Michigan Engineer Profile - Tony Fadell
Tony Fadell, BSE CE '91
Senior Vice President of the iPod Division
I only applied myself if I was interested in what I was doing. I had the opportunity to take a lot of project-based classes and work on University projects outside of classes, and that learning allowed me to explore what I wanted to explore.
IT’S NOT OFTEN AN engineer sees his work become a cultural phenomenon. But not everyone has the vision to create the Apple iPod®. On any given day, Tony Fadell (BSE CE ’91) sees his innovation tucked in teenagers’ pockets, attached to joggers’ arms and plugged into vehicles everywhere. Fadell, senior vice president of the iPod Division at Apple Computer, has watched the portable digital music player he helped create become a household word and an omnipresent entry on wish lists around the world.
Fadell, who’s filed more than 30 patents throughout his career, has been an innovator and entrepreneur since his early days at the College of Engineering where, by his own admission, he was a good student but not a great one. “I only applied myself if I was interested in what I was doing,” he said. “I had the opportunity to take a lot of project-based classes and work on University projects outside of classes, and that learning allowed me to explore what I wanted to explore.”
He had help along the way, including long-lasting counsel and friendship with Elliot Soloway, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “It was more than just mentoring,” said Fadell. “He and I would just talk about ideas more as peers.”
Those impromptu get-togethers fed a lifelong curiosity — he’d been fascinated with how things work since the age of four, when his grandfather taught him how to change electrical plugs. It was a pivotal event that underscored the belief that a little learning can be a dangerous thing. “My parents were afraid that I’d burn down the house or electrocute myself,” he said. That early lesson also pointed out that risk — major or minor — wouldn’t stand in the way of Fadell’s never-ending educational process. “You have to continue to learn to be a great engineer outside of school, both technically and personally” he said.
After graduating, Fadell traded Michigan’s cold for California’s heat and plunged into Silicon Valley in 1991, where he lent his considerable talents to several communications and electronics firms before founding Fuse Systems, Inc., in 1999. It was there that Fadell began to ponder a problem: Digital music was stuck on compact discs or in the computer. He wanted to develop ways to free that content. Fuse didn’t make it very far, but his effort there led him to an opportunity at Apple Computer.
In February 2001, working as a contractor, Fadell was brought in to “develop the best portable product in the world to take your music where you want to go.” It would be unlike portable CD players as it had no moving parts and fit in a pocket.
With that goal in mind, he turned the music world upside-down. Apple Computer hired Fadell in April 2001 to run its Special Projects engineering group. The iPod, as it was called, launched in October 2001, became a marketing phenomenon.
Even Fadell was surprised at the success of the iPod. “When we started, who knew it would be such a success? When you’re in this industry, you see that very few things become successful, let alone this successful.”
Fadell was promoted to vice president of iPod engineering in 2004. In 2005, he became senior vice president of the iPod Division, overseeing all aspects of iPod business.
He said that his job, today, is really about “creating great teams that create great products.”
It’s also a job that doesn’t leave him much free time. But he and his wife, Danielle, vice president of human resources at Apple, eke out the occasional vacation and return to Michigan annually to visit Fadell’s family. A book lover by nature, he manages to squeeze in a number of good reads, preferring biographies and business titles. And fitness gets a fair shake — Fadell tries to fit in morning jogs or weightlifting and occasionally finds ways to indulge in some road biking and downhill skiing, individual sports that give him a chance to listen to music and do some thinking about work. “When you love what you do,” said Fadell, “it’s hard to tear yourself away from it.”
The iPod represents the perfect combination of two of Fadell’s passions: engineering and music. He’s a regular at live concerts and continues to expand the extensive music collection he started as a child. Although there isn’t an iPod around that can house the 160 gigabytes of digital music Fadell has stored, you can bet he’s dreaming up ways to make it happen.
- Michigan Engineer (College of Engineering)