Tim Cook, Apple CEO, to be 2017 commencement speaker

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Cook has led Apple since 2011, and debuted Apple Watch, Apple Pay, and the iPhone 7.

Timothy D. Cook, chief executive officer of Apple, Inc., will be the commencement speaker for the Class of 2017.

“The student body at MIT has always appreciated that technology should play a larger role in society,” Cook said in an interview with The Tech. “I’m incredibly excited about [speaking there].”

Cook has led Apple since 2011, after Steve Jobs resigned from that position to become chairman of the board. As CEO, Cook launched Apple Watch and Apple Pay, and introduced the iPhone 7. Prior to being named CEO, Cook oversaw the company’s worldwide sales and operations, and managed Apple’s global supply chain.

“Mr. Cook’s brilliance as a business leader, his genuineness as a human being, and his passion for issues that matter to our community make his voice one that I know will resonate deeply with our graduates,” President L. Rafael Reif told MIT News.

Cook has led Apple through milestones like the sale of its billionth iPhone in July and the finalization of its largest acquisition, the headphones and music streaming service Beats, in August. In February, facing pressure from the FBI to help “unlock” an iPhone used by a terrorist who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., Cook wrote a letter to customers that came down on the side of privacy. He wrote that creating a “backdoor” in the company’s products would ultimately undermine “the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

Cook received a B.S. in industrial engineering from Auburn University in 1982, and an MBA from Duke University in 1988. In an interview with The Tech Dec. 7, he spoke about the role of liberal arts in technological innovation, prioritizing long-term vision, and salient human rights issues. The interview has been edited for clarity.

The Tech: Thank you for making this time to speak with me. We’re really looking forward to welcoming you at commencement. The first thing I wanted to ask is, why choose to speak at MIT? What interested you about it?

Tim Cook: MIT has always intrigued me because I see a lot of parallels between Apple and MIT. The student body at MIT has always appreciated that technology should play a larger role in society, that it’s not just about technology. It’s about the intersection of technology and liberal arts that’s really great for our country. That parallel endeared me to MIT and I was quite honored to be asked to do it, and I’m incredibly excited about doing it.

The Tech: What do you see as the role of liberal arts in tech innovation?

Cook: Apple has always stood at the intersection of the liberal arts and technology. We don’t think technology for technology’s sake advances humanity. It’s the intersection of the two things that really moves the country forward and allows not just us, but other people, to change the world for the better.

People work at Apple because they want to change the world. They want to make the world’s best products that really enrich people’s lives. They come to work every day and focus on how to do that. That’s what has always been the driving force of Apple.

The Tech: That sounds like a very unique culture. What is the role of a community’s culture in producing great ideas? What kind of culture do you strive to create at Apple?

Cook: The culture at Apple is very much a change-the-world kind of culture. It’s a culture that deeply believes in a fairly simple North Star, and that North Star is creating the best products in the world that enrich people’s lives.

There are lots of things we could work on, and there are always more ideas than we could possibly work on. But the ones we try to choose are the ones that are the best, and make a significant contribution to society. Focus is a part of our culture: we say ‘no’ to many, many more things than we say ‘yes’ to. We say no to really good ideas because we know we can only do a few things really, really great.

Our culture is very focused on caring; people really care about the details here. They know that innovation really comes from people caring deeply about things, and thinking at a much deeper level about a problem that we’re trying to address or a product we’re trying to create. That’s the Apple culture.

It’s non-bureaucratic, very collaborative. We strongly believe in collaboration because we think the best work comes from having a diverse culture, bringing people together that look at issues differently, see things through a different lens, have a different life experience. Then you put them together and you provide an environment where people can collaborate, and bounce ideas off one another, and watch the ideas grow and become bigger than any single individual could ever do. That’s what happens here, and it’s really magical.

The Tech: How do you choose what problems to focus on?

Cook: That’s a good question. For us, we try to select things where we can control the primary technology. We do things that require hardware, software, and services, because we think the real magic occurs at the intersection of those. We have great debates internally about what things to work on and not, because we know we can only do a few things well.

We always pick things that really will change things, that empower people to change the world. We provide tools for people that do that. We’re always looking at how something will be used, and if it will have a broader purpose and benefit to society.

The Tech: In that process, how do you balance long term and short term outcomes? What do you do to keep sight of the bigger picture?

Cook: The real answer to that is: we don’t focus on the short term. When we decide to enter a new product category or create a new product, we’re thinking long term about it. We’re very willing to sacrifice short term results for the benefit of the long term.

We make sure that we don’t run Apple on a 90-day clock. I realize some companies do that and they think that’s good, but we’re investing in things that will see daylight many years from now. It’s very important that we take the noise out of our thinking, and think about the long-term benefit. That allows us to make investments that others would not, and create products, frankly, that others could not.

The Tech: On a more personal level, when you were graduating from college, what did you think you were going to be doing next?

Cook: [Laughs] Something very different than what occurred. When I was a graduate student, I had a class on Corporate Strategy — I was in business school at Duke at the time. As part of that corporate strategy class, the instructor asked us to prepare a personal strategy — a fairly detailed one that talked about what you were going to personally accomplish in life and your career and so forth.

A few years ago, I found that document, and at the time that I found it, it was 25 years old. And I looked at it, and virtually nothing had happened that I’d listed on it.

I think the lesson there is — and I’ve really learned this at Apple and I credit Steve [Jobs] being a great mentor here — the joy of life is really in the journey. If you fixate too much on the specifics, you don’t tend to enjoy the journey along the way. You say, “I’ll get to that after this happens,” or “I’m going to feel great after I graduate,” or “I’m going to do that after I get my first job.” You keep kicking the can down the road, and life passes by.

I’ve learned over the course of the last couple of decades to enjoy the journey, and not get too fixated on the specifics.

The Tech: You’ve said that “every generation has the responsibility to enlarge the meaning of human rights.” What do you see as the human rights challenge of our generation?

Cook: I think there are many. The ones that are very clear today range from religious freedoms, to LGBT rights, to gender equality. Even though the U.S. has made improvements on racial human rights, there are clearly racial injustices in the world.

I think if you sort of look at it from a macro point of view, there are issues everywhere, including in this country and in many countries around the world. People may talk about the issues themselves a bit differently, but they’re the same issues of a decade ago, and two decades ago, and five decades ago. There’s progress, so I’m not saying the magnitude of the issue is the same, but I think it’s about each generation moving forward and enlarging the definition of human rights for people.

You look at the U.S. and it shows up in many different ways. It’s changing the way people treat each other, because at the end of the day, if you boil it down, it’s about human dignity and human respect, and trying to eradicate the view that people are inferior because of something in their makeup or composition. I think it’s incumbent on all of us to advance it.

I wouldn’t pin it to a certain thing. I see issues everywhere, although, on a positive note, I see progress in many places as well. We have a lot further to go here. Not only in this country, but even more so in many countries around the world.

Cook will address the graduating class at MIT’s 140th commencement on Friday, June 9.