At the Churchillclub, with Scott McNealy and Ed Zander (and Lady Gaga)

Last Thursday evening I went to a Churchillclub event: Scott McNealy in conversation with Ed Zander. I was attracted to the event because of the two speakers. Scott McNealy, the former CEO of Sun Microsystems, is a Silicon Valley legend. Ed Zander, the former CEO of Motorola and former COO and President of Sun, is another highly influential figure in the high tech industry.

The event turned out to be much larger than the typical Churchuillclub get-togethers–apparently more than half of the attendees were ex-Sun employees. At the cocktail hour, all round people were catching up, embracing, and reminiscing on old times at Sun.  

McNealy walked in around 6:30, looking fit and thin. You know as soon as he is in the room, because practically everyone stood up to greet him. As he moved about, there was a human bubble moved with him around the room. The ex-Sun folks lined up to shake his hands; many had tears in their eyes. “Sun was an institution. You have to be there to understand”, the ex-SUN employee sitting to my right said. 

The evening started with Zander playing a music video of McNealy singing in a “rock band”. The video was clearly taken in the heyday of Sun, which included footages of McNealy and co. kicking two SGI boxes off the roof of a Sun building with McNealy singing the lyrics: “The Sun will always shine”. <Hilarious>. There are clearly some inside jokes in the video, as the room was rolling with laughter’s.

As the evening went on, I learned a great deal about Mr. McNealy and his time as Sun’s chief. But what came across more loud and clear than anything else were his staunch political views. When asked which corporation is the “evil empire” today, McNealy responded: “Big corporations are not the problem, I think the biggest threat to innovation and our economy today is the public sector.”  Later on, he said: “More than 20% of the GDP is tied up in the public sector, and that is what is stifling innovation”. Clearly not a fan of President Obama, when asked to describe Obama in one word, McNealy responded: “Unfortunate”.

McNealy was vocal about Sun’s achievements. He said: “If we didn’t put TCP/IP in the computers we built back in the days, there will not be cloud computing today.” Sun is credited with the phrase: “The network is the computer”, a visionary phrase, perhaps, but to say without Sun computers, there would not be cloud computing is, with all due respect, a bit overreaching. He said the best decision he ever made at Sun was bringing Bill Joy onboard. <No argument there>. McNealy also acknowledged a few mistakes. He said: “If we took Solaris and put it on a commodity Intel chip, and slap together some pizza boxes, Linux would not be around today. Companies like Google and Amazon will be running Solaris.”  Yep. Hindsight is 20-20. On archenemy Microsoft, McNealy said, in a resigned tone: “They clearly won, they are still around.”

At one point in the interview, Zander asked: “I remember we were this close to buying Apple, for $5 or $6 a share, what happened?” Interesting. This was a fact that I had known. McNealy said: “A tough i-banker on Apple’s side spoiled the deal … Heck, there wouldn’t have been any iPhones/iPads if we had bought Apple, ‘coz I would’ve screwed that one up too!” The audience laughed and the Twitterverse heaved a collective sigh: “Ah, we dodged that one”. (For those of you who are counting scores out there, Sun instead bought Cobalt networks. Apple’s share today stood at $350)  

No. McNealy is not a Facebook or Twitter user. When asked about social media, McNealy said: “I just don’t see what you can do with social media that you cannot do with good, old-fashioned email.” <Really?> McNealy compared Twitter to mass mailing, and questioned whether LinkedIn provides anything beyond what emails offer. On the point of user-generated content, he said: “Emails ARE user-generated content”. He later added: “Guess what Facebook’s latest invention is, it’s email!” <Hmm… I’m starting to detect a pattern here… > When Zander asked him to describe Facebook in one word, McNealy replied: “Zucks”. We also learned that McNealy was not a fan of Lady Gaga. When Zander asked him what he thought of the fact that Lady Gaga had 8+ million followers on Twitter, “That’s just unfortunate.” McNealy said.  

A point McNealy went back to over and over again in the course of the evening was that government should not be meddling with the private sector. He contended that corporations are the stewards of innovation, and as such, they should be left alone. Of course McNealy completely failed to mention that the practices of some of the corporations, acting out of greed, nearly collapsed the American financial system and in turn ignited a global economic crisis.

The night closed with one final question from the audience, a former Sun employee. “The dotcom crash was hard on a lot of companies”, the audience member said, “but there were still plenty of opportunities around; e-commerce was growing, commodity computing market was growing, I want to know why we missed the boat. I am not sure that I got a satisfactory answer form tonight’s discussion.” Before McNealy ventured an answer, Zander said, “Let’s not go there. Let’s move on. Tonight is about celebration”

McNealy was clearly a natural leader. He was articulate, passionate about what he believed in, charismatic, occasionally self-deprecating, all qualities of a good leader. It was easy to see why 2/3 of the room respected and revered him. But the man couldn’t be more wrong about social media, and his complete conviction that he was right was simply mindboggling.

At the end of the evening, as the crowd dissipated and I drove west on 237 in the light rain, with a Lady Gaga song appropriately playing on the radio, I thought about my evening at the Churchill club and caught myself saying: “Lady Gaga: 1, Scott McNealy: 0”.

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About Chenxi Wang

Dr. Chenxi Wang is a Principal Analyst with Forrester Research. She serves on the security and risk team, covering topics such as cloud security, application security, and content security. Previously Chenxi was Chief Scientist with KSR Inc. (now part of Neohapsis). Prior to that Chenxi was an Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
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3 Responses to At the Churchillclub, with Scott McNealy and Ed Zander (and Lady Gaga)

  1. Paul says:

    “But the man couldn’t be more wrong about social media, and his complete conviction that he was right was simply mindboggling.”

    Mindboggling or just an example of why SUN failed under his leadership?

  2. Chenxi Wang says:

    Perhaps this is an example. I did ask McNealy, during the open Q/A, that what would be the top two business lessons learned from Sun’s rise and fall. He didn’t like the word “fall”. He wouln’t acknowledge that Sun had failed. “Selling at $7B+ is not a failure”, he said. A gentleman sitting next to me who is a former Sun director said it succintly: “He was brilliant, down to earth, but completely arrogant the same time.” I can see that.

  3. Richard says:

    the talks help me understand why Sun missed opportunities one by one and finally acquired by Oracle. Sun and Solaris were just at their top when I got my first job at telecom – Solaris was the Admin’s bible. the mindset is so critical to a leader, to an enterprise.

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