Archive for the ‘Sun’ Category

Bill Shannon (1955-2020)

I was saddened to hear news of Bill Shannon’s recent passing. He joined Sun very early, as employee number 11, soon after Sun’s founding in 1982. As far as I know, he was the earliest Sun employee remaining at Oracle. He was an engineering leader already by the time I joined Sun in 1986. I had the privilege of working with him — and sometimes against him — on several occasions.

Back in the day, people at Sun would refer to each other by their Unix logins. (I was “smarks”, and to some extent, I still am.) To this day I think of Bill simply as “shannon”. The other day I tweeted a few memorable quotes from shannon. Each of them is backed by a funny story, which I’ll relate here. If you ever heard Bill speak, please imagine these spoken in his imperious baritone.

Sometime in the 1990s, Sun’s internal network was organized into domains that corresponded to the overall functional area in which one worked. The engineering groups were under “eng.sun.com”, the corporate management was under “corp.sun.com”, and so forth. We had email addresses that were tied to the domain name, so I was smarks@eng.sun.com. At some point it as decided that everything would be reorganized into geographic domains. I worked in the San Francisco Bay Area region, so the old domains would be replaced with the sfbay.sun.com domain. An announcement went out that described this change, and it said something like,

Please inform all of your contacts that your new email address will be login@sfbay.sun.com instead of the old login@eng.sun.com. The eng.sun.com email addresses will stop working in 90 days.

I thought, this is ridiculous. I’ve handed out countless business cards that have my eng.sun.com email address on them, and I can’t track down everybody I’ve ever given a business card. I’ve written that email address on papers that have been published in conference proceedings, and those can’t be changed. I can’t be the only one with this problem, either. But, I thought naïvely, it should be pretty simple to set up an MX record (a DNS mail exchanger record) to handle email sent to addresses in the old eng.sun.com domain. I filed a ticket to request that, but it was summarily closed by the network administrators with some explanation like, “Mail forwarding is not possible.” Oh well, I guess I don’t know anything about running a corporate network with thousands of nodes, and I let it drop.

A couple days later, shannon sent mail to all of engineering, describing exactly the same problem I was concerned about. I replied to him, saying that I had requested an MX record be published, but the ticket had been closed. He said, “Yes, that’s what should be done. I’ll talk to the network administrators about it.”

A couple days later, he followed up with this:

    You're right, these people are idiots.

A project that shannon and I worked on together was a large joint development project with another company (which I won’t name, but whose initials are H.P.) Well, OtherCompany had a penchant of coming up with incredibly complex, fragile designs that tried to solve problems that didn’t really need solving.

In desktop systems, it’s pretty common to have a portion of a window that lets users edit text. This is usually implemented by a “text editor” widget provided by the windows tookit library, but created and managed by the application. Apparently this was unsatisfactory for OtherCompany, so they wanted to have a single, “daemon” process that managed all of the text editor widgets for every application on the desktop. At Sun we all thought this was a terrible idea, but OtherCompany wouldn’t let go of it.

At one point there was a conference call where shannon and and others at Sun had a review for this design with OtherCompany. It went something like this.

shannon: Now let me get this straight. Instead of each
application owning its own text widgets, all the text
editing functions are centralized into a single process?

OtherCompany: Yes.

shannon: And instead of each application process handling
keyboard events for its text widgets, those events will be
handled by this centralized daemon process?

OtherCompany: Yes.

shannon: So all the text data that the user has entered will
be in this daemon process, not in the application?

OtherCompany: Yes.

shannon: And if this other process crashes, what happens
to that data?

OtherCompany: (discussion) All the text data is lost.

shannon: And if this daemon process hangs, then what will
happen to the applications on the desktop?

OtherCompany: (discussion) They will all hang.

shannon: ...

OtherCompany: ...

shannon: Do you see anything wrong with this architecture?

Bill made a big impression on me early on, well before I actually met him. I joined Sun in 1986, as an impressionable young engineer fresh out of school. Fairly early on I heard about some guy “shannon” who was a bigwig in the Systems group. I was in a separate group, the Windows group, so we didn’t interact.

