Original URL: https://www.theregister.com/2006/01/12/sun_founders/

Sun founders confess all during walk down workstation lane

Future is either bright or executable

By Ashlee Vance

Posted in Systems, 12th January 2006 23:13 GMT

Into the Valley Put Scott McNealy and Bill Joy on stage together, and you're already in trouble. Add Andy Bechtolsheim and Vinod Khosla, and you move from trouble to pure information overload.

The Computer History Museum last night played host to this foursome that founded Sun Microsystems. There was so much personality - and dare we say it, ego - in the room that it was hard to take it all in. These four men have become Silicon Valley legends, and a standing room-only crowd arrived to consume their stories.

On an individual basis, each founder tends to dominate these types of public events. Together it was a battle to outwit, out humor and out compliment each other. The voluminous comments and breadth of the more than two-hour discussion about Sun's history make it difficult to know where to begin.

That said, we're going to head straight for the middle of the shindig and hit first on McNealy's comments about Bill Joy – a man already well-known before joining Sun for his work on Berkeley Unix.

Happy, happy. Joy, joy

McNealy often praises Bill Joy for pioneering much of the open source and community software development model. And last night was no different.

"He has never gotten credit for it," McNealy said.

Joy invented the open process for doing community development software work and pioneered some of the open licensing arrangements, McNealy said. This attitude dominated Sun's early days, as the company shocked competitors by opening up much of its IP.

McNealy is right on this point given that Joy's name is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Stallman, Torvalds or the Apache crew. Hell, Tim O'Reilly receives more credit as an open source pioneer than Joy, and that's just plain embarrassing. So, for the record, let's give Joy his due.

Joy, of course, was the last piece of the Sun foursome to be locked in as a founder. The other three Standord guys had been hunting down a Unix guru for months in the hopes running the operating system on Bechtolsheim's amazing workstation design. They interviewed one Unix type after another but just could not find the right personality, McNealy recounted. Then, one of the rejects suggested this guy named Bill Joy.

"Andy went, 'Yeah, I know Bill'" McNealy said, rolling his eyes.

The four Sun founders in the early daysThe Sun founders called Joy and tried to set up a meeting. Joy didn't pay much attention to McNealy or Khosla – as they tell it – and said that sending Bechtolsheim on his own would be fine. In anticipation of Bechtolsheim's visit, Joy tried to think up a way to impress or at least amuse the hardware guru.

"I had a room with six VAX (machines)," Joy said. "It looked like a computer center, but they were my machines. I took (Andy) in the machine room and walked over to one of the microcomputers and just turned it off and pulled the board out and said, 'Look at this.'

"That was our way of bonding."

Having talent like Joy and Bechtolsheim on board made recruiting and sales easy in the early days.

"As soon as Bill Joy joined, we started getting calls from all over the world," McNealy said. "You remember that one guy? He said, 'Is Bill on board? We want two of whatever you've got.'"

Just a few months into operations, Sun's sales lines would light up five at a time with McNealy fielding the calls. The queries would die down at around six in the evening and then McNealy would head back to build machines and write purchase orders. Bechtolsheim's workstation design - that was similar to other products on the market "but one tenth the price" - let Sun thrive from the beginning.

All grown up with somewhere to go

The founders more or less jumped from Sun's early days right to the end with Gage and some audience participants asking for a current assessment of the company. We've never seen this happen before, but McNealy actually turned red a couple of times. Perhaps it was just the warm lights.

Joy and Khosla – the two ex-Sun staff – think the company is heading in the right direction, especially with the return of Bechtolsheim.

"I think (openness) is the theme we had in the beginning, and you're seeing it come around again," Joy said. "I think also Andy returning to the company and building some of the incredible designs.

"You put those two things together, and it gives me a lot of hope."

"It is really a matter of execution," Khosla said.

McNealy tossed out the usual lines about Sun having plenty of money in the bank and consistently generating cash.

"We made some mistakes during the bubble, but we also put some cash in the bank," he said.

In addition, McNealy rightly noted that much of the remaining innovation in the hardware market centers on just two companies – IBM and Sun. No other companies will commit to making their own chips, operating system and server software.

"It has really gotten to be us and IBM as the only companies doing R and D," he said.

McNealy then went on to knock HP, saying that there's a point at which a firm that OEMs all its car parts has to give up calling itself a car company and switch to being called a car dealer.

Out of the solar system

Away from Sun chat, the executives presented their thoughts on a number of issues.

McNealy on outsourcing:

"I don’t know who is driving the fear that if someone (overseas) goes to work I will lose a job here. It just isn't true.

The only thing you should fear is that these developing countries don't develop. That is what breeds the ignorance, the terrorists and all the rest of it."

And on H1-B visas:

"We are just torching ourselves by not letting all the really smart people into the Valley. We shouldn't let them in unless they agree to stay for 10 years after they get their degree."

Turing to Bechtolsheim, McNealy said, "How many billions of dollars of taxes have you paid? You are hardly a burden on our society."

And what session would be complete without Joy discussing the future of man or at least man's privacy.

"Scott is right that technology and privacy are on collision courses. . . Technology makes (surveillance and tracking) cheap."

"The tip toward the public space being made less private . . . is one that's hard to fight. It kind of has Moore's Law on its side. We have to hold onto what we want with the law, but technology doesn't make that easy."

One of the more hilarious moments came as McNealy described a lecture Joy once gave in Japan. The audience was writing down every utterance from Joy, paying painfully close attention to the icon. As Joy moved across a whiteboard, he would change the color of his chalk from time-to-time without noticing.

"It looked like a rainbow," McNealy said. "And on (Joy's) way out, he said, 'And the colors matter.'"

"They still haven't erased the board. I am convinced this is why (Japan) is no longer a threat in the computer industry."

Any of you hoping for a moment of clarity about starting a successful venture will find little help from the Sun founders.

"You are never completely without doubt," Khosla said. "You always have concerns and doubts. Those of you who are thinking about (starting a company) – you have to just jump in."

By contrast.

"I didn't have any doubts," Bechtolsheim said.

And when Bechtolsheim doesn’t have doubts, you should listen. He put the original money behind Sun, VMware and Google. He's got to be one of the top five investors of all time. Not bad for a hardware genius and founder of multi-billion dollar company.

Oh yeah, he's really humble and generous too. As it turns out, nice guys can do okay. ®