Saturday Jan 21, 2006

I should be an analyst

I have analysts on the brain right now as we prepare for the annual Sun Analysts Conference, which wraps up January and opens February in San Francisco. Analysts are valued for their industry insight, validating decisions, and sometimes making predictions about the future.

Back in November, I intimated that maybe Petr Nedved wasn't a permanent in Phoenix, perhaps electing to play closer to his fashion coach and lifetime teammate (that would be his wife) rather than his fashionable former teammate (that would be Wayne Gretzky) turned coach. Nedved got traded to Philaldelphia on Thursday.

If only predicting the future was so easy.

Friday Jan 13, 2006

Where in the (e-)World is Dan Berg?

Dan Berg is in and Prague, Czech Republic. Almost at the same time.

Dan is the CTO of our Services division, another long-term Sun employee, and another former Systems Engineer who became a Distinguished Engineer. He's been in front of a series of trends, from jumping on the Java train early on to creating patterns to defining how an architecture-focused consulting business would (and still does) operate at Sun.

In his interview Dan covers two of the biggest geographic displacements that are affecting IT shops worldwide. First, smart people are distributed, and will remain distributed. Sun has worldwide engineering offices, and we are trying to develop career paths that diverge outside of California. It's not just enough to hire people in Bangalore, Prague, St. Petersburg and Beijing, they have to be full-fledged members of the technical staff. At a developers conference a year ago, someone asked me how Sun regulated the quality of our engineering efforts that are "off shore." My two-part answer was that since all of our non-US employees are Sun employees, I'm not sure what boundary was implied by "shore,", and further our engineers are expected to follow our development frameworks, design reviews, product lifecycles and architecture review processes regardless of ZIP or country code.

If that's our expectation, we have a responsibility as technology leaders to develop leadership bench strength in all of our geographies as well. That's why Dan Berg is moving to Prague - to take his collected experience as a Distinguished Engineer, software developer, services leader, start-up veteran, and former Texan to a major software engineering center. We'll see how long the Texas part lasts; I'm betting he trades 'horns for beaks within a month.

In addition to geographic independence of our engineers, we're also striving for geographic independence of software. Call it utility computing, call it IT as a service or software as a service, the bottom line is that you'll consume software over the network, without worrying about data center locations. Do you really know where Google is? Or eBay? Or the data center that routes text messages to your cell phone? When we talk about delivering IT as a service, that's what we mean. All you care about is reliability, quality of service, security, privacy, and consistency in time and space. Location is so 1990s.

So where in the world is Dan Berg? Blogging along his (e-)world tour.

I am the read-write web

More specifically, I'm the rw-rw-rw- web. It's only funny until I get more eBay feedback.

Sunday Jan 01, 2006

Here Comes (Jamaican) Santa Claus

My cast of alter egos grew by one over the holiday break. That's me, in a Santa suit, accompanied by my "elves" as we prepared to make landfall on the beach in front of the Hotel Riu Ocho Rios.

Backstory: On Christmas morning, the head of the entertainment crew at the hotel asked if I'd step in as Santa Claus. There were a few small facts omitted, but I considered this fair payback for my near-continuous musical mauling of Babylon By Bus by the pool.

The Prep: I was literally stuffed into a Santa suit, equipped with workman's boots and handed a Hefty bag of trash to lug around, turning me from one resident of the North Pole (Frosty) into another (Santa) in about 40 minutes. I got a nice tour of the backstage area at the hotel, and got to see first-hand what it's like to be in the entertainment division of a major resort. What we see is people having fun, teaching aerobics on the beach and making up silly games by the pool. What we don't see are the 12 hour days, six days a week, including cleaning up the backstage, front stage, tables, and bar areas after every show.

The Approach: If the Jamaican Bobsled Team has to go to Wyoming to train, how do you find enough cold stuff to land Santa for gift dispensing? You use a fishing boat and drive it up on the beach. True to form, I slammed my red velour covered shin into the gunwale of the boat. I'll swear I was Santa but won't swear as Santa.

