The story of Andy Grignon, team member on the iPhone project
“What did we do? I like to say we were responsible for everything you hate about your phone: all the times time you drop a call, can’t connect to your sh**ty Bluetooth car radio, or that hotel wifi… those were all my problems,” says Andy Grignon.
Today, Grignon is a partner at a global design and engineering firm called Siberia, which solves tech related problems for some of the world’s largest brands. But, ten years ago, Grignon was a main part of the group of geniuses that built the iPhone.
At the time, Grignon was a student at the University of Iowa. He was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work at Apple. This was a huge step in Grignon’s life because not only did he have an internship at Apple, it was exactly the type of job he was looking to have.
“I was hired as an intern into Apple’s Advanced Technology Group in 1994. I’m sure it sounds weird, but Apple at that time wasn’t a cool place to be, nobody really had a Mac. There were no iPods or anything cool, so Apple may as well have been Dell, or Gateway. I wrote some software with this thing they were pushing at the time, which was a very early version of videoconferencing software Apple was building. I built this app that looked like the Holodeck from Star Trek, and next thing I knew I was an intern.”
Getting this internship was a big deal for Grignon and he was determined to show his talent. “I worked my a** off that summer. I poured everything I had into learning everything Apple, getting to know people, and building cool sh*t knowing that I had complete, unobstructed access to the insides,” says Grignon. One of his favorite parts about the internship was the people he met and the relationships he made with them. “Turns out those connections I formed that summer would serve me very well for the rest of my career… we all somehow managed to grow up, and now I’m good friends with people that hold executive positions at pretty much every tech company you read about in the news.”
The Day to Day
“You know what, day to day was actually pretty boring. I think it’s hard for a lot of people to really understand that – but most big projects are large periods of ‘boring,’ punctuated with periods of really intense activity,” says Grignon. He goes on to explain that the busy days came from “out-of-bounds” events, like if the team was really behind on a deadline, then things would get crazy.
“Executives intentionally, and largely unintentionally, cause a tremendous amount of disruption to projects. I’m fortunate to now be one, and have had people working for me that know they can ‘tell me anything’. The number of times I’ve muttered something completely unintentionally where lots of people were kicked into gear to address whatever it was is astonishing.” Grignon adds that having these type of connections with your employees is the only way you know what’s actually going on in a project.
“A ‘typical day’ involved checking in with each one of my teams and sometimes individual key engineers to see what was happening.” Grignon mentions again the importance of making good connections with the people you work with in order to stay up to date. “I paid especially close attention to those I had developed personal relationships with, because I trusted them implicitly to tell me the truth, regardless of the layers of management between us – we were kindred nerd spirits, and they knew they could say anything,” adds Grignon.
Grignon’s team was specifically responsible for a lot of software most people haven’t even heard of. All the silicon chips used in technology today are actually just big, complicated pieces of software. Grignon goes on to explain how the silicon chips were made. Basically, there were people in Korea that write “code” where the output is a physical computer chip. “We’re long past the days where someone draws lines on a screen to lay out logic gates and such – today’s computer silicon is the result of programs that ‘write’ those lines and logic gates. Those programs have bugs, and as a result so do the chips that power our electronics.”
One of his team’s jobs was to write software to make sure the chips functioned properly. For example, could they add and multiply? Could it talk to all of the memory parts? Was the clock right? “We wrote a tremendous amount of software to make sure our custom chips had all the basics… ‘arms, legs, fingers, and toes’ as they say… you would be really surprised at all the things you figure out can go wrong when you make your own chip,” adds Grignon.
Grignon was a Senior Software Engineer and Manager on the iPod, iPhone, and iChat projects. Grignon often demo’d QuickTime to Steve Jobs, which is how they got to know each other.
“He was an a**hole, to be sure. And he got away with pretty abusive behavior because of who he was. But you could feel the moments of brilliance when they happened, and when you got even the smallest of compliments you’d be on cloud 9,” says Grignon. He explains that although Jobs was an incredibly talented man, he was also incredibly hard to work with. “He was a genius to be sure, but personally was very difficult to be around. I appreciate that I was afforded a unique seat near one of the best marketers and product people that ever lived, and I tried to learn as much as I could given the challenges of being near him.”
Grignon got to know Jobs pretty well because of the team he worked on. Jobs and Grignon were so close that Jobs actually gave Grignon his nickname.
