Monday Oct 08, 2007

Customer Engineering Conference Day Zero

I'll admit the truth: I was blogging about our pre-show activities at our Customer Engineering Conference and ended up writing notes for my opening talk, hanging out with our engineers, and going out for dinner rather than posting it. Consider this an off-by-one error: I was blogging about CEC day zero but effecting it on day one. Or else it was a by-product of finding a sign (literally).

6:00 AM. I am probably one of a dozen people who saw the sun come up after a reasonable night's sleep. Show walk-through and final schedule check at 6:30 AM.

8:00 AM. Principal Engineer meeting to discuss changes in our technical career ladders and how we differentiate leadership, influence and "size of the job" from technical contribution, work product and engineering excellence. The challenge I raised to this group of technical experts: think about our user interfaces. This isn't about programming interfaces or developer contracts; it's about the social contract for working with other groups of engineers across Sun, with our customers, our partners and the technical community at large. At least once a quarter, someone surfaces the notion that Sun needs a product with consumer cache (I'd call it the i-cache but the processor guys would object). I'll argue that we have already have an asset that drives the social and cultural attractiveness of our company: it's our engineering corps. We just need to make sure the user interface is attractive, easy to use, and stimulates more interaction and use.

9:00 AM. Global Sales and Services Management meeting. A variation of the same talk, but from the other side of the manager's desk. At last year's CEC, we introduced cepedia, a MediaWiki based community-driven engineering repository. But there's a huge different between a place to share and publish vanity content, and leveraging the vanity (in a good way) to build communities of technical experts. We are going to move away from the quarter-century old Sun model of having email aliases for every activity. Our goal: let communities self-form, self-regulate and drive collaboration at the pace of Facebook, where (for example) our in-house icon Patrik Elias has his own online church as a function of his goal-scoring.

2:00 PM. Brief stop in with the Chief Technologists, the folks charged with the fan-out of our technical strategy, industry ideas and community building across the field.

3:00 PM. Ambassador meeting. Ambassadors are the stewards of the engineering-field relationship, and part of my job is to provide logistical and editorial content support for them.

4:00 PM. Rehearsal for the main tent opening. w00t. Being the curious and hyperactive, caffeinated adult that I am, I walked into the adjoining mass-seating meal room. And lo and behold, there's a Blackbox in the room, on the trailer, with the tractor attached for the fully mobile data center effect. I've given tours of the Blackbox before, but I've never checked out the truck part. So I hopped into the cab, and gave serious thought to firing up the diesel (I do have a Zamboni driver's license, after all). Then I realized that without any clue how to handle a 15-forward speed transmission, the possibility of accidentally driving through a wall and into the stage set was quite large.

5:00 PM. The Yankees win, or at least get closer. So much for the power nap. Blog entry was supposed to go here, but life intervened.

And now back to our live program....

Monday Feb 12, 2007

High Cheese and Web 2.0

Baseball has been a forerunner of technology for decades: night games played under high-intensity lights, televised games bringing the American national pastime into American living rooms, and in July 2000, mlb.com delivering pitch by pitch animated network casting of live games, along with a treasure trove of statistics, video, images, and most recently, a public fan blogging facility.

Major League Baseball Advanced Media is the image of scalability, with about 2 billion visitors a season, over 2,400 games from April to October, and a fan base that is willing to stay up until 3 AM on a Tuesday night if the Twins are playing and that fan happens to be in the Middle East. The content volume generated per day, the level of interactivity with the site, the statistics and the game delivery in a variety of real-time or compressed-time formats, crossed with the fact that blogs and fantasy leagues make it all writeable, and you have a Web 2.0 franchise player.

Justin Shaffer, VP of Architecture at MLBAM and I went 9 innings on how to avoid chin music from the big boss (and the fans) when your technology platform throws wild pitches and how mlb.com consistently delivers the high cheese to a growing variety of devices. If you want the full story modulo the inappropriately used baseball slang, check out our latest Innovating@Sun podcast.

Thursday Feb 08, 2007

Not Your Father's HPC

Marc Hamilton and I put the spin on High Performance Computing in the latest wave of our Innovating@Sun podcast program.

