The Risks And Rewards Of Criticism

Marco Arment responded to speculation by Eli Schiff that he and other Apple developers hesitate to criticize Apple for fear of retribution.

I was particularly surprised by the section of Schiff’s post that described Shifty Jelly developer Russell Ivanovic’s experience of being cut off by Apple from what had previously been a well-supported position. The way it’s described in the post, Ivanovic’s close marketing ties to Apple were severed when he decided to launch a version of his app on the Android Play store before Apple’s App Store. I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but it sounds great, and may provide slightly more details about the situation.

Ivanovic’s experience sounds devastating, but it doesn’t strike me as treatment that many developers should live in fear of also suffering.

As a company, Apple doesn’t care about individual developers. This works both ways of course: they don’t go out of their way to help, but also don’t go out of their way to harm. When a developer benefits or suffers at the hands of Apple, I believe it’s always thanks to either a wide-sweeping corporate policy that affects all developers, or to an individual at the company whose everyday choices on the job can have a profound impact. An editor who chooses to feature an app on the store, for example, or a reviewer who chooses to notice and raise a fuss about a slightly non-compliant behavior in an app.

I’m confident that at the level of individuals within Apple, efforts are almost always in the spirit of helping developers. You don’t have to meet many Apple employees to form an opinion that, on the whole, the company is made up of good people. So, naturally, the majority of folks there are working to cause good outcomes for people both inside and outside of Apple. The culture at Apple leans towards building people up rather than tearing people down. This is, incidentally, why their products tend to be so great. And why in spite of some truly confounding decisions, the company tends to promote stellar third party products through its App Stores.

On the other hand, the company is huge, and you simply can’t have that many thousands of people in varying positions of power without having at least tens or hundreds of spiteful, angry, petty people in positions of power. Oops, that sucks. While I was trying to make sense on Twitter of Ivanovic’s unfathomably petty experience, another slighted developer chimed in. Matthew Drayton, who like Ivanovic lives and works in Australia, pins his own similar experience on an individual:

I can’t quite tell if the implication is that the same individual is likely to be responsible for the “blackballing” that both Drayton and Ivanovic say they’ve felt. But for the sake of Apple, I hope it is indeed down to one person. One person can often be fired, reprimanded, or simply decide to move on. It would obviously be much worse if there were a systematic policy of suppressing developers who fail to “walk the line,” to to speak.

The risks of being critical are usually not on the scale of upsetting an entire company and suffering its wrath. Instead they are on the scale of possibly upsetting, or merely frustrating, or even just vaguely losing attractiveness to an individual whose help you would otherwise have enjoyed. This is true both in the context of Apple and outside of it. For example, an off-hand remark about the bitterness of the coffee at your local shop might earn you a less professional effort on your next visit.

On the other hand, an astute barista may take the criticism to heart and become hell-bent on ensuring your next cup exceeds expectations. This is what happens when well-formed criticism meets the ears of a confident, competent individual: the facts are taken to heart and studied, perhaps grudgingly. But upon reflection and determination that there was merit in the complaint, respect for the source of provocation goes through the roof.

These are the risks and rewards of criticism: depending upon how far your opinions reach, you may garner either immense respect or massive disdain from the individuals who consider it. In that light, is it risky to be publicly critical of a company upon which you base your entire livelihood? Possibly. But it could be just as risky to remain meekly under the radar while the thoughtful professionals at that company go out of their way to reward the people whose meaningful criticism they value.