Apple SVP hardware technologies Johny Srouji, the tech giant's most senior Israeli executive, keeps his promises, even if it takes a few years. Earlier this week he was at the President's Residence in Jerusalem with President Isaac Herzog and met afterwards in Israel with Palestinian-American billionaire Bashar Masri. Masri had just come from Rawabi, several dozen kilometers away near Ramallah, where he helped found the Apple R&D Center in the Palestinian Authority.
It is believed that Srouji had deliberately chosen this time, two weeks after Apple unveiled the M2 chip in one the company's most viewed-ever events, because he also wants to reveal the group of people who contributed to the development of the advanced chip, among other projects - including the development teams in the Palestinian Authority, who have been working under the media radar, over the past four years.
In 2018, Srouji revealed Apple undertook a small experiment. They hired through an IT contracting company in Ramallah, five employees and let them work on several projects with the Israeli development center. As time passed, the small center met its targets and grew accordingly. Today Srouji says proudly, the development center in Rawabi already has 60 employees, and is still growing.
Srouji and Apple CEO Tim Cook visited Israel seven years ago and promised to introduce measures that would strengthen the involvement of more of the regions residents in the activities of the iPhone and Mac producer. Through the Israel development center, which has tripled in size since then, and the new center between Ramallah and Nablus, Srouji has kept this promise.
In an exclusive interview, Srouji tells "Globes," "This venture was created through the inspiration of then President Reuven Rivlin. Tim and I connected with the vision of Rivlin and we linked it to our vision of the role that tech companies can play in bringing more Palestinians into the tech work environment and improve the economy of the region - and I am delighted that President Herzog also shares this vision. We took it on as a mission in 2018, and we linked up with ASAL Technologies and Bashar Masri."
It has taken Apple four years to feel confident enough to unveil the existence of the Palestinian development center. The process, like most things at Apple, was contingent on creating trust and meeting challenging targets. "Over the years they have proven that they can exceed our expectations in their performance and they succeeded in collaborating in the best possible way with the centers in Herzliya and Haifa. Why are we only revealing this today? We kept it secret in order to build in our way, until we reached the appropriate milestone where we thought it was fine to bring this out. We are mainly hoping that this venture will spur other tech companies to find ways to bring more Palestinians into the tech job market - and the fact that we have proved it can be done will inspire others to work like us."
To accomplish the mission, Apple hired the services of ASAL technologies, a Ramallah-based developers contracting company, nor was it the first US tech company to do this. For some years ASAL has been considered the contractor of choice by US tech corporations operating in Israel, seeking a way to find talented tech workers in the Palestinian Authority. ASAL's customers include Intel, Mellanox-Nvidia, Microsoft, and LivePerson. Apple's center is different from the others, because it is physically separated from ASAL's activities, and the fact that the developers only work on Apple's projects.
The setting up of Apple's Rawabi R &D center has also involved Palestinian-American billionaire Bashar Masri, who founded Rawabi with assistance from Qatar, to fulfil his vision of providing high standard housing for young Palestinians, at an average price of $100,000 per home. Masri is also a member of ASAL's board of directors and is behind the Siraj Palestine Fund, which has raised $90 million for investment in the Palestinian Authority.
Srouji has been working for Apple for 14 years and each year his status grows. His career at Apple has been fraught with challenges. He arrived at the company just a few months after the launch of the iPhone and already then joined the hardware unit for developing iPhone chips, the A-series, which had high performance and low power. Ten years ago he began managing the processor development for Apple's new iPad and an article in "Bloomberg" magazine in 2015 said that Srouji had 'saved' Apple at least six months ahead of the development and production of the processor that underlies the iPad Pro. In recent years, Srouji has managed Apple's continued efforts to wean itself off Intel chips, which has perhaps been the company's most ambitious project over the past decade. These efforts have produced the M chip, for which Srouji has been responsible.