The Kids: About 100 kids followed me through the property, through the main lobby, and back to the show stage, where I sat and posed for pictures while handing out gifts. I only lost my beard twice, both times when I grabbed white nylon and a kid at the same time and snapped the elastic on the back of my head.

Major props to Bill Rosenblatt, good friend and former roommate, without whom I never would have discovered Rastafarianism, the Lion of Judah, Positive Vibrations, or how much fun it is to bring a bit of the snow and cold to part of the world that's always warm. Irie, mon.

The 2005 List

I accidentally started a tradition last year by making a list so I'm compelled to do one this year as well.

Best Parenting Moment. Watching my daughter read from the Torah outside of Robinson's Arch at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and my son blow the shofar in the same spot where it's been used to signal the Jewish people for more than 3,000 years. No better way to learn tradition than to be part of one.

Best Sports Moment. Bronze Medal game, Can/Am hockey tournament, Lake Placid New York. A year after losing in double overtime, our youth team came up big with a 4-1 win over a cross-county rival to bring home the bronze medal. Every player took the ice in the game, every player contributed, and everyone celebrated. Sometimes miracles happen through hard work and good coaching.

Best Work Moment. CEC05, our Customer Engineering Conference, in which we brought together about 1/3 of the customer-facing sales and services engineers in the company for training, sharing, executive pitches and some fun. Sun's success is tied to our ability to amplify and apply our messages, and the attendees at CEC05 demonstrated a tremendous ability to do both, all the more impressive after an amped up AC/D She show at the final party.

Best E-Mail. After starting my own baseball blog this year, borrowing the number of my all-time favorite Buc Willie Stargell, I got an email from Stargell's niece thanking me for the tribute to her late uncle.

Best New Toy. Linksys Wireless Range Expander. Plugged it into the wall 2 floors above my main wireless access point, hit "autoconfigure" and fifteen seconds later the bedroom area of our new house had a 5-bar signal. No wires, no conduits, no punchdowns, no electricians.

Best Reading Accomplishment. Finished the trilogy of Simon Singh's books: Fermat's Enigma, Code and The Big Bang. Singh is a gifted writer who makes math and science entertaining. Tim O'Reilly told me that the way to make technology books interesting is to write as if you're teaching someone a game by having them watch you play. Singh captures that same feeling as he peels back modular forms, crypto systems, Copernican astronomy and quantum gravity for the untrained reader.

Best Shopping Experience.I remember the months before my daughter was born, back in 1991, having no clue how to shop for my own children. I was definitely worried about buying appropriately interesting toys, and not just things I remembered wanting as a kid. During our move, we managed to lose one knight from a hand-carved stone chess set of my son's; we bought it in Mexico a few years ago and there was no way to replace the missing piece. After a few days of poking around on eBay, Google, and some online game stores, I found a King Arthur-themed resin set that matched the stone board we have set up in the family room. It was greeted with "King Arthur and chess! Two of my favorite things!" There is no better feeling in gift giving than finding a gift that synthesizes (current) interests.

Best Poker Hand. Hit a straight flush playing video poker in Atlantic City, and three hands later my friend Joel (sitting next to me) hit his first ever royal flush. A chorus of shouts and high-fives rose over the ringing of the jackpot buzzer, and the buzzer beat us as it rang up 8,000 credits. Even at nickel stakes, it was a nice win.

To all Sun employees, customers, friends, family, readers, browsers, Googlers, and occasional passer-by: Happy New Year.

Thursday Dec 15, 2005

Frosty's Back (and Fuzzier than Ever)

This is what makes the holiday season fun for me: I get to be Frosty The Snowman. At our Somerset, NJ office party I had the pleasure of making about a dozen new friends all under the age of ten. Only two kids were terrified of me, possibly confusing Frosty with the Abominable Snowman in my furry white suit and Puma sneakers. Only one kid chased me around saying "You're not Frosty, there's a zipper on your back and you're furry, not snowy." Got me there, Holmes, and good luck in law school in a few years.

And yes, I did handle a conference call with analyst relations dressed up as Frosty. And they just thought it was jet lag making me mumble more than usual. I'm thinking seriously of driving home along I-287 in costume, sun roof open, Frosty hat peeking out the top, letting in the first flakes of another winter storm that's upon us.

