I’ve been traveling a lot the last two weeks and missed the curious announcement that sociologist Joel Podolny is being hired by Apple Inc. On Wednesday I talked to a friend who, knowing my long history with Apple, assumed that I’d already heard.
Prof. Podolny now works at Yale, where his bio was just updated to reflect his recent decision
Joel M. PodolnyThe only real account is in the WSJ of Oct 23:
William S. Beinecke Professor of Management
Joel Podolny is was dean of the Yale School of Management from July, 2005 to October, 2008.
Apple Inc. is hiring the dean of Yale University's business school to start a project that it calls Apple University.In an e-mail to employees, Yale president Richard Levin notes that “Joel’s unexpected departure challenges each of us to rise to the occasion.” Sounds like Apple made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
The Cupertino, Calif., computer maker said Joel Podolny, the dean of the Yale School of Management, will join Apple as vice president and dean of Apple University. The company declined to provide details about the university or the position.
Mr. Podolny will be stepping down as dean on Nov. 1, but will stay at Yale until year end, a spokeswoman for Yale said. She said Mr. Podolny will take up his new position in early 2009.
Mr. Podolny wasn't available for comment.
Corporate universities, which typically offer classes to employees, have been introduced elsewhere. One of the earliest and best known is McDonald's Corp.'s Hamburger University, where thousands of employees attend classes each year.
Pixar Animation Studios -- whose largest shareholder was Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs before the studio was sold to Walt Disney Co. in 2006 -- has a program that it calls Pixar University, where it conducts three-month-long classes for new and existing animators.
Podolny’s own farewell e-mail talks about his own history as an Apple II hacker and doing his undergraduate thesis on the original Mac 128. He then praises Apple:
I am excited to know that I will be joining an organization for which I have so much respect and enthusiasm, a company whose reputation for innovation and excellence is second to none.The Oct. 22 e-mail says he will be leaving the dean’s job on Nov. 1 and the school “in early 2009.” Presumably that means Apple U will be announced on January 5 by Steve Jobs at Macworld Expo.
What is hardest about this decision is that I will be leaving so many faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends of the school who have put in so much effort to transform this institution. I obviously wish that the call from Apple had come later in my tenure, but we can’t always control the timing around such things.
Podolny was an academic superstar. Starting with three degrees in sociology from Harvard, he was a full professor at Stanford b-school by (approx.) age 35, senior associate dean the next year and stolen away by Harvard in 2002. Talk was he was being groomed for dean of HBS, but Yale hired him as b-school dean in 2005, a job he held until last Saturday. At (approx.) age 44, he was well on his way to being president of Yale (or Columbia or Harvard) before turning 55.
Podolny is a widely-cited expert on how individuals and firms use social status to gain power. His resumé shows 11 “A” hits from 1990-2008 — including five years as a full-time administrator — plus an academic book and a co-authored textbook.
The decision of a tenured professor on the fast track to jump to industry was puzzling to one of his former Stanford colleagues, engineering management professor Bob Sutton:
I as a bit shocked to see the above story about Joel, as I knew him quite well during the 15 years or so he was at Stanford (he then went on to Harvard and later to Yale as dean), and I thought he was a lifetime academic.To quote my onetime hero, let me make one thing perfectly clear: Joel Podolny did not quit Yale to head internal training at Apple. I’d bet a year’s mortgage payments on that.
If “Apple University” is like “Hamburger University” or “Pixar University,” then Podolny is nowhere near it. Only two things could have attracted him away. One would be heading up an internal research and/or datamining operation — much as Google lured away former Berkeley’s information school dean to become their chief economist.
The other would be to head up some sort of content play, building upon the existing free iTunes U. Interestingly, the only time “Podolny” appears on the Apple website is where Dean Podolny is narrating an audio track on Yale’s iTunes U site.
My hunch is the latter. While some companies like Nokia and Microsoft still have active research arms, for most tech companies, research is a cost that’s being cut, even by leading Valley firms.
Meanwhile, Steve Jobs is not one for increasing costs, but he is big on creating new revenue sources. Podolny has a reputation from Yale and Stanford as an effective academic leader. Faculty are nearly impossible to manage — we usually call it “herding cats” — and at best requires an effective use of “soft power” techniques such as moral suasion. If Apple is hoping deliver (and presumably monetize) large amounts of educational content online via iTunes, Podolny would be the man for the job.