HPC normally conjures up images of big FORTRAN applications and ray tracing, look for radar shadows or casting light shadows to make computer animation more pleasing to our visual radar. But we're now seeing a class of HPC applications that shift the usual time-space tradeoffs, putting enough data into memory to allow near real-time analysis in areas like transaction fraud detection and logistics optimization.

Friday Nov 10, 2006

HR view of the world: Volker Seubert

Volker Seubert, who is our Global Systems Engineering HR business partner in EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa), has a great HR blog. While many people see HR as the fun-removing enforcer of rules, a good HR partner really creates fun, creates opportunity and makes sure the rules are appropriate.

Friday Aug 04, 2006

Staff Blogs

I am not your usual corporate cadence person. I only tolerate face to face meetings if there's something that can be accomplished by thinking out loud, drawing on the white board, or splitting off into small teams to divide and conquer a bigger problem. I believe in regular, fact-filled communications. I'm not a fan of long staff meetings. Now that I have a global staff that reaches Seoul, Prague, St. Petersberg (Russia, not Florida), Menlo Park, New Jersey, Boston and soon, Dallas, I'm experimenting with time-space synchronization.

Last night was the first (and potentially last) late-night staff call. Trying to limit the number of badly timed calls per month, we rotate our conference call times, with last night's agenda starting at midnight EDT, early morning in eastern Europe and a pleasant mid-afternoon in Korea. This may work.

More important than communication among my staff is our communication to anyone with an interest, inside or outside of Sun. That's the whole point of transparency; you don't really care about the line items on a budget unless it means there's something new you can use as an employee, customer, developer, or partner of Sun's. In addition to my blog, Dan Berg, CTO for Global Sales and Services and the Vice President of Europe, Middle East and Africa Systems Engineering is in the mix, and today, SeChang Oh, Director of Asia-Pacific Systems Engineering added his voice. They represent the electronic face of Global Systems Engineering, and cross time zones and cultures much better than our own Late Night show posing as a staff meeting.

Thursday Aug 03, 2006

Customer Engineering Meets Wikipedia

One of the major problems I need to tackle in our field organization is to foster communites of experts, and create some open space in which new expertise can blossom and be discovered. In a sidebar with our Chief Learning Officer, Karie Willyerd, it hit me that we really need are vanity wikipedia pages for engineers in systems engineering, our product-focused practices, and our customer support functions.

About three weeks ago, we did a stealth launch of our CEpedia (if you're inside of Sun's network firewall, try it as a universal URL from any SWAN domain). CEpedia is the Customer Engineering Wikipedia. It's based on the WikiMedia software distribution; it was built in all of about 3 days with some hard work from Liz Wilson, Mike Briggs and Scott Radeztsky (thanks, folks). Simple efforts with massive leverage -- one of the ways I think most grassroots efforts start.

It grew to about 50 users through the usual "don't tell anyone" electronic word of mouth that initiates a tipping point. I pushed it along a bit further this morning by talking about it in front of our Americas sales organization. That's all of the advertising I'll give it; the rest should be floated by the community of engineers. My first evidence of traction came tonight when I found a blog referrer pointing back to cepedia. That was my intent -- to create a map of the myriad respositories, resources, and content within and outside of Sun, and to make it easy to find experts.

Now it's up to the experts to populate the wiki. I'm confident that our customer-facing engineers will do just that, with the right blend of fun, facts and fresh ideas to make cepedia the internal, entertaining authority on who knows what.

We're the "Oh" in Web 2.0

Just got back from Orlando where I had a blast at the Americas Sales Kickoff. The energy level was high, a combination of a clear strategy and a great set of products to sell. I did my first trial run of a technical strategy for the global systems engineering community -- most of which I'm going to share here.