Monday Dec 05, 2005

Red Light, Green Light

Mark this date, gentle reader.

I made it door to door, from home to midtown New York, in 28 minutes. During the morning rush hour. My cause was helped by two factors -- a snowstorm which rate-limited the traffic to a fraction of its usual volume, and the fact that I made every traffic light from the Lincoln Tunnel center tube exit to my favorite parking lot 13 blocks up-and-cross town. I've never made a green light on 9th or 8th Avenues. But it's 24 hours of firsts.

Last night we hosted our pre-launch CIO dinner. We had a high quality group of attendees, from major telcos to exchanges to money-making dot-com players. When the customers in attendance are household names, and they venture out despite dire predictions from Accu-Weather, you have a nice leading indicator. Scott talked about how we've rolled the entire product line in 18 months, from the Galaxy Opteron servers to Solaris 10 to today's Niagara server announcement. And for the first time in about four years, the first customer interaction wasn't a defensive one -- instead, he told Scott "Sun is doing a lot of things well now. I congratulate you for delivering over the past few years."

The red light is on (that would be a goal, for the non-hockey fans). It's so nice to play offense again.

And here's a prediction: in about 24 months, you're going to see a rash of industry analysts, writers, pundits, and bloggers who "remeber when" they predicted the valuable new metrics of computing -- price/power, price/density, price/thread. Just as long as everyone remembers who had the first score -- just about three hours from now.

Saturday Dec 03, 2005

Rule of Thumb

About six weeks ago we attended a family wedding in Minneapolis. We spent a lot of time (when not dancing, drinking or telling stories) comparing thumbs. The archetype is the fabled "Abelson Thumb," an encoding introduced into our family's gene pool by my late Uncle Murray Abelson. Murray and his wife May were closer to grandparents than aunt and uncle to me, as they filled the roles of confidantes, babysitters, and sources of life-long laughter. The family wedding was that of Murray's grandson Stephen. He's my first cousin once removed but by most appearances, he could be my younger brother.

Most appearances. Stephen has the Abelson Thumb. So do his father, his sister, and two of his first (female) cousins. The Abelson Thumb crosses gender, generational and national boundaries (Stephen was born in Canada). I do not have an Abelson thumb, being a Stern and not an Abelson, but I know what the Abelson Thumb can do.

The Abelson Thumb is short and wide, has a narrow, rectangular nail that appears to have a tenuous relationship with the rest of the thumb, and the whole thing sticks out a little bit too low or too perpendicular to the hand that feeds it. It's this thumbnail sketch that gives user interface designers at Nokia and Sony heart palpitations. It's a badge of honor among my cousins.

Murray once drove my parent's station wagon in reverse a block and a half on a side street in New York. The "One Way" signs indicated the orientation of the car, not the direction of travel. Murray wasn't looking for a parking place, but instead for 7th Avenue. If I happen to catch The Guns of Navarrone or The War Wagon on what is the equivalent of late-night UHF stations, I remember they were among his favorite movies. The Abelson Thumb carved our Thanksigiving turkeys and made a staggeringly good potato salad. Murray was a World War II veteran who, according to family legend, made a bathroom run in the middle of a caravan across the English countryside. While thumbing a ride back to his company, he was hit by a truck, and landed in the infirmary instead of on the beach at Normandy.

Murray owned only a handful of popular music albums, but the one played most frequently was Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life. He was a speciality retailer before Wall Street coined the term. Nobody was allowed into the family without passing his "inspection", which usually involved hugs and an eating test. Alissa, Stephen's wife and my newest cousin, would have passed. If Murray liked you, we all liked you, and there was no better rule of thumb.

Monday Nov 21, 2005

Pain Inventory

Here's a reason not to like Mondays that Bob Geldolf missed: taking an inventory of what hurts. It was not a good weekend for pain accounting - our little Devils lost on Saturday on a goal that was deflected by one of our own players (one that I'm proud to call my own). Our big Devils lost on Saturday night. Our little Devils played a great game against a greater team on Sunday, losing again, dropping us to the lower third of the conference standings. At least we have consolation that the team that shares our practice ice (the $34 million dollar Devils) isn't faring any better this season.