Some time soon after I joined, shannon sent an email to all of engineering, with a policy statement. (This was before I started to save email compulsively, otherwise I would have dug up the original.) As I recall, it went something like this:

This is a statement on the Systems Group's policy for code
that is checked into SunOS. The policy is:

    * All code must conform to the Sun C Style Guide

Non-conforming code that is posted for review will be
rejected until it does conform.

Non-conforming code that is checked into the source base
will be backed out and will not be permitted to be checked
in until it does conform.

If you do not understand this policy, I will come to your
office and explain it until you do.

This only applied to SunOS code, not Windows code, so it didn’t affect my day-to-day work. But as a young engineer I found it to be hair-raising! The lesson I took from this was, you do not want to cross shannon.

It’s a lesson that served me well over the years. 🙂

Like Bill, I stayed on at Sun all the way up until the 2010 acquisition by Oracle, and we stayed at Oracle until the present day. We didn’t work together too closely in recent years, though we both worked on Java – he worked on Java EE, and I worked on Java ME and Java SE. We were even in the same building on Sun’s (later Oracle’s) Santa Clara campus for several years. It’s amazing that he’s been around nearby for literally my entire career. It’s huge loss that he’s gone. Bye shannon, we’ll miss you.

Here are some links to other pages about Bill.

Read Full Post »

The Last Signs of Sun

It’s been a little over a year since Oracle took over Sun. However, the Sun signs outside the Santa Clara campus have languished the entire year, until now. Starting last week the Sun signs have been taken down, and they’re being replaced by Oracle signs. Finally.

Around the time of the takeover I was sure that the signs would be torn down immediately, so I went and took a bunch of pictures before anything happened to them. Here’s what a couple of the signs looked like originally. (Click any image for a larger view.)

I always thought the signs were pretty cool. They were even lit up at night. Uh-oh, looks like one had a light burned out that nobody bothered to replace.


I was surprised that nothing happened to the signs for a couple months after the takeover. Then, somebody probably realized that something should say “Oracle” and so had a white tarp with the Oracle logo on it placed over one of the signs. This was in April 2010.

Boy, that was ugly. I don’t have a picture, but you could still see the backlit Sun logo shining through the tarp at night. Fortunately it didn’t last long. I don’t think it was vandalized or anything. A flimsy tarp sitting outside in the sun and wind every day would never have lasted very long. It started to tear after a few weeks, and it was taken down.

Now, the signs still said “Sun” on them. What to do? Looks like they spray-painted over the Sun logos — at least they matched the color — and removed the light bulbs from the signs. Even though they were no longer backlit, they were still quite readable.

That was way back in May 2010. They stayed this way for a long time. Finally, last week, crews moved in and started taking down the signs. They were piled ignominiously in the overflow parking lot at the edge of the campus.

Faded glory:

Oh, it looks like they hadn’t actually removed the light bulbs:

Where the signs had been there were only holes in the ground or ugly concrete pads:

They’ve now started to install Oracle signs. As of a couple days ago, only one had been put up.

Meet the new boss, the same as the old boss

— or —

I, for one, welcome our new corporate overlords.

Take your pick.

Read Full Post »

A recent article named Jonathan Schwartz the worst CEO of all time.Well, it’s hard to tell whether it said that he was actually the worst, but the article is entitled Worst CEOs in American History and Schwartz was listed first.

There’s much to criticize about Schwartz’s tenure at Sun. While CEO, he did the following:

  • Published a book of slogans entitled What We Must Do.
  • Came up with eleven words — more slogans — to codify the company’s priorities.
  • Changed the company’s stock symbol from SUNW to JAVA.
  • Pushed a 1-for-4 inverse split of the stock. This caused the stock’s nominal price to jump from about $5 to $20, after which it steadily fell back to $5, erasing 75% of shareholder value.

