From Introvert to Director at Apple
I've always wanted to be a director. Not the type that I ended up becoming at Apple, but a film director. Jaws made me afraid to go into the water, and I must have watched Raiders of the Lost Ark at least 50 times before the age of 13. I didn't end up pursuing my passion for film direction, but working at Apple has enabled me to be passionate and creative every day.
By most objective standards, I've accomplished a lot. Yet, compared to most, I'm not uniquely talented, smart, or special. Those of you who know me maybe surprised to know that I'm an extreme introvert. I'd much rather spend time curled up reading a book than interacting with people. I'm unusually clumsy at small talk and nervous in social scenarios.
Nevertheless, I've found a way to break through this wall, and while I'm still a bit awkward in social settings, I'm happy with the progress I've made.
Despite these shortcomings, I have been able to achieve great success, largely due to my overall approach to life. What has always helped me succeed is my mindset. I work harder, learn faster, and dream bigger than most.
To get a better sense of how my mindset has impacted my life, allow me to say a bit more about my journey, some of the highs and lows I've faced, and how I can perhaps help you. Perhaps you'll consider trusting me with your e-mail address and joining our community, if you get to know me.
I know, I don't have an accent anymore
Iftikhar with my father Ajaz Khan, and my grandfater, Imam Bashir Rafiq
I was born in 1978 in the hospital that directly faces Big Ben and the English House of Parliament, right across the Thames River in London.
Some people live their entire lives in one place. By the time I graduated from college, I had lived in a dozen different locations, including London, Kent (SE England), the suburbs of West Palm Beach, Chicago, the suburbs of Detroit, and East Lansing. Change is something that I’ve learned to love, to the point that now I find myself getting bored if I stay in one place for too long. It drives my wife Rabia crazy!
The downside of moving so often was that it exasperated my introversion, which resulted in a somewhat lonely childhood. I had very few friends. In my junior and senior years of high school, after my family had just moved to Michigan, I had no friends, nor did I make an effort to make any. It was easier for me to retreat to the library at lunchtime and read. I read the biographies of more than 30 US Presidents over those two years.
One activity that forced me to interact with others was playing a leadership role at my local Muslim Youth Group. At the age of 15, I led the Detroit Chapter of Muslim Youth USA, a group that included more than 70 members and required me to learn a variety of leadership skills that have been pivotal to any success I’ve had later in my career. The Detroit Chapter won Best Medium Sized Chapter in the US under my leadership.
One of my best decisions
A pivotal moment occurred when I became a student at Michigan State University. During my first two weeks at school, I avoided everyone. I had notions that all that my fellow students were interested in was drinking and partying, neither of which interested me at all. It wasn’t until I made the long walk down the Holmes Hall hallway into a room where a dozen guys were playing Madden 1996 on the PS2 that I realized my fellow students were much more complicated and interesting than the stereotype that I had in mind.
During my wonderful experience at MSU, I made close friends with a variety of students. I met guys that were the most popular kids in their high school and realized they had vulnerabilities and idiosyncrasies similar to the rest of us. I met kids from small-town America, towns that only had one stop light. I met farmers, a Jeopardy champion, hippies, activists, slackers, frat boys, and more. One particularly memorable day was moving into an 11-bedroom house and realizing that one of the tenants had a confederate flag on his truck window. That same individual became one of my favorite friends, and soon after college went to Korea to teach English as a Second Language.
Differentials = My mortal enemy
I’m a firm believer that struggles are necessary to achieve success. During college, two struggles had an enormous impact on my career.
The first challenge was a series of degree choices that cost me an extra year at school. All my life, my parents had encouraged me to pursue becoming a doctor, even though I had no particular interest in the field. During my first year in MSU, I enrolled in a unique science program called Lyman Briggs. By the end of year one, I knew medical science wasn't for me.
So I pivoted toward computer science in order to follow in the footsteps of my dad, a Systems Architect. While I was adept at computers, I couldn’t overcome Calculus 2. I failed the class twice. Failing the same exam twice after putting in a decent amount of effort was a particularly depressing experience. My cumulative GPA dropped like a rock, and by the end of my sophomore year, my GPA hovered around 2.5.
