scott-ncnealy
Cloud Computing

Upset by America but Unbowed, Scott McNealy Still Rages

Scott McNealy eschews the need to wait for any handlers before our interview phone call.

“Let’s go hard at it before I get censored,” he says. As if. McNealy is an authentic legend of modern business computing and, even for a Silicon Valley CEO, he’s as amped up and opinionated as they come.

Being a controversialist and quote machine helped build what was a towering media profile when Idaho-born McNealy was boss of Sun Microsystems, keeping the media entertained and news columns filled with a never-ending supply of zingers and unapologetically expressed opinion.  “Well, the last thing you want to be with a journalist is boring,” he says.

The call has been set up because McNealy is an advisor to ForgeRock, an identity and access management company that counts several former Sun employees among its numbers.

“I always felt that establishing who’s who, what’s what and who gets access to what is the Holy Grail of modern IT, and a way to solve a lot of problems and make a lot of money,” he says. “And I love to see former Sun technologists do well.”

But he’s also happy to walk down Memory Lane, even if some of the more scenic detours need to be kept strictly off the record.

McNealy says he was in and out of Oracle in two days flat after Larry Ellison bought Sun five years ago and jokes that that’s because “Larry had a bigger boat than me”. (Ellison, of course, is an Americas Cup-winning yachtsman and owner of seafaring vessels and stratospherically expensive planes and cars.)

“Often what Oracle did is buy companies to eliminate competition. And Larry is a wicked smart CEO who did not need me looking over his shoulder.”

McNealy says he hasn’t spent time observing Oracle’s stewardship of Sun and has no views on recent strategy.

“They don’t call and ask for my opinions and I don’t volunteer any,” he says. “I spend my time looking into the windshield, not the rear window.”

He’s modest about his involvement in ForgeRock, social platform maker Wayin and Curriki, which provides free learning resources, saying he can help by advising companies, raising funds and opening doors. “I have some insights and perspectives I can offer because I have seen this movie before.”

I remind him of a couple of his best quotes, one of which (“You have zero privacy — get over it.”) has taken on extra resonance in the intervening years.

“I always used to wonder why Europeans were so afraid of their governments rather than the bad guys,” he muses.

“In America, the government tended to stay out of the way of the private businesses. But there’s been a scope creep of government and they’ve taken over, and pretty much messed up, education, Treasury and the Fed, real estate, mortgage loans, healthcare. All this ‘crony state-ism’… We are hurtling towards 50% of GDP spent in the government sector. All of a sudden I am sort of scared of my government because they can seize my assets, an ever greater percentage of my income and pick winners and losers in the private sector by regulations and other financial rigging.  NSA snooping was very, very spooky and scary, and now I understand why the Europeans have an inherent mistrust of government — I didn’t really understand how dangerous that would become. If I don’t like what Google is doing with me, I can stop using Google, but I can’t do anything about the government.”

And he’s off and running about the state of the nation, capitalism and more, railing against the growth of “an even larger underclass that’s feeling like victims rather than feeling like they have an opportunity”, corrupt trade union behaviour, and rules pushed through by “a Tsar as opposed to the judiciary”.

I ask him whether, as a member of the technocratic elite, he was disturbed by recent events in San Francisco where actions against tech workers and corporates have become sporadic.

“I struggle to understand why you wouldn’t want billionaires in America,” he says. “Without economic freedoms you’re not going to have personal freedoms. I guess I’m not a believer in socialist or Marxist expectations of human behaviour.”

A self-professed libertarian capitalist, McNealy is seemingly not, however, a fan of pure laissez-faire conduct and he was closely involved in the Department of Justice versus Microsoft case, testifying against the company and never without a criticism of it and what he saw as unfair advantages the Redmond company had accreted.

“Have you ever seen a greyhound dog race?” he asks.

Yup.

“That’s sort of like capitalism and some dogs win and some dogs lose. Now imagine you have a really fast and big dog that can get around the corner before the other dogs have even started running. The other dogs stop running and don’t chase the bunny and you have a monopoly. Do you shoot the dog or make a statue out of Bill Gates and put it on the steps of the department of commerce? Or do you buy his company out and start the race again? My beef is not that Bill Gates was a criminal [but that Microsoft] had too much market power and it was not good for the system. It would have been a very reasonable expenditure for the government to buy out the [Microsoft] shareholders and dole out its IP like the way they do with spectrum. I would have open-sourced the IP so everybody could build on those platforms. Today, Microsoft is not as important as it was but we had many generations that were held back, but why hurt the Microsoft shareholders?”

Another phrase McNealy was associated with was “the network is the computer” and Sun effectively anticipated cloud computing. Is he impressed by the change in IT architecture?

“There’s a lot of ink, a lot of words, but network computing was basically the same thing as cloud computing. Unfortunately, the PC, phone and tablet makers have all put too much hair around the browser.”

I ask about the end of Sun, before the sale to Oracle in 2009: was it hard to step down?

“No, I wanted to be with my boys, I was almost 50 and, you know what, let’s spend some time with my boys. They will do far greater things than I ever did. But I have to tell you, the day I handed over the reins, I said to my wife, ‘I have finally figured out how to be the CEO. I can’t believe I’m giving it up.’”

McNealy says that after a life of long hours, hard graft and many, many business flights he was wrung out and ready to step down.

“Larry Ellison is a very, very smart man and he said to me: ‘Your big thing is, you should’ve found a Safra Katz [Oracle co-president and long-time executive]: somebody who can do your bidding so you’re not travelling around working your butt off.’ I always felt I had to outwork everybody else. Larry’s view was, ‘I don’t have to work the hardest but I have to be the smartest.’”

McNealy does not believe he could have ever run Sun without being the hardest worker in the company though, so this strategy was always likely to have been impossible for him.

Like many alpha males, McNealy has always had a sentimental aspect to his character and it’s a fair bet that most people who have heard his business pitches would have heard something about his kids Maverick, Dakota, Colt and Scout.

He says he is convinced they will become great business people too and his big plan is to “help launch their capitalist efforts”. Rather touchingly, he also goes into some detail about their unusual names: McNealy’s father was a VP at American Motors and the names all have associations with cars as well as links to country-and-western and old Americana. They also all have a secondary meaning: Maverick as in “listen to your own little drummer”, for example. I laugh when he says if he had had a girl he would have called her Mustang Sally. On reflection, I think he was serious.

Then he’s back to bemoaning the country he clearly adores.

“The battle for data is all about the battle for electrons and the battle for hardware is all about the battle for atoms,” he says, despairing that computer engineering appears to be on the wane in the US when “guys like Fairchild and Charlie Sporck” were inventing what is now Silicon Valley.

“We made silicon, transistors, chips, boards, computers and storage and switches and we actually put crap in a box and shipped it somewhere. Now with political correctness, massive rises in minimum wage and especially the unions, we’ve basically made America far less effective in creating hardware and if you lose that you lose a lot. If you look at where VC has gone, we’re funding Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and are we really becoming a more competitive nation?”

And with that our time is up. Irreverent, opinionated and passionate, Scott McNealy isn’t for all tastes but he’s a reminder of the Valley at its buccaneering, R&D-dependent, wonderfully innovative and aggressive peak. Rage on, sir.

 

Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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