My year with Scott
You thought a year abroad was fun? Try a year at the elbow of the head of Sun Microsystems
Working with Scott McNealy for a year had its ups and downs. It was good to travel the world at his side. It wasn't so good attending meetings till the cows came home. Of course, participating in a Geisha ceremony has its own rewards. (1,800 words)
For the past year, I've been the "Assistant to the Chairman for Scott McNealy -- President, CEO and Chairman of the Board of Sun Microsystems." This was a brand new position at Sun and was constructed to fulfill two objectives. The first objective was to provide a developmental opportunity to someone at Sun. The idea is that if you take someone from inside the company, let them spend a year at the right hand of the CEO, they'll learn a great deal about the company, the business, the industry, and general management. This person will then have the skill set and experience to be successful and to make Sun successful.
The second objective was to provide Scott with someone who makes sure that commitments made by his office are followed up on, that letters get responded to, and most importantly, that he is very well prepared for his meetings with customers, the press, and analysts.
On February 2 1994, I was sitting in a sales meeting in Las Vegas. The reason I remember the date is because it was my birthday and two of my sales representatives arranged for a big dancing banana to drag me up on stage and embarrass me in front of a couple hundred people. My boss found me after I recovered from the banana and asked if I would be interested in interviewing for a new position working for Scott. Without hesitation I said sure. I had been with Sun since March 1988 working as a sales representative, a first-level sales manager, and a second-level sales manager -- I was ready for a position that would expose me to all different areas of the business.
A few months later I was offered a 12-to-18-month rotational assignment as the first assistant to the chairman. My year with Scott had begun.
The up side
Some of the things I liked best about the job were...
The city where I felt most in personal danger was Johannesburg, South Africa, which has a 40 percent illiteracy rate and an incredible crime rate -- cars are hijacked with AK-47s. During the drive from the airport to the hotel, all the houses that we passed were surrounded by barbed wire. And the hotels tell you not to go for walks outside. They have incredible opportunities in that country and incredible challenges.
Though I returned to my family with a numbed mind and barely able to mutter coherent sentences, the opportunity to meet with this many customers, partners, and press and government officials was invaluable. Having the chairman of the company come and visit says to both our hosts and our own employees that this is an important place and these people are important to Sun's success. And we've seen our business increase in every country as a result.
It was great fun and I enjoyed the very surprised expressions of the servers (the Geisha) when I participated in the food and drink consumption without hesitation. I believe however, that Scott was a bit disappointed when I refused to be intimidated into matching our hosts drink for drink. I kept up at a respectful pace but decided that falling on my face at the end wouldn't be such a great idea. Next time, I'll make sure not to wear a short, tight skirt. It isn't the best garment for sitting on a pillow on the floor and eating at very low tables!
For instance, one of the things that Scott was asked about constantly was Sun's position on Microsoft. The answer has always been clear and unwavering -- we want to be the best friend of Microsoft's customer, not necessarily the best friend of Microsoft. Scott would then go on and discuss the concept of barrier-free interfaces and proprietary implementations. I felt that this was a tough concept to get across without a fairly concrete example.
So over a couple of discussions, we came up with the 35mm camera example. The way it works is that the sprocket holes and the width and depth of film is set by a barrier-free and open interface. The cameras and the film are proprietary implementations. One can compete by giving added value to either side of the interface -- an easier to use camera or film that develops more intense colors. However, if the camera implementation was based on a closed interface say 45mm today and subject to change by the camera makers, than the quality and competitiveness of the film market would decrease.
Finally in the best category, I'd have to say getting a chance to get to know Scott. I always knew he was bright, but before I spent time with him, I thought he was also lucky. Now I know, his success is only a little bit luck and mostly intelligence (and a lot of humor).
The down side
Now a couple of the things I liked least...
A look back
It's now been a little over a year and I'm starting in a new position within Sun. Transitions are always good times to do some reflecting. What follows is a bit about what I learned during my year with Scott.
Once you've made a decision, have the patience, conviction, stubbornness, passion, or whatever to stick with it. Sun re-organized into five operating companies several years ago. During the first year, there was a lot of confusion over who did what. During the second year there was a lot of conflict about why someone else was responsible for what didn't work right. But as the third year wore on, people figured out the necessary communication paths and ways of working together. If we'd scrapped the plan when the going got tough, we would not have our current position in the industry.
I now understand why Sun set up the operating-company structure. As a sales representative and sales manager in SMCC (the computer company) it didn't make a lot of sense to me to be enabling our clone competitors by selling them our best technology -- SPARC and Solaris. However, the way that Sun will ensure that these technologies are the best and survive in the industry is by creating volume markets for them. SMCC could not do that alone. We needed partners and customers for our software and for our chips, and these partners would not have a level playing field on which to compete if SMCC controlled the chip and software technologies and the distribution channels.
Focus is the key to success -- get a target, and then put every bit of wood behind that arrow. Do not create safety nets, otherwise they will become justifications for not being successful at your objective.
Scott constantly questions this strategy. Our financial numbers are great, but are they great enough? How can we continue to grow faster than the industry?
Following in my footsteps
Finally, some advice to the person who's going to be replacing me.
My next assignment is to run the business development and marketing activities for Sun in the education and research communities around the world. I'll miss being able to walk into Scott's office offering my opinions all the time, but it will be great to have an opportunity to make a difference in an area of such importance to Sun's future success.
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