“I earned the nickname “f**kchop” one day many years ago, when I was writing an app called iChat for the Mac. I was in a weekly meeting with Steve Jobs at the time where we showed him the latest developments across MacOS. He came in one day in a pretty good mood, but some customer had sent him an email calling him a “f**kchop,” and we were all laughing about what that even meant. Time for me to demo videoconferencing, so I run into another office. During the demo my audio stopped working, but I could still see and hear them. My engineer was with me, and he was trying to figure out what was wrong. One thing you didn’t ever do to Steve Jobs during these things was waste his time, and I knew that. But he was close to figuring out what was wrong, so we kept at it – I could see and hear him getting very impatient in the background. Finally he blew up, yelling into the mic: “WE’RE DONE HERE. I THINK I KNOW WHAT A ‘F**KCHOP’ IS, AND IT’S YOU – STOP WASTING MY F**KING TIME.” Needless to say the nickname stuck, and people started passing it around. It kinda sucked at first, but about a year later I moved over to iPod to work on what would ultimately become iPhone so I decided to embrace the nickname by putting it on my new business cards.”
Building the iPhone was not an easy task. When the idea was formed to build the phone, it was thought of to just be an extension of the iPod. It was supposed to be something that could play music, and additionally make phone calls. Obviously this original idea changed dramatically. The initial patent made for the iPhone describes it as being, “A multifunctional handheld device capable of operating in different modes includes a single input arrangement that provides inputs for each mode of the multifunctional handheld device.”
No one expected the iPhone to turn into what it ended up being. “If you were to fast-forward to today where entire families are sitting around a table staring blankly at their devices ignoring each other… that’s not at all what I wanted. I’m actually dismayed when I go out and see a couple on a date playing with their phones instead of speaking with each other!” says Grignon.
Over the years that the team was building the iPhone, Grignon’s focus was put one hundred percent into it. “I’m a confessed ‘workaholic’ it probably sounds sad, but I don’t do much outside of tech. But I like that – in any free time I have to this day, I want to think about other things I could be making. Solving problems puts me at ease. Even if it’s something completely stupid – to this day I still love working on something tech vs. going snowboarding, surfing, or whatever. What can I say, I’m a nerd and make no apologies for it!”
When the iPhone came out, it was a really weird feeling for everyone on the team. “It was terrifying to be honest! Remember we had spent years in solitude working on this thing under the strictest of Apple standards. Seeing it ‘out in the wild’ was surreal, to say the least,” says Grignon. Imagine hiding something so big for years and then the entire world not only knows about it, but they all use it. “After that feeling passed, it turned into sheer terror.” This was a really exciting time for Grignon and his team, but also a really nerve wracking time.
“Every time I saw I person talking on their new iPhone I was anxious – it really wasn’t fun. Look, I’ve been part of lots of prominent product launches, and seeing something you’ve spent time on in the hands of some celebrity on, or on the movie screen doing it’s thing is pretty cool, but iPhone has always been different. To this day, literally, I almost always get a pit in my stomach when I see someone using an iPhone. I can’t underestimate the angst an entire team of people endured for so long to make this product a reality.”
Given that Grignon helped to actually make the iPhone, he has a few good ideas on how to make your battery life last past lunch. “Just don’t use it,” Grignon says with a smile. “Just kidding- anything that tracks location is always running in the background burning up your battery. Turn all that shit off. Facebook, Snap, Uber, Google Maps, all of it… Too many apps want to be aware of your location, and then want to do stuff with it. If you’re doing turn-by-turn like Waze, then great… burn that battery up – everyone else should just shut the f**k down, but they don’t.”
Grignon has had many favorite features about the iPhone throughout the years. Given how much the iPhone has changed over these past ten years, it would be hard for someone’s favorite feature to stay the same. “Initially it was the the connectedness of the user experience – it really was easier to use than anything out there for the longest time. Then other people started to catch up. I also always liked how well Bluetooth worked with my car… that also was a pain in the a**. Never cared much for the iTunes app, but the accessories market for awhile was also really on fire. My current favorite feature? While not unique to iPhone, Android also has it, but they’ve gotten good at knowing where I need to be, and prompts me when I need to leave to make my next meeting,” says Grignon.
The iPhone as a whole was a huge part of Grignon’s life. “I made a bunch of money, but I also got a divorce. Both of those are life-changing,” he says with a smile. “I channel some of my energy today towards people building new companies, as well as mentoring their CEO’s during their journey.”
The iPhone was an amazing experience for Grignon that he will have with him forever. It wasn’t just the creation of this fantastic new device, it was his life for many years. “I wouldn’t say though that iPhone was overtly negative for me – both positive and negative things happened, but in the end I’m really happy to have had this experience. I grew as a leader for sure – I went on to start something at Palm called webOS using a lot of what I learned at Apple. It emboldened me to take on roles I never thought possible, and also to learn where and how I perform best.”
Written by Skylar Hamilton