So today, depending on how you reckon such things, more or less marks the end of the legendary Silicon Valley company Sun Microsystems, where I worked from January 1986 until April 1994 (badge #1387). Here’s a photo (taken today) of me behind a giant-sized beer mug that I got from Sun on my 5th anniversary. It says, “In appreciation for five years of service in the Kingdom!”
In addition to this beer mug, Sun gave me a fantastic education in hardware, software, management and office politics; a chance to spend at least one night in every hotel on the entire length of El Camino Real from Sunnyvale to Burlingame; lots of good friends and fun times; money, and most of all an inspiration for Monty Meekman, the nastiest villain in the best. novel. evar written about Silicon Valley, my very own Acts of the Apostles.
Below the fold: The day I almost put (Google CEO) Eric Schmidt’s teeth down his throat.
My dear wife says this post makes me sound a whole lot angrier than I in fact am, and she’s right. I just thought it was funny that two of the most arrogant bigwigs I encountered at Sun went on to become bigwigs at Google, an outfit that’s known for its. . . arrogance. Most of my memories of Sun are of good friends and interesting challenges. (And a whole lot of airplane travel and hotel rooms.)
The Gods on the Mountaintop
Other than the tale of the deathcoffee brick (& my claim on the term “Information Architecture” & the world’s first information architecture group, a fact that I want incorporated into my wiki page whenever somebody out there belatedly gets around to creating it), pretty much everything interesting about my 8.33 years at Sun has been distilled in my aforementioned novel, which you should purchase a copy of right away if you have any sense of historical preservation at all. However here are a few more tidbits for the record, to commemorate this day.
First vignette involves one Wayne Rosing, who headed up Sun Labs and then became a VP of Engineering of Google in its early days. Before heading Sun Labs, Rosing was for a while the VP in charge of a large engineering group & I was manager of a bi-coastal technical publications & information architecture team within it — there were about fifty people in my group, depending on how you count contractors. It was announced that all the publications groups in Wayne’s demesne were to be combined, forming a group with over 100 people. I was a logical candidate (for promotion) to lead the group; in fact, I was the best candidate. However, Wayne had somebody else in mind, a friend of his who had lost some kind of power struggle elsewhere in the company. I got wind that this was about to go down, so I sent Wayne an email asking for the opportunity to make the case that I should get the job. And Rosing wrote back for me to chill out, “just let us gods up here on the mountaintop figure it out.” Then he named his buddy to the job, without giving me so much as a five-minute courtesy interview. Wayne Rosing, what a prick.
The Day the Future CEO of Google Kept his Teeth
In 1993, the year my wife’s business failed & took our life savings with it, Sun gave me the option of moving to California or getting laid off. Since I was unable to find another job in Massachusetts, my wife & I opted to move. While we were in California our son, who had been disabled & frequently ill since birth, nearly died. Emergency brain surgery at 5 AM at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital saved his life, but it was touch-and-go for a while there, and after that surgery his problems with seizures began in earnest. Then, six months after moving me to California, Sun laid me off and we decided to move back to Massachusetts.
The only savings we had, $22,000, were tied up in my 401K. So under the rules then in place, I had to make a request to the “401k fiduciary officer” for a “hardship withdrawal” to get my money. I assumed this would be pretty pro-forma. After all, I had been laid off, I had a very sick child, two other children, and no other money. I needed that 401K $$ to move us back east and get established (we were renting a house in California — had used the equity in the house we sold in Massachusetts to pay down our debts. . .). So who should turn out to be that fiduciary officer but one Eric Schmidt, Vice President of this and that at Sun Microsystems at that time.
I knew Eric, but not well. We had worked on a few projects together, with him being a few steps higher up the food chain than I was. So I sent him an email explaining my situation, then got on his calendar for a meeting. At the appointed time I go into his office & again relate my tale of woe, telling him how I really really need to touch this money of mine, now that Sun has kicked me in the nuts after first moving me across the country. I’m expecting Eric to grab his pen and sign whatever form he has to sign.
