Friday, January 29, 2010

Life in the Boy's Dorm: My Career at Sun Microsystems

Random memories: my version of an Irish wake for my beloved dead Sun.

When I went on my first interview at Sun, I thought it made office furniture. The ad had said it was a maker of "workstations", so I thought it was like Hay cubicles. I did not know a thing about high-tech or computers. I lucked into one of the all-time best gigs.

I was sent to interview with the CEO, Scott McNealy but he never showed up.
I sat in a cubicle and waited.
I kidded around with the boy from the mail room, but the CEO never showed up.
Then Bob Smith, the CFO came into the cube and said Scott liked me and we were moving forward. I explained that the CEO didn't interview me, so there must be some mistake.
Turns out the mail room boy was the CEO. Classic McNealy in jeans and sneaks. Hey, I was from Chicago where our CEO's are middle age and portly, I did not recognize this cute, young guy, with the prominent front teeth, as a CEO.   I didn't hear a lot of what Bob Smith said after that as I was trying to remember what smart-ass thing I had said to the assumed mail room boy. But I got the job; which always was an indication to me that Sun was willing to take risks with people.

To be fair, my mistaking Scooter as the mail room boy was pretty understandable. Not only was he dressed in jeans and sneakers, but in those days he was still bar tending at the Dutch Goose two nights a week, living with a gaggle of roommates. And, the day I interviewed, Scott and the "real" mail room boy were dating the same college age girl. Scott had not embraced adult-hood yet, except in business.

On my first day at Sun, no other HR person made it in to I ended up running the new employee orientation for the 18 other folks that started their Sun careers that Monday morning. It was a nightmare and all my improvisational training was put to the test.

My fifth day at Sun Microsystems, I had the interesting task of firing Vinod Khosla, well, not telling him he was done, but processing him out. Again, no experienced HR folks in sight when he came in to do the exit paperwork. Kathleen Filano had told me Vinod was "evil incarnate" and I was pretty intimidated. As he approached me I was trembling a bit. And then he said, "Hello, I am Vinod" in that almost falsetto voice of his and it took every bit of my self control not to laugh out loud. This guy is "evil"? This little guy with the high, light voice? I knew from then on that Kathleen was even more easily intimidated than I.

My first week on the job, I was assigned the Sales team. Kathleen was dating (eventually married) one of the sales guys, so she didn't think it was appropriate for her to support them. OK. But at the first beer bust I went to, two of the sales guys were standing around rating the women...only they called them "units". I pulled one aside and told him he might want to keep his voice down, or knock the behavior off entirely. Turned out it was Kathleen's-boyfriend's-best-friend. I got yelled at the next day for being too "HR-ish" (me? are you kidding?). A week later a sexual-harassment claim came in about some behaviors in the sales team. I was asked to field it and when I made it go away, the boys in Sales sent me flowers. No kidding, flowers.

I spent 10 years in Operations (Manufacturing) as no other HR person would do it. In the beginning Ops was run by Russ Bik. Russ was smart and tough and had a bit of OCD. He would take us through 145 slides per week measuring what Ops was doing. The fact the many slides contradicted other slides or that some were measuring stuff no one cared about did not seem to faze Russ. I liked him.

My first year at Sun Bob Coe ran half of Ops, Curt Wozniak ran the other half. These two could not be less alike. Coe was a San Jose State grad; football player. Woz was a Stanford MBA. They agreed on only one thing, they did not like me. I had to work my butt off to get these guys to acknowledge me, work with me, tell me anything or win any trust. I worked my butt off and I still never got anywhere with them for a very long time.

After a few weeks on the job, Russ told me I had to fix some issues in the restrooms. Apparently a sub-set of our employees were not using the porcelain facilities as designed...they were standing on the seats and squatting. This had resulted in many broken toilet seats and at least one minor concussion that I know of. So, I had to fix this. As a matter of fact, Russ told me that if it wasn't fixed within a week, he was moving my desk into the ladies room. My fix was simple. I took the seats off of one toilet in each restroom and labeled the door "squatters" in several southeast Asian languages. The other doors were similarly identified as "sitters". Problem solved.

Bob Coe once told me he did not have to interview the candidates for his Administrative Assistant position. I should simply ask each candidate to link her hands behind her head with her elbows pointing forward and walk toward the wall. If her elbows were the first part of her anatomy to touch the wall, she was eliminated from candidacy. All applicants whose breasts touched first, he would interview.

We had a Quality Director named Jim Griffin. An employee threatened to kill him once. And someone else kept pooping in his desk, really, pooping in his desk drawers (I am not kidding, who would make this stuff up?). This was not a real popular guy.

The guy who wanted to kill him came over to Mt View building 2 when he could not find Griffin in Mt View building 4. I worked in building 2. Someone from building 4 called me in my office at about 5:45 pm and said that this guy was on his way and by the way, he had a firearm. Really. So, I went to the lobby and moved the folks who were waiting there to the lunch room. Just as I was running back across the lobby to lock the front doors, the guy with the gun comes in demanding to see McNealy. I explained to him that that was not the appropriate escalation process for his complaints. No, I didn't. I talked to the guy for about 5 minutes and he gave me the gun. The police came and arrested him. Griffin never thanked me...neither did McNealy, come to think of it. But it was my new boss' first day on the job and she told me in that typical, passionless HR modulation that she was very impressed by how I handled it. I never liked her.

My whole first year there I kept thinking that I would stay awhile and then go get a "real job".

More tomorrow......


  1. Great memories. I loved those Friday beer bust parties where Scott gave away the swag he had received from vendors. I also remember when all of engineering could fit in the cafeteria for a meeting.

  2. Nance, you've picked the ONLY example where I've ever been wrong. Takes me back. Thanks.

  3. Oh, how this takes me back. Incredible... My 2 day interview in '85 finished at a first Friday beer bust. Remember giving out $1 for each revenue unit shipped and when it got to be enough that they had to break it up into 3?

    If I hadn't been convinced before that afternoon, I never would have been.

  4. Linc, interviewing for my replacement and the hiring of Mike Hutchings let me focus on the startup of Engineering Systems Integration Test after my transfer. It worked out well for all. I remained in Engineering Test/QA/QE until my RIF in January 2009.

  5. Ah the early days, when Crawford said we all had to wear badges and sign in if we didn't, we all signed in as Vinod.

  6. wait this didn't make it onto pirates of silicone valley?

  7. Great blog post!

    I was at Sun for 23 years from 87 to 10. Best 23 years of my work life.

    --Dave Edstrom
    Sun emp# 3705

  8. I am so spoiled because this was one of my first real jobs and SUN was by far the best place to work ever...LOL

  9. Yea, great years at Sun..I started out as the receptionist in building 14, Then admin to Bill Crane & Stuart Wells (Oh all the comments I got about being able to support Stuart because everybody had a crush on him) ha ha ! I remember we got to pick our own email address. I picked always@thephones. I met some great people there ! Sometimes I wish I never left Sun.... Lauren Sako-Allen (now Williams)

  10. Great memories at Sun Microsystem ! I started out as the receptionist in building 14 then moved on to Admin to Bill Crane & Stuart Wells. (i remember everybody had crush on Stuart) I remember we got to pick our email address so I picked always@thephones. I made some great friends there ! I wish I could get ahold of Linda Hatt (Thomas) Sometimes I wish I never left Sun ! Dang, I don't even remember my employee number !! Lauren Sako-Allen (now Williams)

  11. Great Stuff! Always love to hear my dad, Bob Smith, mention in old Sun stories :) We Dallas Sun alumni still meet every six months for Happy Hour! Usually 20-30 of us show up :)

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