Tim Cook: Building on an Almost-Superhuman Legacy

Cook’s role in making Apple into the business it is now began long before he took over as Chief Executive Officer in 2011.

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Tim Cook, of course, would not be the CEO of Apple today if it weren’t for the legendary influence of the late Steve Jobs. But Cook’s role in making Apple into the business it is now began long before he took over as Chief Executive Officer in 2011. Though he was a relatively unknown figure before Jobs’ death, Cook, who considered Jobs a close friend and mentor, was nevertheless integral in the company’s success since he joined Apple in 1998. Although Cook considers himself a private person, choosing not to share many details about his personal life, his unique life experiences have nonetheless shaped him into the man he is today, as he continues the legacy of his longtime friend in leading one of the world’s largest tech companies.

Tim Cook was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1960. His mother, Geraldine Cook, worked at a pharmacy while his father, Donald Cook, worked at a shipyard. Due to his desire to live a mostly private life, the CEO has shared few details about his childhood, though he has said that while he was growing up his family was so poor that they could not afford a typewriter. Cook attended Alabama’s Auburn University, and in 1982 he graduated with a degree in industrial engineering. From there, he joined IBM, working in its PC division at a time when personal computing had only just taken off. At IBM, Cook worked his way up to the position of director of North American fulfillment, while simultaneously working on his MBA from Duke University, which he earned in 1988. 

As a sign of the level of respect Cook had for Jobs, he even offered to donate a portion of his liver to the cancer-stricken Jobs, who immediately and forcefully declined.

Cook worked there for twelve years before becoming the chief operating officer of the Reseller Division at a company called Intelligent Electronics. Then, in 1997, he became a vice president of corporate materials at Compaq, which was then one of the world’s largest PC manufacturers. It was around this time that Cook was misdiagnosed with multiple sclerosis his symptoms were in fact caused by “lugging a lot of incredibly heavy luggage around.” This misdiagnosis changed the way Cook looked at the world, and since then he has become a fitness enthusiast, spending his free time hiking, cycling, and going to the gym, and he has worked with fundraising organizations for charities dedicated to researching and treating the disease.

Cook first met Steve Jobs in 1998, during an interview in which he was offered the role of Senior Vice President of worldwide operations. Despite the fact that Cook and the people close to him believed continuing to work at Compaq would be a safer and more promising choice, Cook felt that joining Apple would be a “once in a lifetime opportunity to work for a creative genius,” so he accepted Jobs’ offer, marking the beginning of a lifelong professional friendship. At the time, Apple had experienced a series of embarrassing product failures, such as the Power Mac G4 Cube, a small PC which never found an audience. 

Leveraging his years of experience working in executive roles in the tech industry, Cook made a number of decisions at Apple that improved the efficiency of the company’s operations and paved the way for the success of its future hardware offerings. One of the first changes Cook made was to close down Apple’s own factories and replace them with contract manufacturers, which allowed the company to make its devices in larger quantities and deliver them faster. Cook also made a number of investments in technologies that would benefit the company in the long term, such as in the then-untested technology of solid-state memory, which Apple would incorporate in its iPod offerings as the technology became commercially viable.

In 2014, Cook publicly came out as gay in a Bloomberg editorial, making history as the first openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Though Cook remained for the most part outside of the public view, his notoriety within the company grew, as he was given a lot of the credit for optimizing Apple’s manufacturing procedures, beating out the competition. He worked behind the scenes on the iPhone, which released in 2007 and forever changed not just the company but the entire cell phone industry. Impressed by Cook’s effective management style, Jobs brought Cook closer into the core of the business by naming him CEO, and he began to run much of the business himself, gradually stepping into the public eye with appearances at public events with investors and the press.

Shortly thereafter, Jobs took a leave of absence from Apple to manage his declining health, naming Cook as interim CEO. As a sign of the level of respect Cook had for Jobs, he even offered to donate a portion of his liver to the cancer-stricken Jobs, who immediately and forcefully declined. When Jobs resigned in 2011, Apple’s board named Cook the company’s permanent CEO. Jobs’ death later that year had a profound effect on Cook, who considered the time immediately thereafter to be the loneliest time of his life. At the same time, Cook had the tremendous obligation to fill the shoes of his predecessor, who was known for having a near-hypnotic effect on his audiences when announcing new products. Cook also faced doubts about whether the company could continue to innovate without Jobs, both from others and within himself.

Despite his penchant for privacy, Cook followed in Jobs’ footsteps by assuming the role of the public face of the company, hosting press events and sharing further details of his personal life. In 2014, Cook publicly came out as gay in a Bloomberg editorial, making history as the first openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Cook said that decided to make his announcement because he thought the public benefit of doing so outweighed his personal desire for privacy. Under Cook, Apple dedicated itself to becoming a more socially conscious company, with a focus on sustainability and reducing its negative impact on climate change, as well as committing to charities around the world. Despite concerns about whether an Apple without Steve Jobs could maintain its success, Cook has overseen the last eight years of the company’s success, which included the launch of an entirely new class of product, the Apple Watch. Today, Apple remains one of the world’s largest tech companies, and shows no signs of slowing down.

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