A Working Life IV: Sun Microsystems, 1990 – 2004

After attending a recent Sun Microsystems Alumni Reunion I’ve been inspired to continue the series on My Working Life that I last updated in May 2018 with Part III: My Early Career. As mentioned at the end of the last installment, I attended an interview in Milpitas for a position in tech support with Sun. I clearly remember the day of the offer. The recruiter brought me a cup of tea, and for the first time in my life I joined a company with more than 100 employees.

SalesDesk Support

Sun Logo

I was hired as the 14,672nd employee at Sun (badge numbers were sequential) and joined a small support team tasked with implementing the home-grown SalesDesk system in Sun offices worldwide. This is software that did the same tasks as Salesforce software would fill for companies today: lead tracking, quoting and configuration checking. The configurator was known as SPOC (the Sun Product Order Checker).

I enjoyed my daily commute from our home in Richmond which combined exercise and alone time. I would leave home at 6:30am; spend an hour on BART followed by a 25-minute bike ride (at a furious pace) to the Dixon Landing Road facility.

We worked out of a corner of the manufacturing facility in Milpitas, answering installation and user questions and traveling across the US visiting sales offices to train the salespeople and systems engineers. I was delighted when the quick reference card I developed was awarded a Carol Bartz ‘Ease of Doing Business’ $5,000 bonus. I enjoyed visiting sales offices in Albuquerque, Denver, Portland and other cities

It didn’t take me long to realize that the sales offices were far more dynamic and exciting than the back office and after 18 months I applied for a job as a Systems Engineer (SE) in the sales office in Pleasanton, California.

Systems Engineer: Pleasanton

I had to leave the bike at home and commute to Pleasanton by car. I worked with the sales team in the Reseller Area and called on systems integrators and third party Sun Resellers in the East Bay. I began to enjoy summarizing the latest product announcements and delivering lunch-time presentations to clients. I somehow managed to avoid having to actually install systems myself, which was way beyond my limited technical abilities.

Systems Engineer: Minnesota

Minnesota Winter

After our son was born I persuaded my wife that we could not possibly afford a three-bedroom home in the Bay Area and when an opportunity came to transfer to the Bloomington, MN office in the same role I took it.

We visited the region on a warm Fall day when the leaves were golden and the weather warm. That Thanksgiving we drove out in a truck filled with our belongings and arrived to frost, followed by snow, followed by the “bitter cold sun” the local weather forecasters described with glee every January and February.

My first sales call was to a mail-order operation called the Sportsman’s Paradise. The IT Manager took one look at the Limey across the table and said “Son, we sell everything needed to still a beating heart…”.

A highlight of the four years (three months and twelve days, as my wife would say) in the State was helping promote the Sun-sponsored NetDay event. I came to know the irrepressible John Gage who invited me to Washington DC for a national NetDay event where I spoke from the same podium as Vice-President Al Gore. We helped volunteers across the state wire schools for internet access in classrooms.

I was lucky to attend two SunRise sales award conferences, in Rome and Sydney, where the company spent umpteen millions feting the top sales teams.

Six Weeks at IBM

After six years as an SE I was interested in getting a shot at the commissions salespeople enjoyed. Sun did not make it easy for SEs to transition to sales. IBM did. So I applied for an SE position with IBM, was accepted, and before taking the job took a trip back to California with the family.

My wife saw the Bay, burst into tears, and said we had to move back.

I gave my months’ notice at IBM a couple of weeks after starting. They were not happy.

Meanwhile, I was hired to return to Sun’s Menlo Park HQ working in Field Product Training.

Field Product Training

The next few years were spent rolling out interactive training to field salespeople around the world. I used “McNealy Bucks” to motivate salespeople in Sao Paulo and Singapore; produced multi-media CDs and DVDs; and hosted an “SE TV” program from a small studio in Palo Alto.

I also volunteered to deliver the Company overview in the customer briefing center. My first presentation was to executives from Pfizer, the makers of Viagra. Luckily they were amused by my opening comment that our companies had a lot in common as Sun servers were noted for “continuous uptime”.

Australasia Liaison

My time in the Briefing Center brought me in contact with the Asia Pacific customer liaison team. I was hired to work alongside native Korean, Japanese and Chinese speakers to support Australia and New Zealand (perhaps on the assumption I would understand the rules of cricket when talk turned to sport?).

I flew business-class to Sydney once a quarter, visited every Australian city at least once, and learned to appreciate the rather more robust, and politically incorrect, Aussie sense of humor in business.

Following a weirdly unfair performance evaluation I took a look at the team who produced the company overview presentation I could by now deliver in my sleep. It turned out to be a small team of executive speechwriters. They needed someone with a love of communications, presentation skills and technical understanding. After a decade at the company I fit the bill and was hired.

Executive speechwriter

For someone who was hired to work out of a warehouse and take support calls, sitting in the executive suite listening to SVPs and the CEO develop strategy that would then be rolled into speeches was heady, vertigo-inducing, stuff.

I certainly felt moments when I experienced the imposter syndrome in full force. I was often the only person around the table who did not have a few thousand people reporting to them and a multi-billion-dollar goal.

It was exciting, exhausting, terrifying and the most fun at work I’d ever had.

Scott McNealy on stage

I started out supporting the global head of sales (a fellow Brit, so my appreciation of irony helped), then worked for the head of the software group until I landed a role as one of the team supporting Scott McNealy, the CEO and co-founder. The main deliverables were a set of OpenOffice slides and a summary of the script on a set of 5×8 blue cards that he carried onstage each time he gave a presentation.

I traveled on the company jet to the east coast and Europe (a chance to meet my parents for the night in Ayr after the jet landed at Prestwick). I sat in the office of the head of the UK Civil Service (the very same used in the TV show Yes Minister, overlooking Horseguards Parade), ate pizza and banquet food, and worked around the clock when needed.

Then, in 2004, the company laid off 3,000 people, including the speechwriters. So I started this blog and looked around for another job.

Sun was, without a doubt, the best company I have ever worked for. I helped deliver network computing to the world, propagating TCP/IP and bring the Internet into existence.

The network really is the people.

1 Comment so far
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Hi Ian, really enjoyed your blog and it brought back into focus my own business career. It was strange to realise that my career had many similar changes and jumps from one area of the business to another. I actually worked for the same Company for forty years but , like you, I was lucky to move through various areas of the business and like you I eventually realised that sales were the most exciting area to work in. Also like you I thought ‘ I can’t do sales ‘ until I actually tried. This led to worldwide travel, like you and that was the best time I ever had. Keep writing. Regards.
Just got back from three weeks trogging round the northern National Parks followed by eight hours wait in San Fran airport!cheers



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