In my opinion the worst move occurred in November 2008, when he announced a reorganization of the company — and yet more layoffs. That reorg simply shuffled things around into different groups, but it didn’t change anything fundamental.

You might also have noticed a similarity with the items listed above. They didn’t change anything fundamental either. So yeah, the company wasn’t doing very well and Schwartz failed to turn it around.

However, we need to put this into perspective. The articles states, “Schwartz’s promotion to CEO in April 2006 was followed by a long series of losses.” That’s true, but recall that Sun never really recovered from the dot-com bust. On an annualized basis, the company had lost money every year since 2002 so Schwartz’s tenure was also preceded by a long series of losses. Scott McNealy was president and CEO until 2006, so he deserves  blame for Sun’s poor performance as well. Even after that McNealy wasn’t really out: he was still chairman. Do you think Schwartz’s hands were tied? Schwartz might have undertaken more radical changes, but for the fact that he was still running Scott’s company, with Scott looking over his shoulder.

And recall that McNealy picked Schwartz as COO, and eventually CEO, over some possibly better choices. (See here for instance, though Zander didn’t do very well at Motorola.) If Schwartz really was so bad, Scott deserves the blame for choosing him. (HT to Mark W for pointing this out.)

We should also look where Sun ended up. It was sold to Oracle for $7.4bn, over three times its value at its lowest point, which recovered at least some shareholder value. Thousands lost their jobs, but thousands more kept their jobs and made the transition to Oracle (including me). There is enough of a viable business left at Sun that Oracle thinks it can be grown back to profitability, not cut, scrapped, or shut down.

Schwartz’s tenure at Sun was far from successful, but it could have been much much worse. How much worse? Look at others on that list: Ken Lay, Bernie Ebbers. They defrauded investors of billions of dollars and robbed employees of their retirement savings. Also look at who’s missing from the list. Dennis Kozlowski (Tyco) was convicted of taking more than $80m in illegal bonuses. Q.T. Wiles (Miniscribe) was hired to turn the company around, but instead led a scheme to defraud investors that included shipping bricks instead of disk drives. These guys are criminals. Compared to them, Schwartz ain’t so bad. That’s not saying much, but hey, the article is supposed to be a list of the worst CEOs in history, right?

Schwartz deserves criticism, but he doesn’t deserve to be on this list.

Read Full Post »

The Last Days of Sun

Oracle closed the acquision of Sun Microsystems on January 27. Sun still exists, although as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Oracle. Most people think of Oracle as a database company, and this has inspired some database-oriented gallows humor, such as:

DROP TABLE Sun_Employees;

Of course, it hasn’t been this bad. Before the deal closed rumors were flying that Oracle wouldn’t lay off everybody; instead, they’d only 50% of Sun employees:

DELETE FROM Sun_Employees WHERE MOD(emp_no, 2) = 1;

(Considerably less than 50% of Sun employees were actually laid off, for which I’m quite grateful.) On the day of the close, a bunch of names did disappear from the employee database, including all the top executives like McNealy and Schwartz and a bunch of others. I was startled by this. I’m not quite sure why, since logically I should have expected it, and indeed they had sent farewell messages to the entire company a few days earlier. It’s one thing to expect something logically; it’s another thing for it to happen in reality. Reality, that is, as represented by the existence or nonexistence of database entries.

The removal of all the top execs has had another effect. To throw some database lingo around, it’s denormalized the employee database. Well, not really, but the employee database does seem to have lost referential integrity. Each employee record has a “reports-to” field which points to that employee’s manager. The entire company was arranged in a hierarchy, with Scott McNealy at the very top. With the top execs gone, the VP of my organization (the highest ranking guy in my Sun management chain to continue with Oracle) is now is listed as reporting to some HR guy in Germany. This HR guy in turn reports to an HR woman in Belgium, who reports to another HR guy in England… who reports to the first HR guy in Germany. A circularity! Other people have their “reports-to” field containing an employee number for which no employee record exists. In one case an employee record exists for a guy who quit over a year ago, and he’s listed as reporting to a manager who was laid off several months ago. Oh great, we get acquired by a database company and our employee database falls apart. At this point I don’t actually expect that it will be repaired. It’ll probably just lurch along for a while and then get shut down. Now that’s just sad.

