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.

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.

Speaking of fascism: ‘Bigmouth’ exposes the use and misuse of rhetoric

BigmouthThe Chicago Tribune has reviewed the play ‘Bigmouth’ (created by the Antwerp, Belgium-based SKaGeN) currently on stage in Chicago. It’s a one-man tour de force by Belgian actor Valentijn Dhaenens who delivers extracts of political speeches from the time of the Greeks to the 21st century. Dhaenens speaks in English, German, Greek, Flemish, French, Italian and the unique patois of Ann Coulter.

He appears onstage behind a table configured with nine microphones, reciting a script composed of the words of the Grand Inquisitor, Nicola Sacco, Socrates, Joseph Goebbels, Gen. George S. Patton, Pericles, Baudouin of Belgium, Patrice Lumumba, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Louis Farrakhan, Osama bin Laden, Frank Vanhecke, George W. Bush and, finally, Coulter.

The Tribune observes that

There is no greater tool in the promotion of hate, disarray, retribution, racism, disunity and fascism than lofty rhetoric. Most of the speakers, of course, did not promote such things, but some did… What makes this show so daring is how Dhaenens works to show you the similarity of rhetoric devices across ideologies or, to put that another way, how history teaches us that it is near impossible to separate good and evil people merely by listening to the words they choose to deliver. Why? Because, as Dhaenens shows us by pairing, say, Goebbels with Patton, the fascists long ago learned the soft-pedal tricks of rhetorical power.

The performance reveals how the tricks of rhetoric have remained unchanged since the dawn of language. They can be deployed both for good and bad purposes.

If you’d like to sample the show check out this interview with Dhaenens:

Book Review: The Big Book of Kombucha, by Hannah Crum and Alex LaGory

Big_Book_of_Kombucha_CoverHannah Crum (aka ‘Kombucha Mama’) changed my life. I bought my first Kombucha home brew ‘starter kit’ from her over four years ago and have been happily brewing my own ‘booch ever since. The Big Book of Kombucha is a big (383 page), bold and beautiful book full of a wealth of first-hand information on all aspects of Kombucha that Hannah and her partner Alex LaGory have curated over their years of involvement with the Kombucha sub-culture.

ScobysFrom the history and science of Kombucha to straightforward guidelines on the many aspects of brewing, decanting and flavoring this healthful fermented tea, Hannah and Alex cram an awful lot of really useful information into this book. I was especially impressed with the full color photographs of typical brews (taken of clear glass jars to show the yeast strands, fermentation process and various colors of healthy and unhealthy SCOBY’s). There’s ample information on troubleshooting everything from mold to poorly performing brews, as well as scientific guidelines on brew temperature, acidity, sweetness and suggested tea mixes.

Kombucha_BottlesThe second part of the book offers a huge range of recipes for flavoring, cocktails, smoothies and more. She even suggests intriguing ways to consume old growth SCOBYs (jerky, face masks etc.) This is the book I wish I’d had four years ago. I intend to take a close look at my current hit and miss production methods and implement their suggestions to improve things.

If you love Kombucha and are getting tired of paying $3-6 a bottle for the retail brands, invest in a copy of Hannah and Alex’s book and start brewing at home. It just might change your life.

Cicero Speechwriting Award Winner: Choosing the Gun, General Peter van Uhm

Congratulations to Annelies Breedveld for winning the 2012 Cicero Speechwriting Award with her wonderfully crafted speech for General Peter van Uhm, Chief of Defense for The Netherlands “Choosing the Gun”

“I do not stand here today to tell you about the glory of weapons. I do not like guns, and once you have been under fire yourself it brings home even more clearly that a gun is not some macho instrument to brag about.”

An awesome speech about a controversial topic, way more sophisticated than the simplistic Second Amendment bleating of the NRA. See for yourself.

Poll: What do you want to hear from me on my next blog post?

SpeakerNet News – a great resource

SpeakerNet News

One of the best, free, resources for speakers is the weekly SpeakerNet News email newsletter sent each Friday to more than 9,000 professional speakers, consultants, trainers, and authors.

Each issue features items sent in by the newsletter readers, including:

  • Tips on subjects like sales and marketing, travel, technology, great resources, saving money, PR, conducting better presentations, and other topics key to the speaking business.
  • Requests for information and advice.
  • Want ads (equipment and other items for sale).
  • Services and products of interest to speakers.

There’s an extensive series of compilations of past tips on topics ranging from How to Handle a Noisy Audience to suggestions on Bartering with Hotels and Recommendations for PowerPoint Designers.

SpeakerNet News is run by long-time NSA Northern California Chapter members Ken Braly and Rebecca Morgan.

They host a series of Teleseminars featuring well-known authorities such as Randy Gage on Transforming yourself from Speaker to Information Entrepreneur, Michael Soon Lee on Becoming an Industry Expert…In A Week and James Malinchak on Making Six-Figures Annually Speaking to Colleges.

