The Only Person Who Could Get Bill Gates to Retire

High Noon: The Inside Story of Scott McNealy and the Rise of Sun Microsystems

Everyone roots for the underdog. High Noon is the story of the underdog, Javaman, A.K.A. Scott McNealy, founder and CEO of $10 billion Sun Microsystems, Microsoft’s only worthy adversary. Karen Southwick, author of Silicon Gold Rush and reporter for Forbes ASAP and Upside Magazine, gives a clear, easy-to-follow account of Sun and McNealy’s rise, but doesn’t deliver on the subtitle’s promise.

Growing from a shaky start-up focused on high-end Unix-based servers for engineers in 1982 to one of the real contenders in both hardware and software in the late 1990s, Sun has demonstrated incredibly innovative product development and the flexibility to grow from a 300 to 27,000 employee operation. In its 17 years, the unprofitable final quarter of 1989 stands as a solitary red blip in the otherwise steady in-the-black profit. Sun invented the revolutionary concepts “The Computer is the Network” and “Write Once, Run Everywhere” and ushered them into existence. Thanks to the power and  groundbreaking code development in Java and Jini, Sun is ready to take the next jump to ubiquitous computing, as intelligent devices from cell phones to vending machines are increasingly controlled over a network.

McNealy kept Sun unified through all of these changes. The maximum leader’s witty, brash and fearless influence goes beyond the cardboard cutouts of him as Javaman that popped up after he posed for a 1997 cover of Fortune magazine. McNealy invented Sun’s often-cited company motto, “kick butt and have fun.” Employees play an elaborate April Fool’s joke on one of the company’s executives, a tradition that the original group of Sun engineers began in the early years. Sun employees still launch a new product with the phrase “All the wood behind one arrow,” which McNealy first used regarding Sun’s 1989 move to the exclusive use of its own SPARC chip and the elimination of products that depended on Intel or Motorola processors.

Southwick’s interviews with employees old and new reveal a workplace that is still best for creative types who like the challenge of the sink or swim atmosphere that was a defining element of Sun’s early days. Most employees there work well beyond the 40-hour-week and share with McNealy a love of innovation and confrontation.

“Sun employees still launch a new product with the phrase “All the wood behind one arrow,” which McNealy first used regarding Sun’s 1989 move to the exclusive use of its own SPARC chip.”

Unfortunately, Southwick did not have access to McNealy as she wrote this book. In High Noon, we get the central figure of Sun as we have seen him in the media, we hear words he has told magazine writers and interviewers, we see McNealy as Javaman in the suit, with the cape and the camera-ready smile. What we don’t see is McNealy after he comes out of the telephone booth, with the superhero outfit under his arm as he disappears into a crowd. Without a glimpse inside McNealy’s head and his still very private, private life the book that I’d like to read on Sun can’t be written. Better to wait until McNealy decides to take off the Javaman cape, pick up the pen and write his own book.

High Noon: The Inside Story of Scott McNealy and the Rise of Sun Microsystems by Karen Southwick (John Wiley & Sons Inc.)

 

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