Josh Conner isn’t a secret agent and he didn’t have to take on a false identity, but he did work in almost total secrecy for four years at Apple Inc.
Spoofing it a little, he had business cards printed with the title “super-secret compiler engineer.” The title was apt. Conner was one of the people who developed the iPhone, an Internet- and multimedia-enabled smartphone that revolutionized the industry and was kept under tight security until it was released.
“At Apple you can make up your own title, and I decided on super-secret compiler engineer as sort of a tongue-in-cheek way of making fun of the fact that I couldn’t tell anyone, even other people at Apple, what I was working on,” Conner said.
No one outside the project, not even the other compiler engineers in his group at Apple, knew what he was working on during the time the iPhone was under development.
Sometimes Conner found it frustrating to not be able to ask colleagues for their input.
“When I did have a question I wanted to ask someone I had to figure out a way to ask it without giving away what I was working on,” Conner said. “It was neat, though, to know what Apple was coming out with years before others knew. There’s definitely excitement in that.”
The iPhone’s revolutionary technology and multitude of applications made the project an amazing challenge, but Conner said he loves the challenge and thrill of developing one-of-a-kind inventive products.
“I like working on a long shot, something that may never see the light of day, while at the same time taking a chance on creating something new that makes a huge difference,” Conner said.
Conner has been experimenting with computers most of his life. He started writing simple game programs for his family’s personal computer when he was 7 years old.
Many of the Apple employees came from big-name institutions. But I wasn’t intimidated when I went to work there. I felt I had the tools I needed from my education at UW-Eau Claire to do the work. — Josh Conner
“Personal computers were just coming out around that time, and my dad was really interested in them and writing programs,” Conner said. “He subscribed to computer magazines, and as I got older I read and learned from them, improving on my abilities to write game programs.”
As much as Conner enjoyed computers growing up, he didn’t actually consider them as the basis for a career until he was an exchange student in France during high school.
“Maybe it was being in a new place and culture, but something clicked, and I realized working with computers was a natural for me,” Conner said. “I could do what I loved and get paid for it. I don’t know why it wasn’t obvious to me before that work with computers could be more than a hobby.”
Like many 18-year-olds going to college, Conner wanted to leave his hometown of Madison and go as far away as he could and still stay in the state. He looked at Wisconsin universities with computer science majors and chose UW-Eau Claire partly because he was familiar with the campus.
“I had done a science camp at UW-Eau Claire during my middle school years, so I had a positive impression of UW-Eau Claire,” Conner said. “I also liked the size of the school. I didn’t want to get lost in a crowd of undergraduates.”
Conner said he got a good foundation for his career at UW-Eau Claire.
“Many of the Apple employees came from big-name institutions,” Conner said. “But I wasn’t intimidated when I went to work there. I felt I had the tools I needed from my education at UW-Eau Claire to do the work. There were a lot of advantages to the program at Eau Claire. There were smaller classes and more one-on-one instruction, which made it strong a program.”
Although he did well, school became far more complicated for Conner when he took on the role of sole parent to 7-month-old twins, Madeline and Elizabeth, in his junior year. Determined to raise his children, he managed to juggle parenthood with his life as a student, relying on day care and a natural tendency to attend to multiple details.
The eye for details perfectly suited him not only as a dad, but it is essential to his work as a compiler engineer. Compiler engineers take software written in higher complex computer languages and serve as translators, writing the specialized software in a raw data interface the computer can understand.
“As a rule, compiler engineers tend to be precise people,” Conner said.
Precision and focus made it possible for him to graduate from UW-Eau Claire in 1994 and then receive a master’s degree from UW-Madison in December 1995. Getting through school quickly and becoming employed so he could support his daughters was a major motivator, Conner said.
In 1995 he moved to Arizona to work for Intel and met his wife, Jeanne, who had one daughter the same age as his twins. The two then had a fourth daughter, Eden. Three of the daughters, Madeline, Liz and Katana, are graduating from high school this year. One wants to go to art school, another wants to become an EMT and the third plans to be a theater technician. Conner said he finds it easy to let them seek out their dreams.
“I’ve done well at something I chose to do because I love it, and I hope they will do the same thing,” he said.
Madeline is currently taking a computer science class at school, which Conner says she loves half the time and is completely frustrated by the rest of the time.
“I love seeing the problems she has for homework, but I find it hard to help her without wanting to solve them myself,” he said.
After Intel, Conner worked for seven years at Microchip Technology Inc., a manufacturer of microcontroller, memory and analog semiconductors. Then a birthday present led Conner to go to work for Apple Inc. His wife gave him an iPod as a gift, and he was fascinated with it.
“I really enjoyed the iPod and thought it was a cool new product,” Conner said. “I started to think it would be fun to work for Apple, and as it happened they had an opening for a compiler engineer.”
Before he knew it, Conner was secretly at work on the iPhone.
“Working on a project that ended up being such a leap forward in technology was amazing,” he said. “It created a lot of great memories to look back on.”
One memory was of a meeting held just a few months before the iPhone was released, when Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs called the design team and others working on the project together and candidly discussed how much the project meant to him and to the company.
“It made me realize just how big the project was in terms of the market,” Conner said.
Following the creation of the iPhone, Conner continued to work on the second and third generations of the iPhone. However, his drive to continue to innovate led him in 2008 to a new job with NVIDIA, a leading company in visual video computing, where he is working on another super-secret project.
“All I can say is I’m working on a ground-up project that is revolutionary for the computing world and is of the same magnitude as the iPhone,” said Conner, who is once again a super- secret compiler engineer.