The problem at Sun: is in the middle

The guys at the bottom are pretty good too
Written by Paul Murphy, Contributor
As I said yesterday, people who attack Sun's leadership generally bring an astonishing lack of knowledge to the task. What I want to add today is that there is a management problem at Sun, but it's in the middle: not at the top, and not at the bottom.

The people at the top of any big organization are supposed to set policy and make strategic decisions for the good of the organization. It seems to me that Sun's top people have done that pretty well over the years.

The guys at the bottom are pretty good too. I know one lady, for example, who gave up a holiday weekend to support a client whose building contracter had failed to connect the grounding system - allowing a lightening strike to take out every piece of electrical equipment on site; another who really does understand Sendmail; and a guy in the bay area who personally carried some equipment to a developer shop so a client could get up and running - and I'm sure every one of you out there has similar stories of low level Sun people going above and beyond to serve the customer.

And then there's middle management. Middle management's job is neither to do nor to lead: it's to make sure the resources are in place, the job set out by top management gets done, and appropriate records are kept.

On stuff that's purely routine they're not doing too badly - bearing in mind that the emphasis on credit verification is a reflection of the dot dumb bust and the service selling obsession a reflection of sales presures.

Go beyond the routine, however, and their performance tends to be abysmal. Let me offer a double barrelled illustration bearing on yesterday's comment about Sun's media coverage. Here's a snippet from CNN's Business 2.0 Magazine:

In February, the defiant Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy predicted a triumphant resurgence for his company to Business 2.0: "Four years ago we told our engineers to throw out everything that doesn't matter." Now, apparently, McNealy has decided that 200 employees are among what doesn't matter. The layoffs came from the company's high-end server group which has recently been giving away computers to anyone who asks for one to test. Indeed, even Sun president Jonathan Schwartz has acknowledged in his blog that the free trial offer has proved a bit rocky, and these cuts make that all the more apparent.


This is objective mass media reporting on Sun at its finest: McNealy is "defiant", 200 layoffs in a dead ended research effort signal organizational defeat, and Sun has been reduced to "giving away computers" -but even that "has proved a bit rocky."

But what made it possible for the reporter to mis-represent the give away offer and slam Sun over it was a series of failures in execution. Specifically the blog entry refered to contains this:

The terms and conditions are now updated to reflect the fact that Sun pays the postage if you return the system we sent you. There's always been a free packing slip in the box when you received it - our legal agreement was just out of sync (and no, I don't think the agreement is poetically simple, either - that's next week's challenge). If after 60 days you don't like the system we sent, just call the 1-800 number, and someone will come out to pick it up.

Why? because the legalese on the offer didn't make it clear that Sun paid shipping both ways.

Of course, that's for people who actually got through to them. Me, I filed for a free server the day the announcement was made - explaining in the filing that I would actually only want it shipped if zdnet agreed to my suggestion that we load blogs.zdnet.com on it for a trial period so we could measure performance while playing with different comments and related software.

Ever get an email that says "Please call me if you don't get this?" No? I have:

From: "Sun Microsystems" <Suninfo@prcnet.com>
X-OriginalArrivalTime: 04 Jan 2006 14:47:30.0897 (UTC) FILETIME=[CA288C10:01C6113D]

We have been trying to contact you regarding a request you recently submitted on sun.com. After several attempts and/or messages we have not been able to reach you. We wanted to touch base with you to see if your needs were met and if not perhaps we could assist you. If we can be of assistance to you now or in the future, we can be reached at 866-596-7234.

Best regards
"Contact Me" Team
Sun Microsystems

Because I'd only filed one request with Sun in the preceeding six months I assumed this was a response on the server issue - but notice that the return address isn't to a Sun employee and there's no actual information on what this is about - and, of course, I got no response on firing this back to them with a note to the effect that my email rather demonstrably works.

Unfortunately a lot of Sun execution looks like this - a good idea from R&D or a top level strategist, good people in place to actually make things work when you get your hands on the products, and stumbling bureaucratic job holders impeding success in between.


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