Personal Finance

The mouth that roared

Ross Layer October 11 1999
Personal Finance

The mouth that roared

Ross Layer October 11 1999

The mouth that roared

Ross Layer

Scott McNealy gets your face. The CEO of Sun Microsystems Inc., one of the world's most successful technology companies, is loud,

rude and frequendy obnoxious. He mocks his chief competitor, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, as “Billy Big Bucks,” and tosses out jokes that the average Silicon Valley propellerhead would be too embarrassed to tell his mother.

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“You have to reboot during sex,” says McNealy, breaking into a malicious grin.

“Your wife starts calling you Micro Soft.”

“The guy from tech support wears rubber gloves.”

“Control-alt-delete is accomplished by a new sequence: bend over, cough and grimace.”

And so on—a litany of cheap shots and one-liners guaranteed to keep audiences on the lukewarm-chicken-andglutinous-gravy circuit in stitches.

Why does McNealy, who claims to be a shy man at heart, do it? Because it gets attention. Many of the corporate bigwigs who sign order forms for Sun products wouldn’t know a $25,000 computer server from an espresso machine.

Yet McNealy’s antics, the outlandish statements and crude insults, ensure that Sun’s brand enjoys high visibility.

And that, in turn, sells computer hardware and software— $17.2 billion worth in the past 12 months.

Two years ago, when Sun was trying to sell corporate America on Java, a software language invented by Alberta native and Sun vice-president James Gosling, McNealy flew from his office in Palo Alto, Calif., to New York City to meet the editors of Fortune magazine. He was frustrated by the publication’s habit of running frequent cover stories on Gates, whose gawky image sells more business magazines in the United States than any other chief executive. “What do I gotta do to get on the cover?” McNealy demanded. “I’ll do anything.”

“Will you wear a Superman outfit with a Java ring?” one of the editors asked.

Sure, McNealy replied. Three days later, he recalls, “they sent a photographer out and we had the cover. That cost me about an hour to do the shoot. And a little dignity, but that ain’t so expensive. We got a wonderful article out of it.”

These days, McNealy is on the speaking circuit to pro-

mote his company’s latest innovation, a sleek little box called the Sun Ray 1 enterprise appliance into which users plug a keyboard, a mouse and a display screen. It’s a bit like a computer, only it isn’t a computer at all because the $800 machine has no processing power. Instead, the Sun Ray is designed to be connected to an office network and through that to a central server, which stores all of the files and runs all the software. Sun claims the system is cheaper, easier to maintain and more efficient than the current approach of giving every worker his or her own desktop computer loaded with software. Of course, it also has the advantage of creating more demand for Sun servers.

The technical term for the Sun Ray is a “thin client,” although it’s really just an updated version of an old computer terminal running off a mainframe. Some industry analysts and journalists have criticized it on that basis, but McNealy is unfazed. “The more controversial your strategy is, the bigger chance you have of making money,” he says after a day spent wooing prospective customers in Toronto. “I mean, if everybody thinks breathing is a good idea, how do you differentiate yourself in the market? So I want everybody to think it’s a dumb idea. I do. There’s plenty of time and the customers will decide, not some writer who doesn’t know.”

While he’s in Canada, McNealy also has some characteristically pointed advice for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien: stop pretending that the brain drain and high taxes are not both serious problems. “I’m not going to tell anybody how to go run their country,” he says, before rhyming off a list of Canadian engineers who now occupy senior positions at Sun in California. “So were just gonna blame [Canada’s problems] on being a small market? That’s a cop-out, and people have got to figure that out.”

Something else Ottawa has to figure out is that the Internet is changing all of the rules of business, rendering tens of thousands of old-economy jobs obsolete. “When you shut down 10 bank branches, you can’t have the government go nuts all of a sudden, saying jobs are guaranteed here. There are no guarantees—except that if you work hard and keep yourself up to speed you’re probably going to do OK.” By the sound of things, he’s not trying to be funny.