Sometimes the best decisions become clear only with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. So I'm sure Scott McNealy, the most cocksure tech CEO I ever met, must know he made the right move getting out of the way at Sun Microsystems.
Since turning over the reins to Jonathan Schwartz in April 2006, Sun has picked itself off the floor, staging one of the more improbable corporate comebacks in recent Silicon Valley history. Come on now, fess up: how many of you believed Sun had a rendezvous with irrelevance? OK, I'll be first to raise my hand. After the dot-com bubble burst, Sun felt the pain more than most. In the years since, the company was in a neck-and-neck race to the bottom with Borland Software, another former high-flier that has since fizzled out.
Truth be told, I thought Schwartz talked a good game with the media, but I doubted he had the right stuff to revive the company. He reminded me more of one of those smug yuppy jerks who once populated the senior management ranks at Microsoft (pre-antitrust trial, before all the smack-down which later ensued.) Or as McNealy was wont to say on other occasions, Schwartz came across as "all hat and no cattle." Whenever he met with CNET editors, for example, Schwartz came across as obviously bright, but so obnoxiously in love with the sound of his own voice that I couldn't wait for the meeting to end. He was convinced you were flat wrong and that should be the end of the discussion. Couldn't we see he was right?
Well, four consecutive quarters of profit later, who am I to argue with the track record? No doubt, a fuller assessment must acknowledge that many of the seeds of Sun's recovery were planted during McNealy's time. Even as Sun's world appeared to be collapsing around him, McNealy kept investing in R&D projects. That later paid off in the coin of success with things like Sun's Galaxy and blade servers. Also, McNealy helped bring back one of the industry's legendary designers at a critical moment when Andy Bechtolsheim rejoined Sun in 2004.
Ever since, Schwartz has done a splendid job moving Sun along the right paths. He's been eloquent about the need to step beyond Sun's own hardware and software. And his vocal of open-source software has been especially timely.
MarketWatch ran a story today quoting some dude from Global Equities Research claiming Sun overpaid.
Was it too much? Considering how MySQL commands nearly half of the open-source database market, that's a potentially juicy client list of new customers--even though it's going to cost Sun $1 billion.