Instead, this smug little prick starts telling me how he understands moneyworry because he’s building a house and contractors keep going over budget. I swear to God this is a true story. That bastard was in very early at Sun and was, as he sat there, worth tens of millions of dollars. And I’m sitting there with no job, no money, and a child that I don’t know from one day to the next whether he’s going to live or die, and all I want is for Eric to sign the damn form so I can get my own damn money so that we can move back home to Massachusetts. So Eric tells me that while he is sympathetic to my plight, he has his fiduciary responsibilities to consider, so I’ll have to come back tomorrow to hear his decision after he’s had time to think the matter over.
I swear to Christ I nearly reached over his desk and clocked him (I was in my maximal weight-lifting phase at that time. Probably would have broken his jaw.). But I groveled my way out of there like a good little peon, and the next day I went back, and his exalted highness Herr Docktor Scmidt munificently granted me permission to get my own goddamned money. I swear, I may clock him yet if I ever seem him again. Eric Schmidt; what a prick. (Figures he’s a Nantuckter in his spare time. . . )
McNealy and his Mea Culpa
Sun Microsystems was pretty much willed into existence and prominence by Scott McNealy, a child of privilege who nevertheless had some admirably working-class ways. Scott was a driven and charismatic leader and he instilled in people (including me) a sense that we were going to turn the computer industry on its ear, get rich, and have fun doing it. I never did get rich at Sun, but for a few years there I was very nicely compensated. We did turn the computer industry on its ear, and we did have a lot of fun. (Moreover, Sun did make a lot of people rich. For various reasons, I wasn’t one of them.)
I had a few meetings with Scott McNealy during my tenure at Sun; in fact I had two 1-on-1 meetings with him under his “open door” policy. In our first meeting I told him not to cancel the Intel-based Sun386i line (which he did cancel, oh well; I still think my advice was good); I can’t remember what my agenda was during our second chat.
Anyway, McNealy’s & my politics and personalities are pretty dissimilar, but I liked the guy & I respect what he built in Sun. And certainly from McNealy I never got any of that vomitable noblesse oblige condescension that I got from Rosing and Schmidt. Scott was a good listener and treated what I had to say with respect. So good for you Scott; you’re alright.
I wrote him a couple of times offering him a copy of Acts of the Apostles when it came out, but I never heard back from him. I don’t suppose he would have liked some of the undercurrents in the book; after all, no less a deep thinker than Eric Raymond said my book was “immoral and deeply ugly” because of the skeptical light in which it puts the notions of capitalism and progress.
Scott is what our friend Harold Feld would call a “magical gods of the marketplace” fetishist but he’s also open-minded about lots of things, so I don’t know if he would be offended by Acts or not.
Scott, if you’re reading this & would like a copy of my book(s), shoot me an email!
In any event, I’m on a mailing list populated by colleagues from my Sun days, many of whom are on Sun’s payroll still, and they sent around Scott’s farewell email, which I include below. They’re calling it’s Scott’s mea culpa, and are dissecting it with great gusto, much as in that scene in the Alexandria Quartet in which a bunch of people butcher a camel that’s still alive (“this just in from Scott, on his way to the bank”). I’m not going to do that–my Sun days are long behind me & I’ve spent enough time on this blog post already. But here it is, just for the record. I don’t suppose I’m violating any privacy in sending this along to you, inasmuch as Scott sent it out to tens of thousands of people earlier today.
McNealy’s farewell to the troops:
When I interviewed many of you for employment at Sun over the years, one
commitment often made was that things will change above, below, and around
you faster than any place you have ever been. Looks like this was one area
we exceeded plan for 28 years. While it was never the primary vision to be
acquired by Oracle, it was always an interesting option. And this huge event
is upon us now. Let’s all embrace it with all of the enthusiasm and class
and talent that we have to offer.
This combination has the potential to put Sun, its people, and its
technology at the center of yet another industry and game changing
inflection point. The opportunity is well documented and articulated by
Larry and the Oracle folks. Not much I can add on this score. This is a very
powerful merger. And way better than some of the alternatives we were
So what do I say to all of you now this is happening?
It turns out that one simple message to the large and diverse Sun community
is actually quite hard to craft. Even for a big mouth who is always ready
with a clever quip. The community includes our resellers and customers, our
current and former employees, their friends and families who supported our
employees on their mission to change the industry, our investors, our supply
and service partners, students and educators, and even our competitors with
whom we often collaborated.
But let me try. Though nothing I could write comes close to matching the
unbelievably strong and positive emotions I have for you all. See, I never
was able to master dispassion. I truly loved starting, running, and living
Sun. And the last four years have not been without serious withdrawal. And
the EU approval rocked me more than it should have.
