Apple’s Jeff Williams: ‘It’s been this amazing journey’

Hundreds of students, faculty and staff turned out Friday, Feb. 22, to hear Apple Chief Operating Officer Jeff Williams, an Elon parent, talk about joining the company more than 20 years ago and being part of its growth and success.

When Jeff Williams was approached about a position at Apple in 1998, the company was near bankruptcy, with Steve Jobs having recently returned as CEO to attempt a revival. Williams would end up taking a pass on a job at Austin, Texas-based Dell Computers, then a high-flyer in the technology world, in favor of California-based Apple. It was a decision that placed Williams on a team that would carry Apple to ever-increasing heights on the backs of new products like iPod, iPhone and Apple Watch. 

“It’s been this amazing journey,” Williams told hundreds of students, faculty and staff packed into the Great Hall in the Global Commons building on Friday, Feb. 22. “It felt, when I joined, like a Silicon Valley start-up. It still feels that way today.”

Williams, an Elon parent and North Carolina native, began his career at IBM after graduating from N.C. State University with a mechanical engineering degree. Williams said he loved working for IBM and spent 13 years with the company, but he decided he wanted to do something different. An offer from Dell came, but then Tim Cook, who had left IBM for Apple, reached out to Williams about joining him there. 

After visiting Apple and sitting down with Jobs, Cook and others to learn more about the company’s plans for the future, he called his wife to say, “Hey, instead of Austin, what do think about joining Apple? There is a contagious enthusiasm that is so palpable, and that is something that I would really love to be a part of.”

Williams started as head of worldwide procurement, and since 2010, he has overseen Apple’s entire supply chain, service and support, and social responsibility initiatives. He oversees the development of Apple Watch, and is now driving the company’s health initiatives including the Apple Heart Study, Health Records on iPhone, ResearchKit and CareKit. 

In 2015, he was named chief operating officer, a role he says he never sought out but one that allows him to be involved in a host of initiatives. “I kept doing more and more interesting things, and one thing led to another,” Williams said. 

The evolution of Apple has provided Williams an opportunity to continue to tackle new challenges and develop fascinating technologies. The launch of Apple Watch provided a pathway for Apple to extend into the health space, an area of technology that Williams said five years ago he never would have imagined working in, but one that he now devotes significant time and energy to. 

“I see such a huge opportunity for us, and maybe even a moral responsibility, to make an impact in such  a critical area,” Williams said. 

Apple receives a steady stream of letters from Apple Watch owners saying that the personal device has played a role in saving their lives — not just by encouraging them to be more active, but also by alerting them to larger health issues they might not otherwise have been aware of. 

“The excitement comes when people are using the product, and it enriches their lives,” Williams said. “I feel really fortunate to have been a part of this.”

Asked by a student about selecting a professional path, Williams advised to “pick something and move forward.” Once you pick that something, “do it as if you owned it. Do it the best you can, learn from that and move forward.

“I like to pick the things that leave the most doors open, where you can learn the most,” Williams said. “Worry about learning and following whatever threads that come your way.”