Sunday night was game four in the Hockey North America season, 2nd place Ice Dragons (my team) versus the league-leading Moose. An early 1-0 lead for the Dragons vaporized when I lost my check behind me, and he flipped a nice pass in to tie it. We ended up losing 2-1, the same score with which the weekend started. Afterwards, the locker room conversation was about how it was a good game, about lots of bumping but no complaining, how we were lucky that the Moose hit four posts (it could have easily been 5-1), and that we should repack our home whites for our next game in a mere 48 hours.

Monday morning my body tells a different story. My back feels like someone opened a door into it, which I think is what happened when I accidentally hit the door latch while jumping the boards, and fell over the open door. Bumping in the slot is reflected in sore shoulders and forearms today; I'm a pathetic vision of adult hockey, typing hunched over the keyboard.

What I told my son on Saturday's drive home is that mistakes happen, especially when you're on the defensive side of the game. Nobody sees the wingers' mistakes because they don't show up on the scoresheet. Lack of effort can be criticized and corrected, but momentary failure should only result in another shot at success another day. That's the lesson I took (complaining loudly and eating Aleve like M&Ms) into work this morning. It's hard to cast your mental state as something eerily similar to perpetual beta, but that's the carbon-based production world -- you fail, you correct, you try again.

Friday Nov 18, 2005

CNBC Technology Leadership Awards

Monday night saw the inaugural presentation of the CNBC Technology Leadership Awards. Sun was a sponsor of this year's program, so I had the pleasure of attending the awards dinner and got a prime table assignment with Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, business news anchor and emcee for the night. Caruso-Cabrera is funny, insightful, a Mac user (I tried selling her on OpenOffice for the Mac), and capable of carrying on at least three conversations at once. Best quote of the evening: "I've interviewed powerful Wall Street executives who are embarassed by their kids when it comes to technology." I've claimed the same things when touting the changing economics of software but Michelle is a TV person so it must be true.

The downside to the night was that I had to write a sub-3 minute speech introducing an award winner. Talking isn't a problem for me; limiting speech to an average television break poses a challenge. I went through the Cliff Notes version of this for live audience, but I've transcribed the unexpurgated version for those who are bored at work on a Friday.

Technology leadership is one of those funny phrases that can be interpreted as required. As a technology vendor, we recognize leadership in terms of creation -- patents, innovations, market disruptions. End users of technology, though, apply those new innovations to reshape a business or create new opportunities. I'm reminded of something I learned coaching youth soccer -- good players create space, and then kick the ball into the open space to create momentum. It was my delight to present an award to an end user of technology that created quite a bit of open space in a crowded market.

The CNBC Leadership in Finance award went to Kurt Woetzel of the Bank of New York. Nowhere is the confluence of the social aspects of our networked society -- real-time, 24x7, location and geography independent communications -- married to the very real bricks and mortar world than in financial services. This is even more true when you run technology for a 220-year old bank that was founded by Alexandar Hamilton. Face it, when your founder's picture is on the US $10 bill, you have to take business continuity quite seriously. As most people know, Alexander Hamilton ended up on the losing end of a duel with Aaron Burr that took place on the proper side of the Hudson River, in Weehawkin, New Jersey. The event was auspicious for three reasons: it was the first ever recorded fight over IT governance, it was the first time something ascribed to New York really went down in New Jersey (think Jets and Giants here) and Hamilton was quoted as saying "Don't change anything until I return."

BONY is a leader in custodial services, foreign exchange, straight through processing (STP) and clearing functions, for which the bank has received numerous awards. Kurt has promoted a policy of global consistency, such that applications are the same from Chicago to Mumbai. One out of six employees of the bank are technologists, creating both a large talent and a large opinion pool. Kurt's technology leadership over the past 20 years has helped deliver the Bank of New York to a financial services leadership position today.

