What Sun

What Sun

Published: April 21st, 2009

Jonathan Schwartz once wrote that every second-in-command occasionallyhas to act as “chief morale officer” for his boss. Right now he’sprobably performing that function for the entire Sun Microsystemsorganization.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who found it curious that the sameweek the rumoured IBM takeover talks were underway, Schwartz publishedon his blog a four-part video series featuringhimself, where he offered a sort of “getting to know Sun” firesidechat. It was presented as a way to re-introduce customers to a solutionprovider they may not fully appreciate, but you couldn’t help wonderingif it also served as a prolonged elevator pitch to potential bidders.Either way, it was an example of a master communicator taking aninnovative approach to promoting his brand.

There has never been a tech vendor CEO quite like Jonathan Schwartz.It’s not just that he blogs, or even that he blogs well. It has more todo with his openness (admitting that all posts had to be vetted bysomeone internal at Sun), that he doesn’t just make a sales pitch butoffers nuanced, straightforward arguments that provide more context tothe standard sales pitch. It’s that he has fun with it, that he’s beenconsistent and compelling enough to earn the kind of credibility thatother senior managers pay P.R. firms to build for them.

Operationally, Schwartz made some of the tough decisions thatfounder Scott McNealy should have made sooner, including massivelayoffs and other cost-cutting that curtailed its financial decline. Herecognized just in time that Sun was not Apple Computer, and thattrying a highly proprietary approach to every component of IT was notgoing to win the company any new business. Taking Solaris open sourcemay have been a bit of a yawner, but Java? That seemed like acalculated response to a we-dare-you taunt from the developercommunity. Even giving up control for the Sparc blueprints was acalculated way to ensure Sun’s technology was as available as possible.In a different economy, these tactics might have helped return Sun toits former glory. This recession made most of Sun’s manoeuvrings closeto irrelevant.

I remember sitting in a room with Schwartz several years ago when heheld up his cell phone and remarked “This is a (computing) client,” ata time when many in the industry were still debating the health of thePC market. Highly intelligent and occasionally aloof, he hasnonetheless been always willing, in my experience, to engage with theIT community on ideas and strategy, even if he risked lurching into thekind of defensive, insecure bravado that was McNealy’s trademark.

Despite the ponytail, I don’t know if Schwartz was really all thathip, but the industry seemed to treat him as though he was focused onthe ever-elusive next generation. “Schwartz, 42, will tell you he’sless interested in reaching a few hundred chief information officers(the people who actually buy things from Sun) than he is in impressinga teenager who might use the Java on his phone to bring up a game or asocial network,” Business Week wrote about him two years ago.“‘Our industry is going from one in which decisions are made on golfcourses to one in which decisions are made by populations at large,’ hesays. ‘I wish I had a better golf game, but I don’t. It’s just not whoI am.’”

He might have tried some golf lessons, because those CIOs matter. Healso might have resisted announcing Sun’s mission to “win back WallStreet” before more CIOs were willing to go on record to say they hadbeen won.

Selling Sun had to be a last resort. You don’t take over from thecompany’s founder in order to get a paycheque from Larry Ellison. Thelonger-term alternatives, however, might have been worse. At thispoint, Sun’s technology will be folded into one of the most aggressive,diverse, and hungry vendors in the planet. It’s not the legacy JonathanSchwartz could have wanted to leave behind, but it’s better than seeingSun get left behind entirely.

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