Working with Fujitsu: Building Bridges

I was about as surprised as anyone in 2004 when Sun announced the APL agreement -- we were going to partner with Fujitsu to develop the next generation of midrange and high-end servers based on the Olympus CPU chip. I was even more surprised when I was asked to work on the project.

Bridging Timezones

I'm based out of Sun's Burlington, MA office, near Boston. Initially, the I/O team was drawn from Burlington, while the OS and Service Processor teams were from offices in California. Fujitsu is located in Kawasaki, Japan. That's 13 or 14 hours ahead of Boston (depending on daylight savings time). This was going to take some changes to my work habits in order to get some workday overlap with my West Coast colleagues, and attend phone meetings with Fujitsu in Japan.

I used to be an early bird. In my previous job, I'd be at my desk by 7am every day; home for dinner by 5pm. When I joined Sun nine years ago, I found that schedule tough since most people didn't start until 10am, but worked well into the evening. Later when I worked on a project with Sun's West Coast offices, I found the West Coasters also came in at 10am -- 10am Pacific Time! If I started at 7am and quit at 4pm, I only had three hours of overlap with the West Coast (and one of those hours was their lunch time). So my hours started to shift. I started working more 8am to 5pm, then 9am to 6pm.

But now working with Fujitsu, there was more of a timezone challenge. Initially we planned to have monthly face-to-face meetings with Fujitsu to exchange technical information. But soon it became clear that once-a-month meetings were not often enough, and the few people who could travel were not always the right people for the discussions. We had to find a way to meet more regularly, weekly, and involve the right people. Fujitsu generally starts at 9amJT, which is 7pmET.

But the first rule I laid down was: I will not work between 6pm and 9pm. That's family time. If I can't eat dinner with my family, play with my daughter after dinner, and tuck her in to bed every night, then that's not the job I want to have. The rest of the Sun team was very understanding, and we scheduled conference calls at 9pmET/6pmPT/11amJT (during daylight savings time, that changed to 10amJT).

There was still an advantage to being an early bird. Often I would get up at 6:30 or 7am, check email from my home office and find that my colleagues at Fujitsu were still working. We could exchange email and information in real-time. Then when my daughter got up around 8am, I would play with her for a while, then after breakfast, whem my wife and daughter headed out to dance class or swim class or whatever, I'd shower and go back to work, usually around 11am. I'd break for dinner at 6pm, and spend the evening with my family until my daughter was asleep in bed. At 9pm, I'd head back to the home office for a conference call, or just exchange email with the West Coast and Japan. Most work days ended at 10pm or 11pm.

In the end I worked hard, but not as hard as it seemed to others. They'd see me responding to emails at 7am, and still working past 10pm. It gave the illusion I was working 7am to 11pm (I think that motivated everyone else to put in extra hours themselves).

I'm really fortunate that Sun promotes an environment where employees can work from home. While I could have gone into the office every day, I would get there at 11:30 and have to leave at 5:30; hardly worth the traffic and travel time. And since most of my peers were in California or Japan, I would sit alone in my office all day, on the phone with people in other states. Initially, I tried to go into the office three or four days a week. By the end of the project, there were periods of entire months when I didn't see the inside of my office. And the time I did not spend commuting, I spent working. So I think Sun is really fortunate, too.

Bridging Companies

Working with another company to develop a product is difficult. I've done it in the past. But with Fujitsu, we were working with a competitor to develop a product. That's an order of magnitude more difficult.

And Fujitsu was a real competitor at the time. The Sun Fire 6900 and 25000 systems were up against PrimePower in many areas. We needed to work together on the Olympus platforms, but work being done to improve the Sun Fire servers, or pave the way for Rock-based servers, was not part of the contract; sharing that with Fujitsu before SPARC Enterprise platforms shipped meant giving away proprietary information to a competitor. Of course, improvements to support more cores, higher thread counts, larger memory images, and PCI-Express were all related to SPARC Enterprise as well as Sun Fire and Rock platforms. Figuring out what could be shared and what was taboo was a constant chore in the beginning. This was the first project I've worked on, at Sun or anywhere, that we had a lawyer from the Legal department assigned to the project team from day one. Working with another company meant understanding what was OK to share, and what must be kept proprietary.

