him. Apple's got the right CEO to carry it into the post-Steve Jobs era, and the company will continue to thrive.

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