Today would have been the 25th anniversary of my hire date at Sun Microsystems: 6-7-89, easy to remember, and like an old friend’s birthday it is etched in my mind. The Friday before that, June 4th, was an amalgamation of weird: I drove my signed offer letter over to Peter Young at Sun, quickly picked up my wife and began driving south for my 5th Princeton Reunion. Listening to news radio in the car, the market close report informed me that “Sun Marcosystems CEO Scott MacNally pre-announced a quarterly loss for the computer manufacturer”. The radio announcer got the company and Scott’s name wrong, because Sun simply didn’t register. It was not the first, nor the last, “WTF??” look I got from my wonderful and supportive wife, and I received more than the usual ribbing at Reunions for joining a company that had so clearly nosed over. An internet, a Unix revolution, IBM turning into a services company, HP admitting they are a printer company, and Compaq, Apollo and DEC losing their identities in a Keith Richards-outlives-Michael Jackson way, it’s fair to say that I made a good choice.
More accurately: I made a life-changing choice, given a life-changing opportunity with life-changing co-workers.
Over the next 21 years, I truly did impossible things before breakfast: Building an off-NASDAQ clearing network (now part of Archipelago). Scripting and organizing the first Java Day (in NYC, where we expected 300 people and had over 2,000 with the NYC fire department clearing out the lobby) – thank you Rich and Maria for being crazy with me. Winning DEC’s first OEM based on strength of relationship, after delivering a patch tool via hard floppy disk, as an emergency favor to the then-CIO. Helping to build out mlb.com, which has reshaped my childhood passion for baseball. Designing parts of a pharmaceutical company’s regulatory system on a white board after being out at Foxwoods casino until 5:00am that morning. Rightsizing the Wall Street mid-office based on what we learned about telecommunications networks. Having the audacity to challenge Microsoft’s Passport with the Liberty Alliance, which deeply influenced SAML, one of today’s web authentication foundations. [Note: Ballmer called Liberty "ZPOM" (Zero Probability of Mattering), which I guess we can forgive historically after seeing him spend $2 billion on a basketball team.]
To put the last 25 years in perspective, I need to take a detour through some executive history.
Two weeks after my decision to sign that offer letter, I ran into Scott McNealy (from here on out: Scott, who like Madonna or Sting, only needs one name) at a company event in Billerica. We spoke briefly in the cafeteria line, because, well, Scott ate in the cafeteria with the engineers. He criticized an idea of mine, and he was right. But I was a 26 year old dork and he was the CEO of a billion dollar company. Think about it. A few years later, I misjudged the political climate at a customer, and a white paper (with my name on it) that challenged a trading floor design made its way to the C-suite of that customer, and the C-level executive called Scott looking for blood. Scott called our sales VP, calmed the customer down, and the sales VP and I went on a sales call that involved some berating, some observation, and a lot of humility on my part. It was the closest thing to a near-death experience I’ve had at work, and more than 20 years later, it resonates as the ultimate example of who Scott is and was as a leader, and what Sun’s culture was. We had each other’s backs, and we believed in the technical merits of what we did, even when they (inevitably) made people uncomfortable.
A few years after that, Scott and I were visiting a wickedly smart customer at a major Wall Street bank, and midway through a highly nerdy discussion of trading algorithms, availability, latency and bandwidth, we took a bathroom break. Scott looked at me in the men’s room and deadpanned “Glad I’m here to help out with the technical details.” That, too, is Scott, as was my final official Sun interaction with him: I was in SFO, arriving for probably my last visit to Menlo Park as a Sun employee, and ran into Scott in the concourse. He was wearing jeans, smiling, and asked me (unprompted) how my son’s hockey team was doing.
With the benefit of five years (almost) of hindsight, and two decades at Sun, I can proudly say that there were four grand truths that defined Sun’s culture and laid the railroad tracks (as we were driving the train along them) for our success:
1. Sun’s executives were accessible as peers. Not just visible to the employees and public, but right there with you, in arguments, discussions, design decisions, and meetings. There wasn’t a hierarchy; it was a flat network before that term was in vogue. I remember being in meetings with Ken Okin (at the time, VP of server engineering) and arguing over availability approaches, many of which are still in use today. The closest experience I can relate is that of sitting in a college professor’s office, reviewing a paper, and having her praise your work but also treat you like an academic peer. For a few minutes, you are a rock star in your domain. Get that every day for 20 years, and it’s the best feeling you will ever have. Dave Pensak, inventor of the internet firewall, likes to say that solving problems creates an endorphin rush; we all floated along on it despite the day to day injuries and pains. I believe this is one of the reasons Facebook is successful, and what makes me wonder about Apple today.
