Joining Sun Microsystems – 40 years ago

40 years ago today: I joined a tiny startup called Sun Microsystems. What a ride! Here’s the never-before-told story of how I arrived at Sun as employee #8! ๐Ÿงต

I started out in Silicon Valley in June of 1978 working at Amdahl Corp. porting UNIX to the mainframe, a revival of the work started at Princeton in 1975.

Sometime in late ’80 I moved over to Amdahl’s architecture group to work on data communications – X.25, SNA, etc. But that work wasn’t too satisfying.

During the UNIX/UTS work I had been up to Berkeley a few times to see talks by Bill Joy and others about BSD UNIX (I think I was the first person to implement the select system call, though it never made it to product). Anyways, I guess Bill remembered me.

There was *intense* startup fever in the Silicon Valley in 81/82. I was caught up in it and actively looking for a startup – I even bought books and magazines about starting companies.

๐Ÿ”ฅ๐Ÿ”ฅ๐Ÿ”ฅ At that time UNIX and Motorola 68000 were HOT technologies ๐Ÿ”ฅ๐Ÿ”ฅ๐Ÿ”ฅ – there were literally (yes, truly) 100 startup companies doing something with the combination.

Most of the well-funded ones were building time-shared minicomputers to attack DEC – Altos Computer Systems was a prime example. There were a bunch of bottom feeders targeting the home-brew market, and then there were a few with real differentiation.

I had talked with Valid Logic Systems, who were building a CAD workstation. Good people, but CAD was not my thing so I didn’t have any feeling about the business.

I also talked with Fortune Systems. John Bass, pretty well known in the UNIX world, was there and trying to get me. Fortune was very well funded and going after the Wang word processing market. I still have never seen a Wang system in person, so that was not my bag either.

But let’s talk about my unfair advantage – my Lyon family mafia. I was living with my brother Bob and his wife. Bob was working at Xerox SDD developing the Xerox Star workstation. And my brother Dick was at Xerox PARC with an Alto on his desk! So I knew workstations.

Bob had a friend from SDD, Glenn, who would come over to our house to shoot the breeze; and he started raving one time about the SUN project at Stanford and about how cool the processor board was, and how we should all buy one if we could (for homebrew hacking).

So I knew about SUN. One day Scott McNealy called me out of the blue, having found me at Amdahl. He said he was with a company called Sun Microsystems. I responded “Oh! Are you doing something with the SUN board?” He was NOT expecting that.

So I went for an interview and met Scott, Andy Bechtolsheim, and Vinod Khosla. That’s when they told me that they had landed Bill Joy – and that was who gave Scott my name (on a list with 20+ others). The combination of UNIX, workstations, and Bill Joy sealed the deal for me.

My bit of diligence was to check with my brother Dick about Andy B. Andy had interned with Xerox PARC while developing the SUN 3Mb Ethernet card. Dick assured me he had a good reputation.

So I got an offer letter from Vinod. When talking to him about it, I pushed a little on the stock option number. He reacted viscerally with “That’s a good number!” I think others had already moved him to a higher amount. Anyways, I was a push-over. I accepted.

When I told my brother Bob, he was rather distressed. We were just managing a house mortgage with 3 full time incomes. Interest rates then were well above 10%. But no worries; a year later he was at Sun too.

I started on May 3. Bruce Smith, employee #9, started the same day. We each followed the other around for a while thinking they had been there already. The office was at 2310 Walsh in Santa Clara, across from today’s Nvidia campus.

Bill Shannon(RIP) started a couple of weeks later with lots of BSD UNIX experience already, and together we were the fearsome kernel team. His fun title was “virtual memory manager” and mine was “director of devices”

My first success at Sun was in debugging a disk driver in UNISOFT UNIX (a V7 port for the 68K). The bug would scramble the disk whenever swapping started. With the fix, we could ship UNIX with Sun-1s.

A year after I started, Sun was a whole lot of great people with new buildings in Mountain View, shipping zillions of workstations with BSD UNIX, 68010s, and 10Mb Ethernet.

I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to have been part of the Sun Microsystems phenomenon.

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