Doug Field never considered leaving Apple. From the summer of 2008 to the fall of 2013, Field, a former chief technology officer for Segway and development engineer for Ford, oversaw product and hardware design, working on the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and the iMac. He earned a generous salary and was excited by the work. Then Elon Musk and Tesla Motors came calling, and Field agreed to become vice president of its vehicle program.
In the October 2013 announcement of his hiring, Field said joining Tesla was “an opportunity for me and many others to pursue the dream of building the best cars in the world—while being part of one of the most innovative companies in Silicon Valley.”
He likely won’t be the last Apple executive poached by Tesla. The company has hired at least 150 former Apple employees, more than from any other company, even carmakers. The former Apple staffers work in many areas of the 6,000-employee automaker, including engineering and law. “From a design philosophy, [Apple] is relatively closely aligned,” says Musk, Tesla’s co-founder and chief executive officer. Apple declined to comment for this story.
As cars become more like computers, and traditional U.S. automakers struggle to attract Silicon Valley talent, Tesla’s ability to lure people from Apple gives it an edge in developing cars of the future. “It’s almost an unfair advantage,” says Adam Jonas, an auto industry analyst at Morgan Stanley. “As software goes from 10 percent of the value of the car to 60 over 10 years, that disadvantage [for traditional carmakers] will intensify.”
Employees who have worked at Apple say their decision to join Tesla was based on its cars and its CEO. Musk has a reputation, like Steve Jobs did, for a mercurial temper and an obsessive attention to detail. A former Tesla worker who didn’t want to be named says that Musk is enamored with Apple and relishes comparisons between himself and its co-founder. Tesla, says one Silicon Valley recruiter who asked not to be named, attracts the same kind of employees that Apple does—driven, hard-charging, and drawn to a strong leader.
Apple’s influence at Tesla is apparent in the Model S full-size sedan, which went on sale in 2012. The luxury electric car, priced from about $70,000, has a 17-inch touchscreen that controls most functions, from opening the panoramic roof to turning on the air conditioning, and has Internet access. As with an iPhone or an iPad, Tesla’s operating system gets frequent wireless updates.
Brennan Boblett, a former Apple designer, developed the car’s control screen with a team of Apple alumni, including Joe Nuxoll, a freelance design consultant who’s worked at both companies. “You try to design it so that it requires not a whole lot of thinking,” Nuxoll says. “It’s more like an iPhone than a Ford.”
One of Tesla’s first employees from Apple was George Blankenship, who made the leap in 2010 after helping to create the company’s retail stores. Musk hired him to do the same for Tesla. “Everything Tesla did was unique for the auto industry,” says Blankenship, who made $1.2 million in 2012, according to a Tesla proxy statement. He left Tesla the next year. “If you go back to Apple 15 years ago whenever I started there, basically everything we did there was counter to the industry as well,” he says.
According to LinkedIn profiles, former Apple employees at Tesla now include: Rich Heley who joined Tesla in 2013 as senior director for manufacturing technology and is now vice president for product excellence; Lynn Miller, hired last year as associate general counsel; Beth Loeb Davies, director of training programs since May 2011; and Nick Kalayjian, a director of power electronics who has been awarded several patents for his work at Tesla, which he joined in 2006.
“Elon has explained to me that it’s easy for him to hire someone from Apple, because when he does the interview process for a serious software engineer—a big human asset—he’ll meet with the person and geek out with them,” says Morgan Stanley’s Jonas. “They’ll like talk about nerd software coding stuff.”
Beyond design, Apple’s influence is evident in Tesla stores and how the company operates other aspects of its business. When it wanted to build a giant battery factory, it considered following Apple to Mesa, Ariz., where the computer company purchased a factory in 2013. Tesla executives met with city leaders to explore the incentives available to them before deciding the company would build elsewhere. “A lot of their executives and people had come from Apple, so they were very much aware of us,” Christopher Brady, Mesa city manager, said in an interview last year. “When they sat down with us, we started talking about how we had done things with Apple, and they said, ‘You don’t have to explain that to us. We already know about the Apple story.’ ”
Automakers from around the world are rushing to set up offices in the Bay Area to tap the engineering talent. “When you talk to people in Silicon Valley, there’s a totally different mindset. They look at Detroit as old,” says Dave Sullivan, an automotive analyst for research firm AutoPacific. “You don’t see that same innovation.”
Sullivan says he doesn’t know of any former Apple employees at traditional automakers he regularly deals with. When Ford opened a Silicon Valley office in January, it highlighted the hiring of a midlevel engineer from Apple in a news release to raise its profile in Silicon Valley.
Musk says Apple has been trying to poach Tesla employees, too, offering $250,000 signing bonuses and 60 percent salary increases. “Apple tries very hard to recruit from Tesla,” he says. “But so far they’ve actually recruited very few people.”
The bottom line: Tesla’s ability to lure talent from Apple could give it an edge as cars become more like computers.