Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Life in the Boy's Dorm: My Career at Sun Microsystems Part 3

It has long been my theory that in the early days, Sun Microsystems was held together by stock options and sexual tension.

24 years ago, a woman we will call Judi came to my office to complain about a coworker. It seems one of our accountants was being very aggressive in pursuit of a date. She did not feel she was being harassed, but she was not interested. It struck me as odd that she and the bean-counter had ever even crossed paths. She was a technician in manufacturing in Milpitas and he supported Sales in Mt View. When I asked her about this, Judi replied, casually, "Oh, we haven't really met, but I went skinny dipping with him and a bunch of the folks from sales in the Hyatt Rickey's hotel pool at the last company party. And we fooled around a little bit." My expression must have communicated my thoughts, because Judi rushed on to say, "Please, it was the product launch and we were celebrating....I would NEVER date anyone at work!" So, getting naked and "fooling around a little bit" with coworkers is OK, but dating is out. "Before that party, I had not had a date in four months," Judi later told me. "I had been working 75 hour weeks! So, we go to this party and things happen. But I do not want to date him, so can you make him go away?" The accountant was astonished and crushed. Silly boy, he had misread the situation. Seems in his last company, if a woman stripped off her clothes and kissed you in a hotel pool it was a sign of some sort of interest. Not at Sun. At Sun it was just a way of saying, "Hey! We launched SPARC!"

One Sunday afternoon in the late '80s, I decided to get a head start on the week and went to my office in Milpitas to do some work. I entered the building at the back and passed through the manufacturing floor on my way to the office space. As I entered the offices I passed by a darkened conference room where I noticed movement. I backed up and saw the VP of Finance for Operations and a young woman from the materials organization standing in the back corner; she was peeking out from behind him. They were standing very close together. I moved on to my desk.

A couple of minutes later, the VP of Finance came to my desk. "Hey!" he started talking at a break-neck pace, sounding a lot like a panicked Brian from Family Guy, "Getting a running start at the week? Great. That's great! I just came in to, um, go over some materials numbers with the team there. She, I mean they, wanted some help with some numbers." I just stood there looking at this married man with children who, apparently, thought I was an idiot. "Yeah, we cleared up their number issues....oh, and you might have noticed me and Betty in the conference room just now. We had just turned the lights out, and were just standing their talking about numbers when you saw us. She, was confused about the numbers and so, we were just talking about numbers in the dark conference room when you went by." You know, I might have bought it...maybe, if it hadn't been for the fact that the entire time he was going through this monologue, his shirt-tail was sticking out of his fly.

Another senior finance guy (what is it with finance?) used to park his car under the trees in the far corner of our Pal 1 office parking lot...next to the KFC. It seemed odd to me that he would park virtually a full city-block away from the building, but I thought he was just a healthy guy who liked to walk a bit. Then one day, one of his colleagues jokingly suggested I keep an eye on the car at lunch time. I had no idea what he was talking about and I was not about to stand around spying on this guy's car. Do I look like Gladys Kravitz? Not much time passed though until the finance guy's boss told me that he had to figure out a way to tell this guy to stop having sex in his car at lunch. What was to figure out? I suggested he say "Stop it!" and that seemed to work.

Our CEO was single-and-ready-to-mingle for most of my career at Sun. Crawford Beveridge carried most of the water keeping Scott out of trouble in those days. But I would get the odd assignment related to Scott's sex-life. At several of the annual VP/Directors conferences I was asked to keep and eye on Scott's date. Sometimes it was to assure his date did not get bored or feel left out, sometimes it was to be sure she didn't steal the silver from the hotel. On one occasion, Scott brought a woman to this event that he had met on a plane the night before. That wouldn't be such a big deal except the rumor is that on the second night of the festivities, she had only known Scott for 36 hours, hadn't really seen him much, and could not remember exactly what he looked like....she ended up in some other guys room and only figured out it wasn't Scooter when she realized it wasn't the CEO's suite.

We watched out for Scott. At the launch party for the opening of the new plant in Scotland, when it looked like he was getting too cozy with one of the young woman who worked there, I was assigned to go get his sweater back from her (she was acting like it was an emerald cut set with baguettes), load him in a taxi and deliver him back to the hotel. Scott wasn't drunk or foolish...he was just a 35 year old single guy having a good time.

There is a rumor that at one of the Sales boondoggles in Florida, one of the female sales reps, who'd been to the beach that morning, inadvertently dropped her bra out of a rolled-up towel as she got on the plane. Scott found it and, according to Sun-lore, walked up and down the aisle of the plane with the bra claiming that like Prince Charming with the glass slipper, he would marry whomever the bra fit. He had no takers.

Another time, when Crawford was on vacation, I got a call from Japan. Scott had been out with the sales team there and it seemed as though the female sales administrator might have misinterpreted Scott's attention to her. I think she was arranging for him to meet her parents. Could I figure out a way to head this off? This was my first introduction to the real meaning of "high-context culture". I called a couple of my Japanese-American colleagues, all men it turned out, who, after they laughed their butts off for a while, told me they couldn't help. But as they were leaving my office, one of them suggested his Japanese mother might be able to help me. So, my colleague and his mom got on the phone with me and we called the young woman in the sales office in Japan. I ultimately sent flowers to both the woman in Japan and the Japanese mother in the USA and said a small prayer for our CEO.

I have enormous respect and affection for Carol Bartz, but her love life was the bane of the HR existence at Sun. During my tenure she was married to two sales guys (at different times, we were not that Libertarian). This caused organizational issues up the wazoo. She couldn't be married to anyone who was in her organization and she was running more and more of Sun as time went on, so options were getting limited. Her second husband came to work in Operations, but as Carol's career progressed, it looked like he was going to end up serving lunch in the cafeteria in order to stay clear of reporting to her.

I do not know how many love affairs, engagements and marriages occurred between co-workers over the years. It was just too hard to keep the players straight. It was a sexy place, filled with young, smart, passionate people. It was work to not to fall in love with your colleagues. I had, on average, one serious crush per year, and I remain in love with some of those men in my own Irish-Catholic-chaste way.

There were two women who claimed they had "bagged" all 4 founders. I have no idea if it was true.


  1. As employee #146, and the seventh person (and only woman at the time) hired to do technical phone support, I've got lots of stories of my own! Really enjoyed reading this blog!
    Nancy Bentley

  2. Nancy: Great stories. Maybe you should start a Google Wave and get all of us to colaborate on our stories from the early days? Just think of the stories we sales types could add about Joe Roebuck, Shaun McConnon, etc. They were fantastic days. Really glad and lucky to have been there. I was there from '85 to '95 and my employee number was around 1120 I think. Ed (www.linkedin.com/edcallahansprofile)

  3. Nancy, You violated the number one rule of field sales "What Happens in the field, stays in the field" Therefore, I can't remember Scott ever drinking beer whilst traveling....right?

    He did NOT dance on the tables at Octberfest, he did NOT dance on the piano (brand new) at the sales meeting in Palm Spings.

    I remember him offering me a grape nehi right before we both passed out at Billy Bobs at the Texas sales kick off meeting.....honest!

    Love the stories, so many happy memories working with all these guys.

    Roy Thiele-Sardina

  4. I think you meant "libertine," not "libertarian."

  5. Great memories! I'm afraid I resemble a few of these stories. And Nancy, it wasn't me.... I only "bagged" two of them back then. (-: Sara Tietz

  6. Sara! How fun to hear from you....I have thought of you so often over the years....and not just in reference to this topic. Only two? Really? I thought you were a bit more "accomplished" than that! ;-)