The year was 1989. Right after I started working at Silicon Valley's Sun Microsystems, I was at a dinner party. My friends were inquisitive about this high-flying company. I offered two observations: every other car in the parking lot was a Porsche, BMW or Mercedes; and every other (male) engineer had a ponytail.
My comments were meant to be a joke. But after many years, it seems the joke foreshadowed two things about Sun: runaway success and iconoclastic engineering.
Sun was my fourth engineering job in Silicon Valley. Founded in 1982, Sun designed and manufactured computers based on its own hardware and software. These computers were used by professionals who needed powerful, secure and failsafe computers: engineers, scientists, architects, financial analysts etc. They were seamlessly networked together. Sun's cryptic motto "The network is the computer" was about this seamlessness – the desktop computer, the servers behind it, and their entire network became one and the same to the computer user.
I started there as a software engineer in the engineering research and development organization. For the next fifteen years I held architectural and managerial roles there.
Technological innovation was prized: engineers held great influence over the company. They broke boundaries and pioneered technologies we take for granted today – cloud computing, fast pixel processing, web services, self-driving cars, internet of things, to name a few. Sun was easily a decade or two ahead of its time.
Today Sun is remembered most for Java, a programming language which breathed life into a static and boring Web in its infancy. Java was invented by James Gosling, a computer scientist at Sun. In the early 1990s all the pieces needed for the World Wide Web (browsers, HTML, websites, network connectivity) were in place. The first web browsers, however, very limited. Java enabled web browsers to come alive.
What happened next was astonishing. Java became hugely popular among programmers - the de facto language of the World Wide Web. Being inside, I was aware of Java's popularity but perhaps not the zeal around it. But, when I presented Java in a technical standards conference in Tokyo in 1995, I was almost mobbed by dozens of engineers and scientists from all over the world eager to learn more.
There is little doubt in my mind that Java was a big reason behind the Web's success and subsequent ubiquity.
Sun was an arrogant company. We joked that our salesmen's job was to sit by the fax machine and collect purchase orders as they poured in. The company's culture was "work hard, play hard." Outrageous April Fool's jokes were planned and executed. An executive's Ferrari was dismantled and reassembled in a pond while another's office was turned into a miniature golf course. We laughed at the news of a robbery in a massive computer server warehouse in London. It had computers from all major computer manufacturers, but the thieves had stolen only Sun's computers and left the others behind in a mess.
Because of Sun's fame in innovation, I was able to hire the brightest and the best engineers. Working with them was a rewarding chapter of my life.
Sun's success eventually came to an end – largely because the market changed faster than it did. But for many, including myself, it was the shining star of their careers.
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