Three very different corporate cultures: Google, Microsoft, Apple

Apple, Microsoft and Google are the three most valuable companies as of 2021. They have very different corporate DNA or culture. I have argued that culture can be seen as a product of three different evolutionary dispositions depending on the ancestral mode of subsistence and have different, often opposing values. The following “map” contains Scharz’s values, HEXACO maxima and MBTI types:

Being a geek I have always had a love for diverse tech toys and followed not only the different developments but have also been fascinated by corporate cultures. One of the greatest eras in technology was the Open Source movement that has become somewhat fringe with the advent of mobile and cloud computing. Giving away stuff for free is inconceivable in the materialistic world of farmers and herders and its location is right at the bottom in hunter space. Two central figures in the Open Source movement are Richard Stallman (who launched the GNU project) and Linus Torvalds (the creator of Linux).

The open-source movement is characterized by 100% hunter values: openness, self-direction, creativity, and last but not least: free for all. Due to the idealistic and egalitarian nature of hunters, no corporation could grow out of this model, as that would have contradicted the very nature of the project. If someone is a Linux user, chances are high that they are hunter types. In 2006 Munich’s municipal government moved from Microsoft to Linux. Unfortunately, the project failed due to most people’s unfamiliarity with the OS and free software and the familiar Windows OS became omnipresent again. In 2020 Munich decided to re-introduce Linux once again. Fingers crossed for this renewed effort.

Google is a company that started out firmly in hunter space and moved somewhat towards farmer space over the years, moving into hardware and more profit-orientation. Google’s founders are firmly hunter types who avoid the limelight and the nitty-gritty details of CEO tasks and who love to focus on the big picture and moonshot projects instead.

Google started out very idealistically with the aim to make the world’s knowledge accessible, its motto “Don’t be evil” (for which it has been mocked many times). The idealism of their founders is often in contrast with the reality of shareholder accountability, which of course entails profit orientation. Despite that, Google is still very much committed to the idea of openness, making their Android OS and Chrome Browser open source. I am a diehard Google fanboy because I have been able to customize my devices the way I want. I appreciate the openness and the ability to run Android apps as well as Linux software on my Chromebook.

Google also has many other hunter traits: it started out with a very shallow hierarchy, healthcare benefits (care), no marketing department (hunter humility) and a corporate culture that is completely in line with hunter-gatherer adaptations: healthy food and snacks, as well as offering many ways out of 9–5 farmer routine (20% time, fitness facilities, etc.) Google became such an attractive workplace not only for hunter types that it even spawned the movie “The Internship”. Many conservative farmer types as well as moderates consider Google too wokeist and supported James Damore, who was fired by Google in 2017 because of a memo that was bordering on sexism. In general, however, Google’s corporate culture is what Michele Gelfand calls “lose” and stands in stark opposition to Apple’s very tight corporate culture.

A leaked video shows Google’s leaders responding in dismay at an all-hands meeting after the 2016 presidential election.

“Myself as an immigrant and a refugee, I certainly find the selection deeply offensive and I know many of you do too,” Brin, Alphabet’s president, says near the outset of the meeting. “I think it’s a very stressful time and conflicts with many of our values.”

While many people fear Google’s power, its personality is still firmly located in hunter space, with openness, self-direction, (gender) egalitarianism and environmental concern at its heart.

Microsoft also started out in nerdy hunter space, with its founders Bill Gates (his specific MBTI type is hotly debated and Paul Allen. Microsoft soon adopted a profit-oriented farmer culture with its advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantage of Microsoft’s farmer orientation was standardization (conformity), which made it possible for the software to run on almost any hardware and be compatible with virtually any components and peripherals.