"Apple's compartmentalization is a myth"
His senior status and the need to show some cards in order to help recruit more employees - enables him to describe with relative openness his activities in the Israel center and reveal some of its centrality in Apple's products and strategy. Through Israeli development, Apple manages and streamlines the data storage technology in a range of devices: Wireless communication components for the Apple Watch, as well as the integrated circuits that were developed in Israel, and the jewel in the crown: the Israeli team played a central role in developing the premium version of the company's flagship M1 processor, including the M1Pro and M1Max chips designed to support premium Mac computers such as MacBook Pro and MacBook Studio. "These chips were built here in Israel while working with other teams worldwide, including at the headquarters in Cupertino," reveals Srouji. "The integration with the verification applications and processes was also carried out here. This is a huge step. The Israeli team touched on every point and was critical for us."
"When asked about the supposed compartmentalization of Apple employees, according to which employees are excluded from major programs and sometimes from each other's work, Srouji insists that this is a myth.
Despite the prejudice associated with Apple's rigid management he adds, "Apple's R&D body works on the assumption that every engineer and manager has access to all the information required for the success of their overall role in the big picture. And it makes no difference if you are working in Israel or anywhere else in the world. My engineers in Israel have access to the full picture, and I personally make sure to update them as much as possible during virtual meetings, group discussions, and share with them our path ahead for the next three, four, or five years."
"Taking risks, not making bets"
For some years Apple has been making continuous efforts to reduce its dependence on external companies and to control several of the aspects of the product that it is developing. This process, which began intensively nearly 20 years ago under Steve Jobs, has been continuing to a major extent through until today. Even before the first iPhone came out exactly 15 years ago, Apple considered integrating Intel chips into the revolutionary smartphone device, but the then Intel CEO Paul Otellini, did not believe in the vision and bargained with Jobs over the price. Eventually Apple decided to switch to Intel's rival Samsung and meantime acquired US chip development company PA Semi, which formed the basis on which it developed its own chip series, which later became the series A, based on ARM, Intel's rival architecture.
In 2018, Intel chips were still integrated into Apple Mac computers, which until then had been considered the leaders in the PC sector, but a series of faults caused overheating and endless bugs were discovered that brought Apple to a situation that was Jobs' worst nightmare. The company apologized about the quality of its products and was forced to develop software that compensated for the disadvantages of the Mac computer hardware.
That was the moment when perhaps Apple's most important mission was placed on the shoulders of Srouji, who became SVP hardware technologies, heading a kind of internal Intel within Apple. In practice, experts rank Apple as the world's today's 12th largest chip company in terms of revenue. Srouji, who has since been offered the job of Intel CEO, launched the M1 chip during the peak of the Covid pandemic in November 2020, exactly when consumers were looking for strong computers so that they could work from home. It very quickly became clear that it was a big success - the criticisms about the computer were small that it did not easily overheat and provided high performance and it received praise and sales of the Mac grew and exceeded the $35 billion sales threshold for the first time last year.
Apple is known as a pioneering company that gambles on new fields, you bet on your chip, an experiment that might have failed, and in the end everything was on your shoulders. How difficult was it?
"Firstly, I'm always happy to cope with difficult problems. If you work on east things, you are wasting your time and wasting the time of your team. You need to work on most of the difficult problems. Secondly, if you permit me to say, we did not make a bet. We don't make bets, we take risks. This was a strategic risk but we wanted to bring out a good product. We knew that this process would take time but we did not start from zero - after all there was our telephone chip, which we began to build 14 years ago, so we have experience in building our chip, with architecture that could be expanded for other needs and different performances, different electricity requirements and other thermal restraints. Beyond this the big challenge at Apple as a product company is the fact that it is not enough to create a chip, but you must also integrate it onto the side of the product itself (the Mac) together with an operating system - and these three teams must work together so that the product will work. This is unique to a company like Apple."
Intel where Srouji began his career, after graduating from the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology cumma sum laude in Computer Science, was known for inventing the 'waterfall' model: it developed X86 architecture for high-performance computers and also hoped to succeed in the smartphone and home equipment markets with chips, but in the end the strategy did not succeed. Apple did the opposite. The company developed its own chips for low power telephones and now it is expanding the architecture to PCs, which require much higher electrical power and higher performance mainly for those using their PC for work, graphic design or for advanced gaming.
