A Geek In Training

Sun Geek

The Sun Will Always Shine


I'm sure I will bore most of you with my historical ramblings, but today signifies a big change in my life. It is bitter sweet. I'm leaving the company that I have literally spent almost half of my life with. Sun Microsystems hired me right after I graduated college in 1989. My first day at Sun happened to fall on my 21st birthday.  I was hired to do component level debug for deskside servers in their Milpitas manufacturing plant. It was a whole new world for me. I had moved from a modest town in Colorado to Phoenix, Arizona to attend a trade school for electronics. As I neared graduation, I interviewed with IBM, HP, Sun and others. The Sun interview clicked and before I knew it, I was on my way to the center of innovation - The Silicon Valley - to start working for one of "the" high flying tech companies.  Ironically, I knew zilch about either of them. I was as green as you could get. I had no idea what Sun built, who they sold to, or how they got there. I had never touched Unix and didn't know the difference between a compute server and the server at Denny's.  What I did know was that I was good at electronics and Sun wanted me to help them fix them. My fascination with technology started when I was ten years old. I didn't have a radio in my room, so I thought I'd rig one. I cut off the plug from a lamp, stripped the wires and connected them to the 12V wires of a loose car radio I found in our garage.  I plugged it into the wall socket and watched it literally light on fire on the lovely green shag carpet in my basement room (god bless the 70s)! I frantically reached to unplug it and my hand touched both sides of the exposed wires sending lovely electricity rushing through my lean little body. Luckily, I fell over and the connection was broken. After I stamped on the radio to put out the fire and then carefully unplugged it, I started grinning from ear to ear! That was awesome! I had no idea why it had done what it did, but I had successfully burned up my first electronic device and given my hair a little more snap!  I was hooked.  I wanted to find out how it worked and why it ignited! My older brother Dan, who happened to own the car radio, didn't think it was so cool.  My dad on the other hand was rather happy that I stopped the house from burning down.


My experience at Sun has been nothing but positive. Every one of my positions has been created from an internal need to solve a problem.  Each has given me a new perspective in considering how I approach and solve these problems. They have also stretched my skills, got me out of my comfort zone and made me grow personally and professionally.  The only reason I left Sun in 2000 was the lack of another challenging project. I had just completed the largest project of my life - an industry bake off of networking equipment to test the maximum configuration of interfaces on Sun's largest servers.  It was an incredibly challenging and fun project. In the end, I purchased millions of dollars of networking equipment from Cisco (ATM core) and Xylan (translational media bridging). After the completion of the project a number of the engineers from the participating companies formed a startup called Allegro Networks. I was so impressed with this team of people, that I wanted to be involved - regardless of what they were working on. After three years of incredibly hard, but exciting, challenging and rewarding work, Allegro became another victim of the WorldCOM "massive fraud" fall out.  As I contemplated what my next step would be, I realized what it was about Sun that attracted me.  It was their culture and their focus on innovation. I decided to return. I came back into the company as the N1 (datacenter virtualization) strategy was starting.  I was immediately neck deep in acquisition integrations, product feedback, and building the most complex infrastructure environment in Sun's portfolio. After a very rewarding ride in N1 (more acquisitions, merging with Sun cluster, etc) another internal challenge surfaced. Sun's technical infrastructure (data centers and labs) was out of control and costing the company a fortune. They needed a global strategy on how to clean it up and enable the future.  For the last five years, that has been the singular focus of team. GDS was the most talented, effective and fun team of people I have ever had. The challenges have been great, and the successes, even better.  I am a person who is driven by challenges, solving complex problems and pushing technology.  Once again, the Sun culture enabled me to tackle these problems head on - simplify, innovate and execute!  I'm very proud of what my team has been able to accomplish and contribute to Sun's bottom line. I also appreciate the exceptional, real-world education I have received in my tenure at Sun.  I've been blessed to work with very bright people who are just as motivated as I am. I also appreciate the executive support and encouragement I received through these very challenging times. The caliber, integrity and passion of Sun's executive leadership team has contributed to who I am today.  Scott McNealy, Jonathan Schwartz, Greg Papadopolous, Bill MacGowan, Bob Worrall, David Dougals, Sean Connellan, David Harris, Kelly Palmer...the list goes on and on.  I have learned so much from all of them.  I hope to exemplify the best in their leadership qualities as my career continues. 


As I reflect back on my first 20 years in the tech industry, 17 of them with Sun, I realized I am just as excited and fascinated with technology as I was when I was ten. I'm just a geek in training, but now I drive a better car...with a working radio.  :-)


The Next Step In My Career


The last 24 months at Sun I have had the privilege of interfacing with literally thousands of Sun's customers. The datacenter tours and briefings that emerged as a result of our datacenter consolidations have been incredible. Over 5500 people have toured the CA and CO datacenters. To put it simply, they wanted to talk with the team that had successfully consolidated and compressed Sun's 1.4 millions square foot portfolio by 41%.  Not only had we enabled massive savings and blown our carbon reduction goals out of the water we had also designed for the future. We supported IT, Services and R&D's labs and datacenters.  All the next generation hardware that would be in our customers datacenters in the next 2-3 years, was already in ours.  We had a crystal ball, so to speak, and were confident on where the future was going.  The customer briefings and tours sparked peer-to-peer discussion and debate that was invaluable to me, and to Sun.  The insight and professional network that was built from these exchanges was priceless.  I spent a lot of quality time with customers at all levels understanding their needs, sharing what has worked for us over the last five years, and defining my perspective of the future.