2. Sun’s employees were empowered and expected to bring the “A” game every day. Empowerment doesn’t mean freedom to whine; it means you’re free to solve problems. Scott used to say “I pay you to think, my job is to execute the solutions where you need my help.” In a nutshell, that was how we innovated – nothing was sacred, nothing was left unchallenged. Sometimes that empowerment was crap-your-pants scary. Peter Young challenged me to figure out “rightsizing” by presenting a technical strategy to a major bank. I had no idea what to do. He told me to figure it out, and we’d keep iterating on the strategy, while he insisted that I parachute into lower Manhattan once a week for six months. It was the best learning experience ever. You had to figure things out quickly, creatively, and aggressively, and when we won (and we won many times, against much larger and better-armed competitors) we celebrated in mildly insane ways.
3. Sun’s employees were the first social network. Around early 1995, I was looking for Chuck McManis to talk about NIS+ (needing to update the “Managing NFS & NIS” O’Reilly book) and while he was out, I ran into James Gosling. He invited me into his office to show me something called Oak, which was later renamed Java. It blew my mind – not just the technology and design, but the fact that Gosling was inviting me into his domain. Six months later we held the first Java Day in New York to plumb the developer market, and it exploded. If you have a high school student taking the Computer Science AP test (in Java) you’ve seen the results of that relationship and technical empowerment.
4. Sun had a healthy respect for left of center ideas. Maybe this was a reflection of Scott being called “the brash, young CEO” until he was pushing 40, or maybe it was Andy Bechtolsheim and Bill Joy channeling their “use what’s there and build on it” engineering approach, but Sun had an uncanny ability to create and celebrate our own rock stars. We didn’t always hire or recruit them; they happened, they flourished, they had a series of technology hit singles, and we changed culture in the large. Again, Dr. Dre as an Apple employee gives me pause.
My memories – along with my friends’ and co-workers’ – have become an oral narrative of how technology went social. In 1989, technology was a bunch of companies with Xy- or Advanced as prefixes; today technology modulates everything about the way in which we interact with others. Technology, and networking in particular, forms the mesh of our social fabric, all grown up from the strange hem on an artsy garment. “The Network Is The Computer” has never been more true, despite being very far left of center when first uttered by John Gage.
Sun Microsystems formed five consecutive college experiences for me, bracketed by my 5th and 25th college reunions. There is no other way to describe it. I was challenged, empowered, educated, thrilled, saddened (when we lost a competitive deal), mildly freaked out, all the while making friends, building connections and creating memories that will last the rest of my life, as strong and vivid and vibrant as any Princeton moment. My Sun co-workers were, and are, not just my professional associates or friends, they are now and forever my classmates. We share championships, glory, near-misses and fondly – and proudly – recollect times when the “common wisdom” crowd shook its head at us. We were the Cameron Crazies and the Coach K teams of the internet. It pains me to make a Duke reference, but the vernacular is appropriate.
As I was facing this anniversary, with a mixture of pride and sadness during the past week, I’ve been struggling with a framework in which to express it. What exactly are the plot mechanics? The “20 years of college” only seemed to fit once I saw this piece about Bill Watterson, the creator of “Calvin & Hobbes”, shared (of course) by a former Sun peer. Comics have been a part of my life since I was in the single digits; in high school Funky Winkerbean (thanks, Nick Santoro) told me it was acceptable to be a band nerd if you were self-deprecating and didn’t take money, the weather or anything else external too seriously. At sun, Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes strips dotted the walls and influenced secret project names, prefacing xkcd and Dilbert. We were all, in our dreams, Spaceman Spiff. Comics have always conveyed the subculture of bad-assery, as seen through the eyes of another single digit aged kid, even when the kid is an engineering adult. That is who we were, and are, and will be.
The maudlin sense comes from my friends who lament the passing of Sun Microsystems. Yes, Oracle bought Sun, and yes, it’s not the same company. I have found at least gentle humor and context for that change in thinking about how my favorite comics have run their course. Calvin and Hobbes rode their sled off the final strip, and Watterson effectively retired. Funky Winkerbean and friends suddenly grew up, in a time shift, and frankly and publicly played the 7-4 off-suit of life that artist Tom Batiuk dealt to his own characters. That’s what I’ve learned through the narrative of comics: your favorite self-identified characters grow up, prepared for whatever jocks-vs-nerds, existential fundraising scheme, or spaceman adventure awaits just over the hill.
Thank you to all of my Sun Microsystems managers, leaders, co-workers, and friends, for going up and over that hill with me. It was the best 21 years of college ever, with more championship rings, banners, and A+-with-garlands grades than we could have ever imagined. If you were there, you know where the Java championship rings are embedded in today’s technology, and you are much richer for the experience, even if we have to act a bit more adult now.