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Former top Sun exec mourns end of a franchise

Watermelons, Elton John, and killing SGI

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Scott McNealy's one time right-hand man at Sun has expressed his dismay over the impending acquisition of a company he helped build.

Masood Jabbar, Sun Microsystems' former head of sales, told a Silicon Valley conference he was "deeply, deeply" saddened by the prospect of Sun's acquisition by database giant Oracle.

"We built a great franchise, we built an awesome franchise at Sun Microsystems, we worked hard, we played hard," he told OpenForum 2009 at the weekend.

Jabbar joined Sun in 1986, four years after the company was founded, and served in various positions during his 17-year tenure. Towards the end, he was separately an advisor to then-CEO McNealy and executive vice president of global sales operations. Today he is an angel investor and on the board of several start ups.

At OpenForum 2009, Jabbar spoke glowingly of the hey-day of competition that saw Sun squarely target SGI and proceed to carve out a massive franchise for SPARC workstations and servers among banks, financial institutions, telecoms, service providers and academia.

Jabbar said his team's actions were instrumental in killing SGI. Sun undercut SGI on price, forcing its rival into ever-more expensive, high-end systems and prompted the unsuccessful purchase of Cray Systems in 1996. Cray was sold off again in 2000. SGI entered bankruptcy protection this year and its assets were acquired by Rackable Systems.

Poignantly, Jabbar was speaking at the Computer Science Museum in Mountain View, California, which once was SGI's old building number 20. "This used to be SGI, my fiercest competitor when I was at Sun," he said. "I can't tell you how many times I walked past this building or drove past this building wanting to shut it down".

In the glory days, Jabber rewarded top sales performers with prizes that included parties at the Palace of Versailles in France, Sydney Opera House, and in Hawaii where Elton John was flown in to perform.

"If I ever get to write my book, you'll know how hard we played," he told OpenForum.

Jabbar suggested one reason Sun had failed to stay the course in the 2000s was an inability to recognize and react to slowly changing trends. Sun was famously late to the Linux-on-Intel party in the dotcom era, for instance, when it continued to push its signature Solaris on SPARC to start-up internet companies as the way forward.

"It's the subtle change that's happening inside your organization that eventually cripple it and most people don't see it coming it," he said calling this condition a cancer. "You must change before you have to."

Paraphrasing Bill Joy, Sun's co-founder, Jabbar said innovation comes mostly from outside an organization. "Be ready to embrace it, and listen, and keep your eyes and ears open."

He also warned of the risks of companies that lose their focus. He recalled a $150m chunk of Sun's revenues had been booked to come from dotcom companies. These were organizations that were not guaranteed to pay, either because their businesses were unproven or they were venture- funded. On discovering this, Jabbar got the business insured so that when the crash came, Sun didn't have to write off a single penny, he said.

Asked at a conference shortly after the dot-com crash what had happened to Sun putting the "dot" in dot-com - the slogan that was the centerpiece of a marketing and advertising campaign that had promoted Sun's SPARC and Java businesses during the bubble - Jabber said he'd remarked Sun was now putting the "old" into "old economy".

"Get back to basics," he said. "Get distracted by a lot of thing that aren't you, and you lose focus." Citing a McNealy comment in 2000 that "there is low-hanging watermelon everywhere to get more market share" for Sun, Jabbar said such an approach would kill you.

"Focus is not what you elect to do, but what you elect not to do. The biggest killer is greed", Jabbar said. ®

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