Saturday, December 8, 2018

Life in the Boy's Dorm: My Career at Sun Microsystems Part 2

When I began at Sun it was booking about $1million in revenue per month. When I left it was booking about $1million in revenue every 90 minutes.

My first day at Sun there were 400 employees already there. My badge number was 586, so a few folks apparently had joined, thought better of it, and left. I get that...Sun was not for the faint-of-heart.

Until I joined Sun, I always felt I was the smartest person in any room I was in (I know it is arrogant, but I have to be honest). I went to Sun Microsystems and that delusion was rapidly shattered. Not feeling like the smartest person in every conversation took some getting used to...but I found it to be both depressing and... thrilling. Sun was the Olympic Training Ground of Smart. You had to be the smartest person in every room you were ever in prior to joining Sun, in order to join Sun. It could take some adjusting for new employees; they would join knowing that in their past lives they were the "A" players; now, at Sun, they were "C's". But, like the Olympic teams once you made the team, even if you were not a medalist, you were part of the team; part of Sun. So, those of us who were not medalists rooted for our Gold, Silver and Bronze earning engineers ( Joy, Bechtelshiem, Gosling, Feiber, Gage, Lee) and following the lead of the brilliant Scooter McNealy, we formed not a cult of personality around our CEO as Apple and Oracle did, but a culture of brilliance. A culture led by a bunch of guys who never wore socks or deodorant.

We worshipped engineers at Sun. We worshipped nerds and geeks long before "The Big Bang Theory" made it cool. Most of these guys did not have any social skills (Bechtolsheim is German...he has lovely manners, so he is a bit of an anomaly) but we knew they were changing our society. When you hired an engineer at Sun you were very aware that you would ultimately be the beneficiary or the victim of whatever he/she invented.

All I ever really understood about what the engineers did at Sun was this: they bent the laws of physics, they shrunk time, they sped up the world in a way that had never been done before; they connected one universe to another in a way that no one had thought of before. I always assumed that if Einstein had had a Sun Workstation, we would have time-travel. I really believed that those engineers could, if they put their minds to it, invent anything....anything. My years at Sun always felt like I was camping-out in Thomas Edison's back-yard. You just never know what would greet you in the morning.

And, those engineers were not the humorless, OCD, Ausbergers syndrome plagued, literal thinking guys you see in the movies. Our engineering team had wit. It was the engineers who assembled a VW Bug in Eric Schmidt's office, floated Eric's office in a pond (with working phone and Internet). floated Bill Joy's Ferrari in a pond, put a water trap in Scooter's office and ran a 40-foot arrow through the building ("all-the-wood-behind-one-arrowhead" was Scooter's favorite phrase at the time).

Of course they could be true pains-in-the-ass, too. My first year at Sun one of the young marketing wonks came to me to complain that he always had to drive when he was with some of his colleagues and their boss, so they could get high. "Pardon me?" I said. "Did you say, get high?" "Yes!" he continued and plaintively asked me to help him figure out a way to not always be the designated driver as one of our senior directors and a bunch of marketing folks toked up on the way to lunch, the airport, the building across the parking lot or...wait for it....a customer visit!

I approached my new boss (yes another new boss), David Leitzke, with this issue and his advice was to discuss it with Carol Bartz...she was the VP of Marketing at the time and the boss of the director who was bringing the dope to the party. Carol was stunned when I told her what was happening. She called the director into her office and confronted her. The director fessed up...a very courageous thing....and then the two of them cried for awhile. I went back to my office and Carol came down to tell me she had sent the director home for a few days while we tried to figure out what to do. This was 1985. There was not the push for "zero-tolerance" that came a bit later. So, Carol, David and I worked out a plan for the director...she was to go to a substance-abuse training program, she would not be eligible for her bonus that year and there would be no promotion to VP, ever. She accepted it and stayed home for a few days. Problem mostly solved. Now we had to let the other partakers know that the "party" was over. I was assigned the task of speaking with each of them and telling them that this was a warning, because the behavior had been led by their boss, they would not be in any trouble, unless it happened again. It seemed pretty fair to me.

