Business, Technology & Science

The Sun Sets

07.17.09 | 2 Comments

Sun Sets below the Pacific Horizon

Yesterday was the close to a very sad chapter in technology history with the shareholder vote of Sun Microsystems to be acquired by Oracle. From a shareholder perspective, this is perhaps the best outcome that was possible (the alternative being the Silicon Graphics descent into permanent penny-stock land shrinking each subsequent year.) For Sun customers, it’s probably neutral since most ran Oracle databases anyway and are already Oracle customers. For IBM and SAP, this is likely bad news since Oracle now controls Java and MySQL.

For those of you who do not know, I worked at Sun twice for a span of 9 years in total. In a very real way, I came of age inside the company and gained many of the skills that have become central and vital to my approach to business and track record of results. Sun was a very special place with great people, a winning attitude, can do spirit, and fantastic innovation. But in the end, the market shift from symmetrical multi-processor machines to cheap, commodity machines running Linux was too much for the company to overcome.

Unfortunately, many of the more recent lessons I take from Sun are negative lessons about what not to do in particular situations. I’ve also really taken a close look at the difference between activity and results. Something Sun, at least as recently as 2006, didn’t have a good handle on. And the relative value of vision, innovation, strategy, and execution. Sun never lacked the former three, but had difficulty on the later topic from about the year 2000 onward.

Here are a few of the lessons I truly value that I learned at Sun:

  • Act Now – Once you know something is right/wrong, act now, there is no reason good enough to hesitate (though you may be provided with 1,000 good reasons from others.)
  • Execution trumps Strategy – Given a choice between a killer strategy and a killer execution capability, take the ability to get things done. You may get the wrong things done from time to time, but at least there is a foundation to work from. Ideally, you have a mix between good strategy and execution, but I don’t see that terribly often.
  • All the Wood Behind One Arrowhead – This was a common McNealy-ism, but it’s really true and vital. You can’t have people pulling and different ways and expect a coherent and good outcome. What’s the prize? Define it and get everyone to go after it. In the early days of Sun, the company and it’s people excelled at this practice.
  • Be hard on the issue, be easy on the people – It’s all too easy to just be an asshole in the corporate world. It’s not necessary. Yes, we have to get business done, but that’s really the set of issues that we’re working on. The people, generally, are all trying to do the “right” thing. Coach, consult, help, but don’t kill the people. Resolve the issue. There is a difference and it really is the only thing that distinguishes smart people from one another, their ability to build and maintain sustainable productive relationships while handling horrible issues.

There are many more, but these are the lessons that come to mind. In the meantime, let’s have a moment of silence for Sun. It was a good ride, and now it’s over. I hope for a smooth transition into Oracle, that many get a chance to show their worth in the new world vs. simply join the ranks of the unemployed, and that some of the great ideas and technologies gain a second lease on life.

Meanwhile, it’s good to take the time to reflect and say thank you. Sun as a company was very good to me, provided fantastic opportunities for learning and growth, and recognized and rewarded my performance during my tenure there. More to the point, there were some really great people that I had the honor and privilege to work for and with, and I’m very grateful to that community for the way it embraced me and allowing me to participate and contribute. While I’m saddened by the passing of that era, I will always hold the company, community, and people in the highest esteem.