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Sun founders confess all during walk down workstation lane

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Into the Valley Put Scott McNealy and Bill Joy on stage together, and you're already in trouble. Add Andy Bechtolsheim and Vinod Khosla, and you move from trouble to pure information overload.

The Computer History Museum last night played host to this foursome that founded Sun Microsystems. There was so much personality - and dare we say it, ego - in the room that it was hard to take it all in. These four men have become Silicon Valley legends, and a standing room-only crowd arrived to consume their stories.

On an individual basis, each founder tends to dominate these types of public events. Together it was a battle to outwit, out humor and out compliment each other. The voluminous comments and breadth of the more than two-hour discussion about Sun's history make it difficult to know where to begin.

That said, we're going to head straight for the middle of the shindig and hit first on McNealy's comments about Bill Joy – a man already well-known before joining Sun for his work on Berkeley Unix.

Happy, happy. Joy, joy

McNealy often praises Bill Joy for pioneering much of the open source and community software development model. And last night was no different.

"He has never gotten credit for it," McNealy said.

Joy invented the open process for doing community development software work and pioneered some of the open licensing arrangements, McNealy said. This attitude dominated Sun's early days, as the company shocked competitors by opening up much of its IP.

McNealy is right on this point given that Joy's name is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Stallman, Torvalds or the Apache crew. Hell, Tim O'Reilly receives more credit as an open source pioneer than Joy, and that's just plain embarrassing. So, for the record, let's give Joy his due.

Joy, of course, was the last piece of the Sun foursome to be locked in as a founder. The other three Standord guys had been hunting down a Unix guru for months in the hopes running the operating system on Bechtolsheim's amazing workstation design. They interviewed one Unix type after another but just could not find the right personality, McNealy recounted. Then, one of the rejects suggested this guy named Bill Joy.

"Andy went, 'Yeah, I know Bill'" McNealy said, rolling his eyes.

The four Sun founders in the early daysThe Sun founders called Joy and tried to set up a meeting. Joy didn't pay much attention to McNealy or Khosla – as they tell it – and said that sending Bechtolsheim on his own would be fine. In anticipation of Bechtolsheim's visit, Joy tried to think up a way to impress or at least amuse the hardware guru.

"I had a room with six VAX (machines)," Joy said. "It looked like a computer center, but they were my machines. I took (Andy) in the machine room and walked over to one of the microcomputers and just turned it off and pulled the board out and said, 'Look at this.'

"That was our way of bonding."

Having talent like Joy and Bechtolsheim on board made recruiting and sales easy in the early days.

"As soon as Bill Joy joined, we started getting calls from all over the world," McNealy said. "You remember that one guy? He said, 'Is Bill on board? We want two of whatever you've got.'"

Just a few months into operations, Sun's sales lines would light up five at a time with McNealy fielding the calls. The queries would die down at around six in the evening and then McNealy would head back to build machines and write purchase orders. Bechtolsheim's workstation design - that was similar to other products on the market "but one tenth the price" - let Sun thrive from the beginning.

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