Sun's acorn remains close to the tree

McNealy says he and Schwartz are aligned, but that's not what's needed. It's getting the other 34,357 people aligned with Schwartz that really matters.
Written by Dana Gardner, Contributor

The anticipated, and some would say long overdue (yet perhaps too soon?), segue of Jonathan Schwartz into the CEO position at Sun Microsystems is timed to bump the stock price amid still lackluster financial results. Longtime CEO and co-founder Scott McNealy retains his chairmanship of the board, and successfully managed to anoint and appoint his hand-chosen heir at the helm.

But will the ship actually be steered any much differently? And based on Wall Street's reaction to the return of CFO Mike Lehman, and now Schwartz's summiting of the Santa Clara bureaucracy, it seems that more than a passing-of-the-baton-type of re-organization is still being sought by Sun's owners. Is this changing of the Sun guard the equivalent of Cheney and Rumsfeld swapping office furniture in order to boost the President's ratings?

The call for radical surgery at Sun, both in terms of head-count and R&D spending, will continue for some time, I suspect. That's because McNealy and Schwartz will continue as a tag-team. And while the conventional wisdom has been for change at the top, Sun remains a series of cultures in high-clash mode.  The marketers or the engineers? The commodity IT as utility crowd, or the best silicon money can buy guys? Is it a software company, or mostly hardware that needs a software patina to penetrate those pesky low-cost markets? Are the sales people coin-operated, or strategic solution soldiers en march into each and every CIO suite?

These swirling, cultural self-definition identity crisis issues are what also need to be addressed ... now and still after, like, eight years. It's still Animal House and ROTC under the same roof. And more layoffs before the true identity declaration is made and enforced will only prolong the angst, not fix it. I've talked to several people inside and near-side to Sun, and they say it's still stress city. Not stress due to a challenging market, but stress due to a culture stew at battle within itself. An enigma in motion defines Sun's culture, they say.

Enough change at the top needs to happen to snap the culture stuff into alignment. McNealy says he and Schwartz are aligned, but that's not what's needed. It's getting the other 34,357 people aligned with Schwartz that really matters. Will a new title make it happen?

Now, I've really, really enjoyed covering McNealy since the first press conference I was at with him at the microphone. It was at the Argent Hotel in San Francisco, back in 1993. And Scott had just compromised, sort of, on the Motif GUI for his workstations. The Unix desktop wars were in full swing, and believe it or not these Unix people did not take Microsoft seriously at the time. Not one git. They didn't even yet bother to sneer at them. So the jabs and barbs were then directed at the other Unix vendors: My engineers are smarter than yours, nah, nah, nah-nah, nah. Linux as we know it was a concept yet to hatch.

Oh, and DEC was the second largest computer company in the world, and IBM was heading into a long, slow skid, only to be outdone by DEC's short, fast skid into history. In many respects, Sun looked great in those days. I wish Scott well, he has accomplished a tremendous amount. And he's funny and sincere, obviously.

However, things went so well for Sun so quickly back then that perhaps McNealy became convinced that the same weapon -- the best engineers doing the best speeds and feeds the Sun way -- would win all the other battles, too. A good hammer for all nails. But the battlefield changed, and the weapon did not. Clausewitzian hubris and destiny? It happens to the best of them.

So, will McNealy become an old soldier that walks off into the sunset, like a MacArthur, or remain intent on getting it right after the fact, with the wrong weapons, somehow? Will Schwartz be W to McNealy as Rumsfeld?

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