Sometimes it pays not to listen to the founder. After all, it's Scott who says "Better to seek forgiveness than ask permission."

Friday Nov 11, 2005

Beauty and the Geek

I admit to being totally embarassed. Life imitates art again because I was completely blindsided by celebrity.

On the return leg from our customer advisory council meeting in Barcelona, I was seated next to someone who looked vaguely familiar. I recognized her but couldn't place her. She was exceptionally conversant (in English with me, in French with the flight attendants, in Czech on her cell phone), and our dialogue touched on existentialism (she was reading the Czech equivalent of Sartre), dealing with in-flight turbulence, ice hockey, family balance, learning Slavic languages, and life in and around the Big Apple.

After putting together some pieces of the puzzle I decided to capture my first thoughts for later blogging, and popped open my OpenSolaris (build 25) laptop. Had to show it off; demonstrated to my seatmate that it looked familiar (she professed to prefer the Windows user experience to a Mac), had office and email and web software, and it was fast. She's (rightfully) proud of her work (I inferred), and I'm proud of Sun's. I just carry my geekly portfolio with me.

Never once did my seatmate give me the "you should know who I am" look, or imply my relative cultural cluelessness for not recognizing her. On the one-year anniversary of ending up in a wheelchair due to a hockey injury, I was once again reminded that we should dismiss all pre-conceived notions about people based solely on the context in which they are first perceived.

It took me two Googles (a new metric for cultural status - props for that, please) to triangulate my seatmate's identity from the clues she politely pushed on the conversational stack. I am probably the first person to ever sit next to Veronika Varekova and recognize her husband (Phoenix Coyote Petr Nedved) first.

Sunday Oct 30, 2005

Lucky 13

It's been 13 months since I started blogging. I've discovered old friends (who have discovered me online). I've found interesting Google page-ranking algorithm effects that cause my blog to show up in the most amusing searches. I've received emails from Willie Stargell's niece, from Rick Wakeman (of Yes keyboard fame), and from a friend of Patrik Elias' who forwarded my blog post about the Devils star buying sneakers. I'm writing, I'm reading, I'm thinking about writing as I'm reading, and I'm taking many more pictures of everyday things that seem blog-ready.

Sunday Oct 23, 2005

Leadership and Tradition

Two games into the 2005 Fall Classic, and I keep thinking about Albert Pujols. In Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, the Cardinals needed a monster hit, and Pujols delivered. His body language at the plate said "gopher ball"; he can be forgiven for an extra slow start toward first because, well, even he wanted to see how he crushed that pitch. Yes, the Cardinals lost in six, and yes, Pujols goes another year without a World Series ring. But he does so with amazing grace and dignity, and only after assuring that NL pitchers are a bit more afraid of him that last year.

The more I think about the big A from the Midwest, the more I think about the big A from the Bronx -- Alex Rodriguez. Let's say, hypothetically, Pujols hit a grounder back to the box in Game 5. Would he have attempted to slap the ball out of the pitcher's glove? Would he have taken an extra fast start toward first? How you lose your last game defines how you're seen for the first game of the next season.

Having a great player on a team makes everyone better. Not because that one player can always pull you out of a tight spot; those players set the bar for everyone else. Want to know why the Yankees were watching the ALCS, not playing in it? Nobody was setting that bar. Nobody delivered when it mattered - not Jeter, not A-rod, not Matsui. The Yankees tradition of winning (or of greatness or of sportsmanship or of whatever) looked, honestly, a lot less like the highest payroll in baseball.

I'm all for tradition -- it holds our dispersed families together; it creates a framework for looking back on four years at Princeton; it's why most of us cheer for the same teams as our parents. As traditions develop and take root, they become initial points. Tradition is a cause and not an effect.

Tradition begets respect. Respect begets sportsmanship. Sportsmanship begets leadership. Leadership begets winning. In four months we'll see how far back to the basics the Yankees have gone.

Sunday Oct 02, 2005

(Not) Predicting the Future and /dev/drum

What started as a minor rumination on the end of the regular baseball season turned into a summary of an excellent question that was posted to me during a trip to Garmish, Germany last week. My answer involved drum memory and interoperability. Bear with me, we'll start with baseball.