I had the advantage of being Scott's warmup act. Guaranteed audience, even if it was in the "hangover slot" first thing in the morning. I titled my talk We're the "Oh" in Web 2.0, mostly a play on Jonathan's post about the dot in 2.0. My goal was to generate some interest in the "oh" as in "oh, there is a bucket of technologies in which we can drive customer conversations". As some folks have argued, we're not sure it's Web 2.0 if we don't know when the cutover from Web 1.0 happened, and we may very well be into Web 3.0. I'm much more interested in the version suffix as an indicator of change and opportunity, rather than the major version.

Saturday Jun 03, 2006

Change in Longitude

I have a new job at Sun, prompting a new blog category. But first (as always), the back story.

I tend to mark time relative to events rather than calendar dates. The Miracle on Ice happened on a Friday night at the midpoint of the 1980 Winter Olympics. My summer's tenor is pitched on the 4th Monday of May, when Memorial Day is observed at golf courses and beaches. And for the past 22 years, I can recall what I've done on the Friday before Princeton Reunions: it's sort of a half-New Year's Eve for reflection. I've spent it in Connecticut, China and Cincinatti, and a dozen other places that break my alliteration.

Seventeen years ago, the Friday before Reunions, I accepted a job offer from Sun Microsystems to be a systems engineer in the Boston area sales office. I was fleeing a startup company in the molecular modeling space that was attempting to port industry-leading visualization software from Sun workstations and SunOS to a combination of MS-DOS and VAX/VMS. The exit criteria were pretty obvious. By the time my wife and I arrived on the Princeton campus, my Tiger classmates were questioning why I was joining a company that had just pre-announced a quarterly loss (that was, I believe, the last time Sun went cash flow negative for the fiscal year).

My answers were simple: the technology was solid, the people were smart, and the combination was fun. We've come a long way since SunOS 4.0.3 and the SPARCStation 1, but those traits remain constant.

On Friday, I changed longitudes in Sun's organization chart, the Friday before Reunions, the first Friday of the Jersey summer, and one that I hope I remember for another 22 years. I'm returning to Sun's field organization to be the spiritual and functional leader of Sun's global customer engineering force. Defining the exact organizational parameters is this week's job, and it will include both structuring our systems engineering community as well technical leadership for the entire customer-facing engineering community at Sun.

Here's what I do know:

  • Don Grantham, Executive VP of Global Sales and Services, stated in late April he was going to re-invigorate the technical talent in Sun's field organization. I'm not going to suck up to my new boss in public, but I can tell you Don gets things done. Quickly. Like sending out an organization announcement at 6:00 AM his time quickly. Given how little he sleeps and eats (and how rare breaks are in his staff meetings), I'd be tempted to believe he's a good AI, but I think capturing his wry, British sense of humor is probably beyond current coding paradigms.
  • I'm continuing in my position on Greg Papadopoulos' CTO staff so that every single engineer in the company now has a voice at Greg's table. R&D is represented through lines of business CTOs; the field is represented through our organization. I'm going to be a router for customer issues; it's critical that we get remain customer focused.
  • We are going to be amazingly consistent in terms of our technical vision, modulating technology market and industry trends by some architectural focus areas that are percolating our of our company-wide R&D review. Sun's field will once again be the source of disruptive, clever and technically sound ideas for our customers -- both current and new ones.
  • We are going to put the systems back in "systems engineering." Whether it's security architectures, performance, or making sure that every interesting software project runs on Sun (in Java, on the JVM, on Solaris, on our servers, using our storage, or as part of our tools ecology, "runs on Sun" is big), we are going to deliver on both "systems" and "engineering." It's table stakes for building (and in some cases, rebuilding) our street cred.

    With our software strategies in full bloom, from dynamic languages on the Java Platform, to open sourcing the stack, to building a new value proposition with Aduva, it seems a rather strange time to leave my role as Software CTO. There's never a good time to make a job change when things are going well; but I believe you have mentally made the change when you find your inter-email thoughts turning into "How cool would it be if..." propositions about the new role.

    In short, that's why I'm back in the field: because (a) we have great technology, (b) there are amazingly smart people to turn that technology into systems, and a management chain that wants (a) times (b) to equal fun. Again. In the words of Stuart Scott, it's time to rock the party that rocks the (engineering) pinata.

  • About

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

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