This of course cut both ways. There were many technical questions we had that the Fujitsu engineers just couldn't answer; they weren't allowed to answer. We at Sun were not used to working like this. If we have a question about a new microprocessor, we're used to walking down the hall and talking to the engineers designing the chip. Working with another company meant trying to make forward progress with limited access to certain information.

Then there were the technical documents that were under Japanese export control -- they could be read in the US, Canada and the UK, but no where else. Sun is a multi-national company, where you're just as likely to have someone on your engineering team from India, Ireland, or elsewhere, and data is usually shared without regard to national borders. Sun largely ignores geography, but on this project, geography became a key factor. I think this was hard at first, but we quickly learned the routine; what was OK and what wasn't. We had to educate others within Sun (for example, the Sun engineer in India who was writing the SunVTS diagnostic tests, but he wasn't allowed to read the technical documents unless he flew to California).

There was also a need for education within Sun about APL. Many Sun employees assumed APL was a co-branding agreement. While this was largely true of the T2000 machines (they were entirely Sun designed, originally Sun Fire T2000 rebranded as SPARC Enterprise T2000), the SPARC Enterprise M-class servers were not simply re-branded PrimePower machines; they were jointly designed, jointly developed, and jointly manufactured by both companies. Fujitsu provided the CPU chips and support ASICs, but Sun was responsible for the M4000 and M5000 hardware design (boards, power supplies, chassis), while Fujitsu owned the M8000 and M9000 hardware design, and both companies contributed equally to the platform-specific Solaris components and service processor firmware that ran across the product line.

Bridging Cultures

It's no secret that Japan has a very different culture from America. Before starting the project, many of us took a short class on doing business in Japan, and we all received a little handbook. But while the cultural differences were present, they were not significant. We Americans tried to be very respectful of the Japanese culture and traditions, but I'm sure we screwed up on many an occassion (I know I did). And in response, the Fujitsu engineers were respectful of the American culture, and forgiving of our faux pas.

We quickly learned the appropriate way to address our peers at Fujitsu, and they us. For example, I would refer to my Japanese counterparts by the last name with the suffix "-san", and they quickly learned that "Bob" was how I preferred to be addressed (and whenever anyone said "Mr. Hueston", I'd jump up and look for my father!). As we got to know our peers better, and were exposed to less formal situations such as dinners or one-on-one phone calls, then using their first names was acceptable. But out of respect, we'd never call someone by their first name in front of their superior.

Language was also a bit of a challenge. In Japan, most children study English in elementary school, so every profressional we dealt with at Fujitsu spoke some English. We always had to be aware that the person we were talking to did not speak English as their first language. We had to speak a little slower, articulate a little more clearly, and try to avoid using colloquialisms. If a sentence wasn't understood and we're asked to repeat ourselves, a natural instinct is to paraphrase what we just said, but that only added confusion. We had to learn to exactly repeat what we had just said, giving our Japanese counterpart the opportunity to re-listen and re-translate the words in their head. If they had a question or needed further explanation, we had to learn to listen carefully to their question, and answer the question that was asked. At first, talking face to face (or worse, phone to phone) was a real challenge, but after just a little while, it became second nature -- you talked more slowly using simpler phrases, and listend more closely to maximize understanding in both directions.

Looking back at the people that Sun selected for this team, I've noticed that they are all people who are calm, respectful individuals. There were no hot-heads, or name callers (Sun has their fair share, but not on this team). Perhaps someone higher up realized that in order to bridge the cultures, we needed a team of people who were patient, and would respect the people and culture of Japan. And I think mutual respect was the one key thing that helped us overcome any cultural differences.

Bridging The Distance

I was going to write about traveling to Japan and meeting with Fujitsu, but I think that can be a posting all on its own.

Building Bridges

Working on the APL program was all about building bridges. In a certain respect, the Sun engineering team was a bridge between Fujitsu and the rest of Sun. We bridged Sun's customers, service engineers, manufacturing engineers, and Sun's business to Fujitsu. In turn, the Fujitsu engineers we dealt with bridged Fujitsu's customers and business interests to Sun.

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Bob Hueston


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