In the course of unpacking my swag in my shiny new home office, I found the oldest baseball that I own. It was given to me by my mother, who received it (autographed) from a Cardinals minor-leaguer named Whitey Koppenhaver. You never heard of him because he never made the show; he played and then went on with his life. He currently runs a farm stand in north-central Pennsylvania, and still plays hardball fifty years later.

This has a lot to do with drum memory, I promise you.

Nobody can predict the future; sports figures certainly have made history when they have done so correctly. Ruth's digital signalling to the fence and Mark Messier promising a Game 7 win to his Rangers fans left their mark on New York. Signing his name on that baseball didn't make Koppenhaver a sure thing at short; but I use it to frequently remind athletes, young and old, that very few of us go on to the bigs, most of us play small ball and revel in the little victories our entire lives.

If the future is cloudy, and no secret incantations, wearing of unwashed heather grey t-shirts with the "lucky stains", or select couch real estate can influence the future (or even help the Jets complete a forward pass), then our positions as technologists must be built on things that we believe are reasonable future-proofed. That is, we understand that technical evolution happens, we encourage it to happen, and we make sure that the cost of evolving doesn't become a tax on running our businesses.

Not to sound like too much of a Unix codger, but I vaguely remember device driver entries for /dev/drum, the ostensible drum memory device (for backwards compatibility, of course). Nobody knows what drum memory is in fashionable computing circles, but it drove quite a few NASA missions, libraries and early computing centers. So let's say you have some data on a drum storage device and you want to read it today. You hope it exists in another format, or you're off to visit Weird Stuff looking for something you can hack. Evan Marcus and I actually discovered a (possibly apocryphal) story about some missing satellite images stored on rotating drum memory, which we relate in the High Availability book.

Assume you can read whatever physical media your long-lost document is in. Now you have bits. Big difference between bits and information -- can you use the bits with whatever application created them, or its modern equivalent? Can you turn the bits into a map, an image, a story, a piece of your family's or corporate history? If it's more than 10 years old and it's not ASCII email, I'd vote "no". Perhaps a minor problem now, but with increasing digitization of everything from photos to legal records to bank check images, it's an upcoming crisis. Anybody else remember XyWrite, WordMarc, WordPerfect, or VisiCalc? I used them all (I warned you, I'm a techno-codger).

Note that for some technologies -- TCP/IP, for example -- this isn't such a big deal. The standards are open, easily and freely implemented, and interoperability is done through plugging the new and old into the same network. If the transports work like this, shouldn't the data flowing on the transports have the same future-proofing? If it's not free to be viewed in the culturally hip app-du-jour, then converting it (or retrieving it) represents an implicit IT tax on the data. Somebody has to pay for making your data fungible.

The question posed to me in Garmish was about Massachusetts and its proposed requirements for adopting the OpenDocument format. This may be the first time Massachusetts, a state famous for taxation, has found a way around the concept. They aren't looking to exclude vendors; they're trying to future-proof the digital records of the Commonwealth. Earlier this week, Sun made a bold step in protecting implementations of OpenDocument format by making a statement to OASIS effectively assuring patent peace. Our Chief Open Source Guy, Simon Phipps captures the essence of the protections.

I see it as future-proofing my personal and professional data. My bits -- all of which are now created and edited with OpenOffice and persisted in OpenDocument format -- are just as secure as my atoms, including one dirt-stained Whitey Koppenhaver baseball.

Friday Sep 16, 2005

Curve Conspiracy

You've probably noticed the stylish "Sun curve" in our new share campaign. I was in some of the internal focus groups that bantered about Sun's identity, mission and vision. Along the way, I sent a note to Ingrid VanDenHoogen, our VP of Brands and Stuff, including a profile shot that showed me in, well, a less than complimentary posture. I took creative license to claim inspiration, if not motivation and perspiration, for the S-curve. With all due respect to David St. Hubbins, there is a fine line between corporate and corpulent.

I'm waiting for Ingrid to up the ante by suggesting I appear on a Dove billboard.


Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management


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