The downside of Microsoft’s “farmerism” is that MS repeatedly tried to limit competition using its power, which culminated in an antitrust lawsuit. Worse for Microsoft, it lost its vision (seeing possibilities) and missed out a lot on the Internet age. When they slowly started catching up they lost out almost everywhere, most notably in the browser wars. Study after study found that only people who were very low in being tech-savvy used Internet Explorer. Mosaic, Firefox (open source) and Chrome (open source) all easily beat Internet Explorer, which stood for a world resistant to change. Only 25 years after the beginning of the browser wars did MS finally come up with a competitive browser: the new Edge which is based on Google’s Chrome browser. The situation only got worse when Steve Ballmer, a farmer type, became CEO. He was famous for mocking his competitors and launching a lot of failed copycat products. Microsoft placed too much value on tradition, i.e. its past assets.

Only Satya Nadella managed to turn the company around, giving it a vision for the future. Even though the company has taken a lot from its competitors’ playbooks, it has become an innovative company again. Despite its recent focus on the cloud, MS is still very much a traditional “desktop” company. When I got my first Chromebook in 2011 I moved completely into the cloud and I have seen MS users do so only very reluctantly. In any case, MS just caught up in time to profit from the COVID pandemic. MS Teams was one of the most used tools in European schools, as Google classroom is virtually unknown in Europe.

Apple is very different from MS and Google again. Even though Steve Jobs is often typed as a visionary hunter (ENTJ) type, the company has a lot of herder (SP) DNA and Jobs is just as often typed as ISTP. It is a cliche that only intuitive types are visionary. Besides, Jobs fits the description of an explorer, artisan and “master” or “virtuoso” (frequent labels for ISTPs) quite well. One thing that Jobs lacked if he was a hunter type, is openness. He headed one of the most secretive tech companies in the world — a very stark contrast to the open-source movement. He also showed typical traits of a herder personality, like in-group favouritism. He was known to be very generous with select people and giving them expensive presents, like luxury watches.

What makes Apple itself a herder culture company? If we check our value map above, we are firmly located in herder space with visible success, fun, adventure and creativity. Jobs wanted Apple to be the most successful/best brand. Market share and productivity (farmer) and making the world a better place (hunter) were much less important to him. Cultural Dynamic did a survey using Schwartz’s value map and positioned luxury shoppers firmly in herder space. Another sign of Apple being a herder type culture: designers have the highest status inside a tech company (Jony Ive, ISFP), something that would be unthinkable for more pragmatic farmers and hunters.

All this leads me to the conclusion that Steve Jobs was primarily an ISTP and only secondarily a hunter type. In 2017 Apple fired one of its engineers after his daughter posted a video of the iPhone X before the official launch, thus leaking the product. This is in stark contrast with the Google firing of an engineer for being supposedly anti-egalitarian. It is a retaliatory culture that is typically found in pastoralist society.

Since Steve Jobs’ death, Tim Cook has been CEO and again changed the corporate culture. Being a farmer type, Tim Cook has placed the highest priority on Apple’s cash cows, even trying to make the iPad a substitute for laptops. Apple has become markedly farmer-coloured, with a lot less innovation, minor changes to its iterations (conservative) and a focus on family-friendliness and security. All values are located firmly in farmer space.

Apple has also slowly given in to standardization, e.g. slowly replacing its proprietary connectors with USB-C connectors. It still is very tight, both regarding its products and internal company culture. Unlike Google, and more recently Microsoft, Apple hasn’t made any steps into open source yet, for example. This shouldn’t be surprising as Apple is located on the opposite end of hunter space.

Apple loves to go over the top with its luxury products, charging surreal prices for its accessories. Elon Musk recently made fun of the Apple Cloth (for cleaning screens, compatible with all Apple products) which is priced at 20$. For comparison, Amazon sells its family-oriented Fire tablets at 40$ on Black Friday.

Plotting the four companies onto a culture map we get the following picture.

This map also shows possible future directions. It is unlikely that Apple will move into open hunter space any time soon, just as it is unlikely that Amazon will produce luxury technology any time soon. Microsoft, being somewhere in the middle of the map, has the most space for change in different directions. Microsoft and Apple are running a neck and neck race for the top spot. My guess, Microsoft will win, due to higher flexibility. One of Apple’s most limiting factors is its positioning as a luxury brand. Luxury brands tend to lose their attractiveness once they produce for the masses.

Check out my latest book for more background information on culture mapping:

Originally published at on November 21, 2021.