Around that time, I opened up the school newspaper and read some horrifying news. The Eli Broad School of Business had decided to start limiting enrollees, and future graduates would have to apply to the school and hope to make the cut. With my GPA, I quickly realized I was in trouble.
At this point, I had already flaked out of a medical science program, a computer science program, and now it looked like I had no hope of getting a business degree either.
After briefly considering other options (including packaging) and talking to my counselors, I decided to double down. I WAS graduating from the college of business, and it was up to me to make it happen. Unfortunately, there were over half a dozen core classes I couldn’t take until I was admitted. So I went the unconventional route of taking every class I could, with the goal of completing all my core classes in my senior year.
I also discovered Supply Chain Management. Not only was MSU one of the top two schools in the country in this field, but I found it fascinating as well. I worked very hard the next two years to bring my GPA up, getting a solid mix of A’s and B+'s.
My counselor had convinced me that if I achieved 3 A’s and 1 B in my junior year, I’d be highly likely to be accepted. I made sure to achieve that goal and left that summer for Chicago convinced I was going to finally get admitted to business school in my senior year.
So you can imagine my shock when I got the rejection letter from the admissions department. My heart sank. I couldn’t believe it. I was going to have to start again, adding another couple of years to pursue who knows what. Since I was paying for college myself and beginning to accumulate a sizable debt, this setback was financially punishing too. I immediately called the admissions department to make my case. I begged and pleaded. It may have been the lowest moment of my life. The lady politely listened but said there wasn’t much they could do, but they’d double check.
That was a dark 24 hours. I prayed extensively that night.
God heard my prayers, as the next day, I heard some incredible news. The admissions department had miscalculated my GPA, and with the revised score, I had barely squeaked in.
Phew. I was going to be able to go to business school after all. I graduated in 2001 with a degree in Supply Chain Management.
Interviewing All Star
The second setback also occurred in my junior year of college. My friend was working for student government and was moving to a higher position. He convinced me to apply for the vacated seat. For no good reason, I didn’t prepare for that interview and left the interview feeling angry and embarrassed at how poorly I did. I was better than what this interviewer thought of me. On the walk home, I pledged to myself that next time I would be over prepared and take fate into my own hands.
That summer, I checked out half a dozen books on “Interviewing Excellence” and spent the summer vacation becoming an expert on interviewing. In the fall of senior year, my interview skills, combined with my four summer internships at GE Medical Systems and Allied Signal paid off. I crushed every interview I took. You've heard the saying, "taking candy from a baby." I knew what that felt like. I got multiple job offers that fall.
As part of my interviewing regimen, I decided to practice repeatedly by taking every opportunity to interview. That is the only reason why I interviewed with Apple. It was the only interview that season where I was interviewed by two people at the same time, a format which kept me on my toes the entire time. A few weeks later, I was invited to a four-day fly-in event in Cupertino. Since I had never been west of the Mississippi, and one of those four days included a full day tour of San Francisco, I signed up.
I had NO intention of joining Apple. This was 2000, and just three years earlier, Wired Magazine had published a story predicting the demise of Apple. This was pre-iPod, and Apple's market share for computers was less than 3%.
I was just going to California for the free trip to San Francisco. As I boarded the plane back home to East Lansing, after my four-day trip to Cupertino, I knew I was going to work at Apple. What happened?
First, I saw the product.
I saw iMovie on the latest iMacs and fell in love. I'd never seen desktop movie editing before, and couldn't believe how simple but powerful this was. As a wannabe filmmaker, my mind was blown.
Second, I met my coworkers.
Wow, were they impressive! Passionate. Energetic. Wicked smart. They didn't have the patience or time for bureaucracy. They were everything I wanted to be.
Third, the role had real impact.
These people were clearly empowered, given enormous responsibilities, and challenged every day. Depth mattered here, not breadth. I was told by two different people that my decisions could lead to the Apple factory shutting down at least once in the first year. That type of responsibility simultaneously scared the hell out of me and inspired me. Plus, clearly, supply chain management mattered here. One of the reasons why Apple had almost gone bankrupt was due to poor inventory planning. I could have a real impact here.
The summer before I started at Apple, I spent 3 months backpacking Europe
Launching the iPhone, iPad, Watch and more...
Joining Apple has been one of the best decisions of my life, and the same three principles for why I took the job at Apple are the same three reasons I still love coming to work here, sixteen years later. I've worked through experiences that MBA students pay money to case study.