One of the most intriguing of these companies was eBay, a long-time Sun customer. In October of 2007, Bob Worrall, our CIO, asked if I would partner up with him to give feedback on the RFP for eBay's massive datacenter project in Salt Lake City, UT.  We couldn't officially respond to the RFP because we didn't have a service offering for design and construction at that point. So, we decided to do a non-response response.  Sounds confusing, right?  But we wanted to give input to our valued customer on a major investment they were about to undertake.  If done correctly, it would enable their growth.  If not, it would stunt it.  We had always valued the trusted advisor status we had earned at eBay and wanted to continue contributing to their success regardless if Sun could charge them for it.  This started a flurry of tours and meetings. 86 people (I counted) from the different lines of business at eBay Inc. toured our datacenter. We also spun up design working sessions and additional information sharing to help.  It was a great experience, and we were able to influence their designs and provide valuable input to their architecture. But the main reason this was successful, was the leadership that Olivier Sanche provided.  Olivier joined as eBay's Sr Director of Data Center Operations in April of 2008.  We had met in London earlier that year and established a close working relationship.  When he landed at eBay, he took the data center project by the horns. We successfully collaborated in many different projects at eBay, Sun and Data Center Pulse.


In May of 2009, rumors started flying about someone acquiring Sun. Tons of speculation flowed through the media.  When the official announcement came through that Oracle intended to purchase Sun, it caused many people to rethink their future.  I have always believed that if I am challenged in my job, being stretched to continuously learn, have a solid team, executive support, and of course good compensation, there isn't a reason to look for something else.  But with uncertainty, I also believed it was prudent to see what options were out there. I started talking to a number of companies to do just that. It is a very interesting time in the valley.  Companies are rethinking their strategies, or "turning" their companies around. But, there are a number of them that are still growing like weeds.  These of course are the "red shift" companies - the companies that are at pace or exceeding Moore's law.  I had great conversations with these companies about what the future looked like and the opportunities.  But, while on vacation in July, I received a call from Olivier.  He said that he had a job opportunity surface that he could not pass up. He also expressed how incredibly difficult this decision was.  He believed thoroughly in the eBay vision and had been driving it with vigor - but, as usual many opportunities surface at the most inopportune times.  He asked if I would consider talking to eBay about a job.  I was intrigued and interested to understand where they were going and if I could help.


When I returned I met up with two of eBay's executives, the VP or Operations and the Sr VP of Architecture.  They articulated their strategy to reinvest in technologists to fuel the scale of their business.  As I listened to their vision and what role I could play to help it come to fruition, I started getting excited.  I had never truly appreciated the scale and impact of eBay. A huge population of people make their living on eBay. There are 88 million active users at any given point of the day - and the majority of the financial transactions that feed their 170 million listings, go through one of their companies - paypal.  They have also weathered the economic meltdown and are one of the oldest founding internet companies.  What resonated with me, was that their business lives and dies on the performance of their datacenters.  I had understood this before, but not at this level.  They are the epitome of Moore's law.  They have an aggressive tech-refresh program that enables them to keep up with user demand. But with great consumption, comes great responsibility. I witnessed a significant commitment to energy efficiency and environmentally responsible data center management through their green team. Their datacenters are core to the business in more ways than one. Their latest blog entry, eBay's Sustainable Data Center, highlights this.  Enable scale, but keep both economical and ecological costs under control. A delicate balance, but absolutely obtainable with innovation. At Sun we were able to beat our carbon reduction goal 5 years in advance and achieved 25% of the new goal within the first 3 months of 2009. Green is Green as long as it is an integral part of your daily thinking. This seems to be the case at eBay.


But after all the exciting conversations what I was most impressed with was how aligned and excited the leadership was.  They have retooled the approach from the top down and inspired their employees.  I felt the excitement, the energy and confidence in their future. They were experienced, focused, aligned and absolutely going after the market. I kept thinking to myself, that everyone I talked to seemed to be just like me - Geeks, excited by technology.  I could see many of them burning up their own car radios when they were kids!


I didn't need to look any further. This was the type of environment I was hoping for. They were focused on innovation and enabling their business to grow as fast as the internet. I now own the datacenter strategy, architecture and operations for eBay.  What also aligns perfectly are many of the focus areas we have defined for Data Center Pulse. eBay is aligned and believes in the vision - influence the industry through end users.  I consider eBay one of the Uber end-users. They consume products for the datacenter, they don't sell any into it.


As you can probably see from this rant, I am very excited to help eBay achieve its vision of the future. I am absolutely on-board and ready to rumble.  I'm also excited about what this means for Data Center Pulse.  We're killing two birds with one stone here.  The work that I am responsible for in eBay, is perfectly aligned with the industry efforts we are pushing for in DCP.  We will be accelerating our efforts and uniting end-users to drive innovation and direct the future of the datacenter market. Boo-yah!


Stay tuned.  It's about to get exciting.  :-)


Dean Nelson