I recommend subscribing to the teleseminar series which slashes the cost of each recording from $25 to a mere $10.

Speechwriters Conference Closing Keynote – Ted Sorensen (1 of 4)

The ghost of Camelot visited the Ragan Speechwriters Conference on Friday morning. JFK speechwriter, Special Counselor and man who lived a life at the edge of history – Ted Sorensen – delivered the closing keynote. The audience of 300 speechwriters was privileged to see and hear the world’s most famous speechwriter share his insights into Kennedy and the craft of speechwriting.

I sat in front and filmed the entire 30-minute keynote. These four YouTube videos comprise 99% of what Sorensen said.

In this first segment, he applauds the return of eloquence to political life in the USA and recognizes the importance of “just words” as the tools leaders use.

Breaking the mould with Powerpoint

Interesting article on how to drop the Powerpoint crutch and win people over from the heart of industrial America – Reliable Plant magazine.

Quotes Paul LeRoux, the co-author (along with Peg Corwin) of Visual Selling: Capture the Eye and the Customer Will Follow

LeRoux counsels using images not text to connect with the audience.

Blog software updated

I can think of better ways to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon, but I had no choice but update my WordPress software on my web site today.

My ISP was no longer going to support some older software the WordPress version I installed in November 2005 uses. So I spent 2 hours backing up my blog, deleting the original version and then upgrading to the latest version.

Tedious stuff, and something people who use a blog hosting service don’t need to ever worry about.

But having the blog on my own server hopefully drives traffic (and the all important Google page rankings) to my site.

I also took advantage of the upgrade to switch my ‘Permalinks’ from a numbered entry to a title – something Google also likes.

All this has left a few things broken, my Blogrolls did not display at first, after a couple more hours experimenting they do, but without the all-important description. I will fix this soon.

The end result should be that I’ll have the ability to install some of the more recent plugins for WordPress – such as one I need to allow me to launch a podcast feature on my blog.

Let me know if you find anything ‘broken’ in my blog so that I can fix it pronto.



Joan Fox was buried on December 20, 2006.

She was my mother-in-law, someone it had been my privilege to know for nearly 20 years. She was buried in the village graveyard in Mungret, Ireland. She’d lived her whole life within 20 miles of her birthplace. Yet she’d traveled the world: Hawaii, Russia, California and her beloved Florida. She’d married Charlie when she was only 22 and he was 34. His job with TWA at Shannon allowed them the free travel. Her daughter Sandra benefited, visiting the Bay Area, where we met.

Over 300 came to Joan’s funeral that week before Christmas. Farming families who had known her since she was a child. Friends from the airlines. The wide circle of people in the West of Ireland who she’d touched.

At the funeral Mass she was described as a lady. When Sandra was at boarding school some of the other girls thought she was film star when she came to visit.

The death notice in the Irish Times read:

FOX (nee O’Brien) (12, Thornbrook, Corbally, Limerick and formerly of Conigar, Mungret) – December 17, 2006, after a short illness borne with great courage and dignity, at Milford Hospice, Joan, beloved wife of Charles and dearly loved mother of Sandra and Richard, sister of the late Mary (Herlihy) and Derry (Moloney); deeply regretted by her son-in-law Ian, daughter-in-law Deirdre, her beloved grandchildren Evan, Emily, Jamie and Neil, brothers Michael, Gerard and John, sister Geraldine (Costelloe), extended family, relatives and friends. Rest in peace. Removal from Milford Hospice to St Nicholas Church, Westbury, Corbally, tomorrow (Tuesday) evening at 7.30 o’clock Requiem Mass on Wednesday at 12 Noon. Funeral afterwards to Mungret Cemetery.

At the end of the Mass I read a short essay by Adi Da Samraj:

What Is More Than Wonderful Is Not Threatened

Fear of death is fear of surrender to Infinity.
Learn to surrender, to exist at Infinity while alive, and fear of death dissolves.

Fear of death is fear of the Unknown.
Realize the Eternal Unknowability of the Totality of Existence, and fear of death is transcended in the Feeling Beyond Wonder.

If Happiness (or Freedom) depends on the Answer to the Question, then there can be no Happiness (or Freedom).
The Question cannot be satisfactorily or finally Answered.
For one who Abides at Infinity–Happy and Free, at ease with his or her Ultimate (or Divine) Ignorance–the Question and the Answer are equally unnecessary.

What began will come to an end.
What is More than Wonderful is not threatened.
The Process of the Totality of Existence is Transcendental, Inherently Spiritual, and Self-Evidently Divine–and it is Eternal.
Only a fraction of the Whole can pass away in any moment, since only a fraction of the Whole appears in any moment.
Therefore, the True Divine Heart Itself is Always Already Full of Love and More-than-Wonder.

“I” is the body-mind, the fraction of the Whole that is now appearing and will soon disappear.
“I” must be surrendered to the True Divine Heart, to the Whole–Which Is Infinity, and Love, and More (and More) than even Wonder knows.

Easy Death, page 97.