Meanwhile, I’m still a Sun employee. But not for much longer. The next step in the integration is to convert of Sun employees to Oracle. (After I’m converted, do I need to learn how to genuflect or something?) This will take place country by country over the next few months. For Sun employees in North America, this conversion takes place tomorrow. This means that today is, or perhaps Friday was, my last day as a Sun employee.

It might be good to be part of a winning team for a change.

Read Full Post »

Sun → Oracle

And so it ends here. My small note of optimism from early last year is moot; the final chapter of Sun’s history has been completed, and it is filled with words like troubled, beleaguered, and embattled. Oracle closed its acquisition of Sun today. There seems to be a lot of sadness about this event. For example, see here and the nearly 1,000 comments that have been submitted since it was posted.

As I’ve been a Sun employee for over 23 years, one might think that I’d be sad about it. But I’m not. I suppose it is a little sad to see Sun disappear as an independent company. The acquisition needed to happen, and I’m glad it’s happened. How did Sun reach this point?

A lot has been made of Sun culture. You know, Scott McNealy’s “Kick butt and have fun.” The freewheeling engineering atmosphere. Is that still there? Sort of. There are still the long email flame wars, the gallows humor on our Skype chats, the occasional office prank, the gung-ho-take-no-prisoners-we-can-do-it attitude, etc. The courage to do something like inventing a new programming language or a new platform. Yes, that’s still there, at least a little bit.

But there are other aspects of Sun culture that have developed over the years that nobody seems to talk about.

  • Risk-aversion. A lot of internal processes have developed to reduce risk. Reducing risk also reduces reward, and it just slows everything down.
  • Decisions made by committee. I don’t think any individuals make any decisions: getting a decision seems to require the agreement of a roomful of people. You know how hard that can be. Sometimes it requires the agreement of people who aren’t even in the room. I’ve been in project meetings where nobody could make a decision — they all had to talk to their managers first.
  • Industry politics. Do I need to explain this one?
  • Internal politics. In a shrinking company, it often seems that more effort is expended defending one’s piece of shrinking turf than in moving projects forward.
  • Lack of innovation. What? Sun?! Yes. I’ve been on projects where developing innovative technology fell “below the line” in activities that would be staffed. What was above the line? (Hint: see “Industry politics.”)
  • Never canceling any projects. I’ve been on projects have languished for a long time because nobody could push through the decision to cancel them. The one or two customers might get angry. A former colleague mentioned to me that he had been on a “zombie” project at Sun for four years. Four years!! Well, maybe only two years. But still, two years working on a zombie project is a long time. What a waste.

Now, I don’t claim these are the reasons for Sun’s downfall. I’ve only known whatever corner of the company I’ve worked in. Maybe there are other, bigger reasons. But I’ve seen all of the things I mention above, and it would be hard for me to believe that they haven’t contributed to Sun’s demise.

Am I sad or angry? Yes; at least, I was. That’s all in the past. All the wasted time, the zombie projects, the stupid decisions (or indecisions)… Now, I’m no longer a Sun employee, I’m an Oracle employee. I don’t feel any different.

Well, maybe I do. The nine months of limbo is over. Oracle has said that they (we?) will invest aggressively in Java and in JavaFX. (I work on the JavaFX project.) Today I interviewed someone from outside for an open position on our team. It was the first time I’ve interviewed someone in… in I don’t know how many years. There’s a sense of opportunity in the air.

In Jonathan Schwartz’s farewell message to Sun employees, he asked us to emotionally resign from Sun. Many took some offense at that. Me? To the extent that Sun embodies those bullet points I listed above, I’m outta there. Let’s go Oracle!

One door opens, another shuts behind
One sun sets and another sun she rises
— Richard Thompson

Read Full Post »