Ex-Apple executive speaks at CECS showcase

By HARSHAL BHOSALE, Managing Editor

On the occasion of the CECS showcase event, alongside the new Engineering Lab Building announcement, retired Apple employee and UM-Dearborn alumnus Brett Bilbrey participated in a one-on-one with U-M student and Local 2 Fox News technical talk show host Derek Kevra, delving into interesting insights and numerous tidbits from his time at the technology giant; including his experiences working under arguably the previous decade’s most influential pioneer, Steve Jobs.

Kevra was a fine host, as he started off on a humorous note by explaining why there was an O added in the name of his undergrad department, Atmospheric Oceanic and Space Science (AOSS). Even though they didn’t do much oceanic work, Kevra teased that the school didn’t want an A.S.S. Department.

He then went on to introduce Brett Bilbrey. A 1982 graduate from CECS, Bilbrey has overseen a lot of the newest technologies we see on almost any Apple product today in his role as a senior manager in Apple’s secretive Technology Advancement department. The new 3D face recognition on the upcoming iPhone X, wireless charging, iPads, MacBook touchbar technologies, the list goes on. In fact, his LinkedIn profile rather cheekily goes on to say: “…heading Apple’s Technology Advancement group. And as you can imagine, that is about all I can say about that.”

(Jack VanAssche/MJ)

After retiring from Apple, Bilbrey has continued working in advisory positions, consulting, innovating and also filing for patents, of which he has a lot (He shared a story of how he came up with a patent for portable media players, precursors to the iPod, just three months before Apple came up with the technology – earning him a handsome amount in royalties). He also holds a position as a CECS Industrial Advisor at UM-Dearborn.

As the conversation continued, the duo regaled the audience with experiences galore. When asked about his time at this university, he said, “First, I’m proud to be an alumnus from here – there are lots of U-M graduates represented in the bay area. Coming from the Dearborn campus, I felt I’ve had a more one-on-one relationship in terms of being more approachable with the professors.”

Recalling one particular incident, he said, “I remember an incident with Professor Paul Trojan (first chairman of UM-Dearborn’s Engineering division), and I was arguing with him and said, “Well, whoever wrote this book was wrong.” Pausing to look at the audience, Bilbrey said, “He (Trojan) wrote the book,” to a loud gaggle of laughter.

On a more serious note, he continued.

“Besides knowledge, it was also the tools that I was given by the university, and one of them was, a sense of excellence. Do a job the best you can. It was this spirit of the University of Michigan that helped me a lot in my career.”

Harking back to the famous story about how Steve Jobs’ unrelated calligraphy classes led to the designing of the fonts on the first iMacs, Bilbrey also talked about how a rounded education helps one in their life in some way or the other, citing an example of his music appreciation class, knowledge from which he was actually able to apply later on in his life.

Talking about the Mac Mini and the story of its design problems, Bilbrey mentioned how the downsizing obsession caused problems hitherto unseen.

Left to Right – Dean England with Bilbrey and Kevra. (Harshal Bhosale/MJ)

“The Mac Mini was particular about what songs it wanted to play,” he said. “It would play Frank Sinatra, or Taylor Swift, but when it came to Moby, well…” he reminisced. The problem was later revealed to be a resonance issue – the speakers when vibrating at a particular frequency (an 800 Hz tone in that particular Moby song) caused the vibrations to travel through the speaker body, the frame, into the hard drive, finally crashing it and causing the computer to shut down. A redesign solved this problem.

This and many other anecdotes enthralled the audience to no end, and as the talk veered towards its inevitable end, when he thanked his wife Ann Bilbrey, who was present, for her support through tough times, and concluded on an inspiring note by sharing a simple message.

“Follow your passion”, he said.

CECS Dean Tony England had one-upped that quote with of his own, when asked later by a reporter about what part of the talk was most memorable to him.

“All we really have is time,” England said. “Time spent following your passion is more valuable than just putting in hours at work.”