Srouji says, "We have done here a process of expansion. It is not the same chip that we are using for every device, but the same architectural concept that we have taken with us from the iPhone to other devices. We have taken into account graphic processing, motor design, operating systems, image processing, and security processing and taken into account the integration with the operating system and software and building anew each time the architecture in such a way as to suit the different needs - the chips are even different for different Mac computers, but the architecture and basic way of thinking does not change, and that's a big thing."
What have you learned about yourself and your team during this time?
Covid caught us in the middle of our work on the new chip. It was like a wind blowing against us. Suddenly engineers could not move freely as before and couldn't meet or even be in the same lab at the same time, like in the past. We needed to use our other muscles for this. But my team kept on and did not miss one assignment. In the middle of video calls between the head office in Cupertino and the office in Israel, we found new processes to get rid of bugs and developed techniques that helped us cope with the physical absence of the engineers in the labs. I am like a proud father - Covid hurt us but as couples say, 'we are still married.'"
This process of developing your own chip is today being imitated throughout the world by companies like Meta and Amazon. From a historical perspective, to what extent has this process paid off?
"I think it has completely paid off. We have shown this again and again. We began with the telephone, built our chips for the phone and I think you will agree with me when I say that if you look at it, it is the best phone on the market. Secondly, our chips are absolutely suited to our products - the combination between the chip, the operating system and the software has paid off for us big time."
More students understand that they can find a good career in chips"
In recent years, Apple's competition in Israel for the hearts of hardware engineers has only strengthened with the announcement by Intel about a year ago that it is hiring 1,000 employees for its center in Israel, while Nvidia has also made a similar commitment, even though it has slowed the pace of hiring. Apple has made no announcements on the subject but according to the speed that it is growing and its plans for the future, it looks like Apple would be happy to hire a few hundred more engineers in Israel.
From where are Apple and its rivals going to bring these employees? The pool of engineers in this field in Israel is limited
"I think that if we look at the trend in the industry, it has become clear to everyone in the field that semiconductors and chips and the most important for every device and every technology operating today. When we talk about machine learning or operating systems, these ultimately need chips that can operate on them at the end of the day. Cars can't operate today without chips. I think that this reality is helping more students choose electrical engineering and computer engineering as professions - these people will have a stable and long-term career track."
But the numbers show that they prefer to study for easier and more profitable professions like software engineering, computer science or cybersecurity.
"So I think that today it is understood that a stronger career track can actually be found in studying electrical engineering and we are also working ourselves to spread this message. We go to the universities throughout the world, including in Israel, and deal, for example with explaining and disseminating this message to students and we show them what a career in electrical engineering can do. We work together with lecturers in the adjacent faculties to electrical engineering in order to prepare rapid study programs. Take math or physics - a person can be trained to become a chip engineer within two years. But not just there. We are looking for the next talents among haredi (ultra-orthodox) women and employees with NGOs like Hasob and Tsofen (NGOs working in Israeli Arab society) because ultimately the pool of existing talented employees is indeed limited."
Srouji, 58, was born in downtown Haifa's Abbas neighborhood. He is the third child out of four in the middle class Arab Christian family and from a young age was educated to solve complex problems. His father Farid was a carpenter and craftsman who produced casting molds to the specifications of the Ministry of Defense. After Srouji graduated from the Technion, he worked for IBM's innovative chip lab before working intermittently for Intel and IBM, including in a position in Austin, Texas, before joining Apple.
Young people in Arab society need role models. Who was your role model?
"My parents, my school principal, my teacher at university. I think that I learned from each of them. If there is one sentence that I take with me everywhere it is: work on your weaknesses and not on your strengths and become the best version of yourself. Leave your comfort zone, attempt new things and new challenges - that is the key to development."
What do human resources personnel and managers in Israeli high-tech need to do in order to integrate more employees from Arab society?
"I can talk about Apple. The proportion of our Arab employees is not made public but I can say that it is high, because we spare no effort in getting there. We found that the networking effect works here: it begins with a group of employees from Arab society, who bring other employees, using the friend brings a friend method - whether it is their friends or their cousins. At a certain stage the process already feeds itself alone."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on June 29, 2022.
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