So, to be honest, this is not a note this founder wants to write. Sun in my
mind should have been the great and surviving consolidator. But I love the
market economy and capitalism more than I love my company. And I sure “hope”
America regains its love affair with capitalism. And except for the auto
industry, financial industry, health care, and some other places (I
digress), the invisible hand is doing its thing quite efficiently. So I am
more than willing to accept this outcome. And my hat is off to one of the
greatest capitalists I have ever met, Larry Ellison. He will do well with
the assets that Sun brings to Oracle.
What we did right and wrong at Sun over the years might make for interesting
reading. However, I am not a book writer. I am a husband, father of four,
and a builder and leader of people who want to make a difference.
But spare me a bit of nostalgia. Not of the mistakes we made, and lord knows
I made a ton. But of the things we did right and well.
First and foremost, Sun innovated like crazy. We took it to the limit (see
Eagles). And though we did not monetize our inventions as well as we could
have, few companies have the track record in R&D that we had over the last
28 years. This made working at Sun really cool. Thanks to all of you
inventors and risk takers who changed how we live.
Sun cared about its customers. Even more than we cared about our own company
at times. We looked at our customer’s mission as more important than ours.
Maybe we should have asked for more revenue in return, but our employees
were always ready to help first. I love this about Sun which I guess makes
me a good capitalist if not a great capitalist.
Sun did not cheat, lie, or break the rule of law or decency. While we
enjoyed breaking the rules of conventional wisdom and archaic business
practice and for sure loved to win in the market, we did so with a solid
reputation for integrity. Nearly three decades of competing without a
notable incident of our folks going off course morally or legally. Not all
executives and big companies are bad. Really. There are good companies out
there. Special thanks to all of my employees for this. I never had to hide
the newspaper in shame from my children.
Sun was a financial success. We paid billions in taxes, salaries, purchases,
leases, training, and even lawyers and accountants for devastatingly
cumbersome SOX and legal compliance (oops, more classic digression). Long
term and smart investors made billions in SUNW. And our customers generated
revenue and savings using our equipment in countless ways. Many employees
started families, bought homes and put them through school while working at
Sun. Our revenues over 28 years exceeded $200B. Few companies make it to the
F200. We did. Nice.
Sun employees had way more fun than any other company. By far. From our
dress code (“You must!”) to beer busts to our April Fools pranks to SunRise
to our quiet enjoyment at night of a long hard well done day of work, no
company enjoyed “work” more than Sun. Thanks to all of our employees past
and present for making Sun such a blast.
I could go on for a long time reminiscing about the good and great stuff we
did at Sun, but just allow me one last one. We shared. Not the greatest
attribute for a capitalist. But one I could not change and was not willing
to change about Sun while I was in charge. We shared in the success of Sun
with our resellers. With our employees through stock options, SunShare, beer
busts, and the like (for as long as Congress would allow) and through our
efforts to keep as many of them on board for as long as possible during the
inevitable down cycles. With our partners through the Java Community
Process, through our open source collaborations, and licensing strategies.
With our customers through our commitments to low barriers to exit. Sun was
never just about us. It was about we. And that may be a bit of the reason we
are where we are today.
But I have few regrets (see Sinatra’s “My Way”) and will always look back at
Sun and its gang with only pride. Enormous pride. You are the best this
industry ever had though few outside of Sun recognized it. And what we are
about will live on in Sparc, Solaris, Java, our products, and our spirit.
Well past everyone’s recollections of what we did together. I will never
Oracle is getting a crown jewel of the technology industry. They will do
great things with Sun. Do your best to support them and keep the Sun spirit
alive and well in the industry. Our children will be better for it.
Thanks for the off the charts support to everyone who ever carried a Sun
badge, used our products, or helped our company through the years.
And thanks to my wonderful wife, Susan, who gave this desperado (see Eagles)
a chance to choose the Queen of Hearts before it was too late. Someday,
hopefully, you will all get to see or meet her and my other life’s works
named Maverick, Dakota, Colt and Scout. If you do, perhaps you will
understand why I stepped back from the CEO role four years ago. And why I
feel like the luckiest guy in the whole world.
My best to all of you, and remember:
Kick butt and have fun!