- Building the iPod Planning Management system as Apple transitioned into becoming a consumer electronics company. On more than one occasion, I remember pinching myself wondering out loud, "I can't believe they trust me to build and execute this!" There was a period where iPod demand was so surprisingly strong that we were essentially constrained for two years as we struggled to catch up. Those were two of the most exhausting but exciting years of my life.
- Launching the iPhone. If you haven't seen Steve Job's keynote announcing the iPhone, see below. It’s a master class in storytelling. I walked out of that keynote, went up to my manager, and told him, "No matter what, I want to be part of that product team." My boldness and previous expertise was rewarded, and I was part of the small operations team that launched the iPhone.
- Launching the iPad. Demand far exceeded any of our wildest expectations. That year was the toughest of my career, and it required all my resilience, energy, prioritization, and motivational skills to keep my team together.
Somewhere along the way, my personality started to change. During my first seven years at Apple, while I was getting exceptional reviews, positioned on Apple's most critical products, and increasing my technical expertise, I still quietly struggled with a lack of confidence in myself, an unease interacting with leadership, and a painfully awkward feeling in large forums. I watched less technically competent peers than me get promoted and move on to roles that I wanted..
I started to get frustrated. My lack of confidence in myself was holding me back. I had credibility with everyone I worked with on a daily basis. So why was I so cautious and uncertain around people with whom I was less familiar?
I decided I needed to make a change.
I was going to leverage my technical expertise and credibility to take the lead, be more vocal in larger forums, and spend more time influencing leadership, not just my peers.
And my career exploded. In 2008, I became an entry-level manager of a team of 3. By 2012, I was leading a team of more than 200, and in 2013, I became a director.
My home life, though, needed some work.
Meet the family
Rabia and I have been married since 2002, and it is a fact that without her support, I wouldn't be the man I am today. In 2007, Rizwan was born. Two and a half years later, Khadija entered our lives. God has blessed me with an amazing family. My family brings me so much joy.
During Rizwan's first four years, Apple released the iPhone and then the iPad. It's not an exaggeration to say that I barely saw my family during that time.
In 2011, I was dangerously burned out, and my boss essentially ordered me to take some time off. We went to Disney World for one week and bonded as a family. Since then, we've visited Singapore, Turkey, Italy, Germany, England, Hawaii, the Caribbean, New York City, and much more. Experiencing new things in new places is our thing.
The vacations help, but I still have had issues where I'm not present for my kids, both physically and emotionally.
Building memories in Venice, Miami & Istanbul
The first time your child realizes your priorities and scolds you for them is more devastating than you can realize (unless it has happened to you).
Fortunately for us, Rabia is a fantastic parent and has more than made up for my slack. She actively volunteers at school and stays on top of the kids' secular and spiritual education.
People regularly compliment us on Rizwan's and Khadija's behavior, attitude, and zest for life. Rabia deserves all the credit.
You may be wondering why there aren't any pictures of Rabia on this webpage. She's asked me to not share pictures of her. It was tough finding great family pictures that didn't have all four of us!
Becoming a better dad
Recently I decided that I was going to participate more in raising my children and take an active role in their education and upbringing. It was time for me to share some of my knowledge and experiences with my kids, and mentor them on their journey.
I'm on that journey with them right now, and every day is an experience and a learning opportunity for all of us.
On this journey, I intend to become an expert on raising children with a STEM-centered mindset, children who are resilient, ethical, fair, curious, generous, and continuously looking to grow. I'm reading books on this subject, taking courses, listening to podcasts, watching videos, and following influencers and experts in this space.
I decided to share this expertise and journey with you. Back when the internet first took off, I coded a film review website using HTML. It was my first taste of building a community online, and I loved it.
I love it again. I hope you benefit too from seed2STEM.com. Please consider joining my mailing list so you can get my weekly newsletter filled with tips, tricks, facts, and quotes that will inspire you to take action and be a better and more effective parent.
Please also take a minute to send me an e-mail. How can I help you? I'd loved to give it a shot.
See you this Thursday (when I send y0u my latest insights via my newsletter).
PS If you don't want to wait until Thursday for my latest post, check out an earlier post: 7 Ways to introduce STEM to girls