Thoughts on the impending demise of Sun Microsystems: part one: the Death Coffee Brick

News Item: IBM withdraws offer to buy Sun Microsystems; Sun’s fate unknown.

When I joined the “East Coast Division” of Sun Microsystems in January, 1986, Sun was a swaggering three-year-old enfant terrible based in Mountain View (Silicon Valley) California, and the East Coast Division, located in Lexington, Massachusetts had about fifteen people in it. Within two years Sun was a worldwide powerhouse with a new subsidiary company opening once a week (or so it seemed), and the East Coast division had about 250 people, 30 of whom reported to me. We moved to a larger facility in Billerica, MA, were we designed and manufactured a whole new line of Sun computers. We were like a mini-startup within Sun itself, with a classic start-up feel–hardcore geek shit.

Starting about 1988 or so, we had a coffee club in Billerica. Sun provided free coffee, which sucked, but some coffee lovers got together and provided alternative good stuff at $.25/cup or so.

Mostly this was Peets coffee, which Martin Hardee, a guy in my group, brought back from the west coast on his occasional forays. This was back in the old days, when finding anything better than Dunkin Donuts coffee on the east coast was a real challenge.

One day some poor fellow who was not a caffeine junky drank the Peets when he thought he was drinking the Sun-provided crap and got palpitations.

So, Martin got a brick, a regular old red brick, and got out his acrylic paint set and decorated it with the words


And thereafter, whenever you made a pot of the good stuff, you put the deathcoffee brick in front of the pot.

Sun moved from Billerica to Chelmsford in 1992 or so, then laid off or moved most of the employees (including me) to California (where I was laid off in 1994). And then, after having laid off or transferred so many of us, they turned around and built a great big new facility, “Sun Quentin (East)”, in Burlington MA, and began hiring like crazy. By that time I had dropped out of high tech (for good, I erroneously thought).

When I visited Sun/Burlington Campus in December, 2000, to sell my famous Sun-based novel in the lobby, the “startup” feeling was totally gone. It was 14 years since I had joined the company, 6 since I had left it, and it was a completely alien place. There were no longer stations where you could get free coffee; instead there was a fancy outside-vendor concession where you could get a cup for $2.00. The whole complex felt like a shopping mall, or perhaps an alien space ship. Remarkably enough, there were a few of the old Billerica people still working there. Abductees?

A few months later I gave in to the inevitable and went back to high tech, taking a job as manager of Information Architecture at Curl, in Cambridge, MA. And then two years later, I got laid off from that gig.

One day in 2003 I’m visiting my friend Ellen Hays, formerly a writer on my staff at Curl, at her house in Arlington, MA. On my way to her kitchen, I notice, on the floor, that there is something propping open the door to the laundry room.


I pick it up.

“Where’d you get this?”

“Oh, I forget where that came from. Got it years ago. And no, I have no idea what those words mean.”

Ellen, it should be noted, never worked at Sun.

Somehow this little story was supposed to have something to do with the Sun/IBM thread, but I’m no longer sure what my point was going to be.

Stay tuned, as somebody else once said around here. . .


  1. watch this space

  2. “ Remarkably enough, there were a few of the old Billerica people still working there. Abductees?”

    Me an abductee? I resemble that!

  3. Well, Geoff, if you actually *were* abducted by aliens, that *would* explain a few things, dontcha think?

  4. I will admit I did enjoy that year in California, but it never felt like home. The best part was meeting Dr. Jack Remmington, “the authority” on Toxoplasmosis.

  5. Do you think that IBM made the overtures with the intention of pulling out later — just to poison the environment for their weaker competitor?

  6. Stearns:

    I’m on a mailing list with with lots of my old pals from Sun, several of whom still work there. Over the last few weeks I’ve seen all kinds of rumors to this and similar effects & also rumors of Cisco being in the mix, and of a strong difference of opinion between various factions on the board, with McNealy wanting to do a buyout or some such. I have no way to judge any of these rumors; they’re all way way way out of my area of competence.

    What I can comment on is how Sun’s demise is bringing up all kinds of memories, which I’ll blog about, if I get around to it, over the next few days & weeks.

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