Apparently, I was wrong. The next morning 15 or so software engineers lined up outside my office and announced that they were going to sit there and smoke pot all day if anyone got into trouble over the episode. Now, here's the thing, none of the guys outside my office were part of the problem. They had not been part of the original group. I had not spoken to any them. They didn't even like the marketing director who was in trouble. But, they hated the hand of authority more. They had heard through the grapevine that someone was in trouble for smoking pot at work and that was it...a cannabis scented sit in outside my office! Now it was my turn to cry. I was now the "personnel police", something I have worked my whole career not to be. I called David, and he called Carol, they called Crawford Beveridge and Bernie LaCroute and we all ended up in a big conference room with the software guys. In the end ,after a long discussion, the engineers agreed that smoking dope before visiting a customer was not cool. They had misunderstood and thought we were punishing folks for getting high at lunch. That they would not tolerate. So they went back to work, I went back to work, the director went to anti-pot-smoking-school and life went back to normal.

And then George Bush, as the Vice President of the United States, decided to visit Sun.

I was assigned to work with George Grove the facilities director to get ready for Bush to tour the Sun Manufacturing building. It was a stressful time. The Secret Service was all over the place. We had to do background checks on all employees in that building. On the first pass 75 of the 200 or so employees fell out of the background check and had to be told to stay home that day. Including the VP of Operations. So, there was a level of complexity to this visit that we were not really equipped to handle. And then, Crawford Beveridge called me to his office. A group of software engineers had decided to protest Bush's visit to Sun and the use of advanced technology in warfare. Ok, these guys were all Good-Will-Hunting-Wicked-Smart, but they apparently had not realized that most of our revenue came from selling workstations to the three-lettered-agencies of the US government. Who did they think was buying that stuff?

Crawford decided he had to accommodate them. We discussed it with George Grove (former Navy Officer) and the Secret Service. We could set up a roped off area for the engineers to stage their protest, but it had to be 100 yards from the front door of the building. We could all live with that. "Oh, one more thing", the Secret Service guy says as we are about to leave Crawford's office, "I will need to put snipers on the roof of the building across the street, aimed at your engineers." We all stood there silently, I think I actually heard Crawford gulp. "Snipers?" "Yes, otherwise, no visit." So, let's review, the Vice President is coming to visit, almost half the employees from manufacturing cannot come to work that day cause they did something in their youth to make the FBI mad at them, another 200 or so will be protesting this visit and we are going to have military sharpshooters ready to take them out if they cross a line 100 yards from the building. Yep. Crawford said, "Ok".

The lead story that night on the news was not the PR event we had hoped for showing off Sun as the pinnacle of "trickle-down-economics". No, the news led with a shot of 200 scruffy software engineers protesting Reagan, Bush and technology use in warfare at Sun Microsystems, making Sun look like the least gracious and most cool place to work in Silicon Valley. And, if you knew what you were looking for you could just glimpse the rifle barrel over the roof across the street aimed at our brain-trust .

Good times. More tomorrow.


  1. I have really enjoyed reading these stories, thanks for sharing. I came to Sun as a training course developer for system admin courses. I found that attitude extended far past engineering with all the people that I dealt with. I tried to give my perspective as someone who had maintained Sun servers in the field for 10 years, and they weren't buying it. They knew more than me you know...

  2. The pot heads were all software guys. Really.

  3. I was an area level SE on the East Coast and we often helped out with SunFederal accounts.
    I got a request to ask if Sun had a drug policy because this was soon going to be requirement to sell into the government.
    Several of us were digging into this. And we finally got an answer: Scott had been told that there were tales of drug use in the technical support group (talking to customers!). He went over and met with the engineers.
    When asked if there would be a drug policy at the next board meeting, Scott said that he had looked into it and Sun would have a drug policy - as soon as he could figure out whether drugs were required or not.

  4. Hehe. I still get uncomfortable chuckles when I mention the "work-free drugplace policy."

  5. (@Sun '86 - '95, Mountain View almost the whole time.) Great stories, well written, thanks!

    I think it was Bill Joy's Ferrari in the pond.

    That part about being surrounded by smarter folks ... it's like deja vu at Google, complete with Eric in charge. Lots of Sun émigrés there.

  6. Definitely Bill Joy's car. A very panicked Bill Joy.

  7. I cannot imagine a very panicked Bill Joy. Nope, just cannot picture it.