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On Innovation. Interview with Scott McNealy

by Roberto V. Zicari on July 2, 2018

“We made it a point to hire really smart, visionary people and then let them do their work.
I wanted to delegate and let people be in charge of things. My own decision-making process was to decide who got to decide. To make decisions, you have to first outline the problem, and if you hire really great people, they’re going to know more about the problem they’re dealing with than you ever will.”–Scott McNealy

I have interviewed Scott McNealy. Scott is a Silicon Valley pioneer, most famous for co-founding Sun Microsystems in 1982. We talked about Innovation, AI, Big Data, Redis, Curriki and Wayin.


Q1. You co-Founded Sun Microsystems in 1982, and served as CEO and Chairman of the Board for 22 years. What are the main lessons learned in all these years?

Scott McNealy: Companies and technologies can go down as fast as they go up. Smart people make leading easier. Managerial courage is hard to find. Tech has the shelf life of a banana. Being CEO is a young person’s game.
Luck helps. Data is the new oil. It used to be Microsoft and Apple, but now it’s Google, Facebook and Amazon. As things continue to evolve, it’ll be someone else tomorrow. Have lunch or be lunch, or get tenure and do lunch.

Q2.​ ​You piloted the company from startup to legendary Silicon Valley giant. What were the main reasons for this success?

Scott McNealy: We made it a point to hire really smart, visionary people and then let them do their work.
I wanted to delegate and let people be in charge of things. My own decision-making process was to decide who got to decide. To make decisions, you have to first outline the problem, and if you hire really great people, they’re going to know more about the problem they’re dealing with than you ever will.
Then, once the parameters of each problem were clear, we would make decisions and take decisive action quickly. There was no time to grind out and wait until answers became obvious because competition wasn’t going to wait. I put a lot of pressure on my managers to be quick decision makers and let them know that it was okay to fail if they failed fast, applied that to their next endeavor.

Q3. What are in your opinion the top 3 criteria for successful innovation?

Scott McNealy: Quality of the people with whom you hire; participative but not consensus management, listening to both customers and engineers.

Q4. In your opinion how can we create a culture that supports and sustains innovation?

Scott McNealy: You have to have a common purpose that everyone can rally around. At Sun, we always had a cause and a very specific set of enemies, and while we drew from a diverse array of backgrounds, ideas and cultures, we always maintained that emphasis. Diversity of race, culture, gender was not as important as having a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives while most importantly having a commonality of purpose. Fostering that commonality of purpose is what really great organizations do and something I am very proud of from my time at Sun.

Q5. What do you think stops/slows down innovation?

Scott McNealy: Innovation and entrepreneurship are inherently risky, so a general climate averse to risk is a definite innovation killer. I’ve spoken in Japan on numerous occasions, and as smart and industrious as the people are, the innovation is lacking solely because of the pervasive cultural aversion to failure. Failure happens. Get over it. Just try to make bets small enough that they won’t bury the company if they fail. The other problem comes when managers are afraid to cannibalize their own products and revenue. If you dont, someone else surely will.

Q6. Do you think becoming an innovator can be taught?

Scott McNealy: Innovation is probably like leadership. It really can’t be taught but it can be identified and allowed to succeed. Not all employees are equally talented. Bill Joy and Andy Bechtolsheim and James Gosling are special people. They had a virtual carte blanche to do what they thought was right. And they were usually right. So making a company innovative is correctly identifying the innovators and letting them do their thing.

Q7. You have been quoted saying “​In a world without fences, who needs gates?​” Do you really believe that people can’t hide things anymore?

Scott McNealy: People haven’t been able to hide anything for a long time—it’s just coming to light more prominently now. I’ve been saying since the 90’s that privacy is a myth. A lot of people bristled when I said it then, but with all the news around Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, it’s staring them in the face now. The only organization that should terrify you regarding privacy is government. They are the ones that can actually negatively impact your life through IRS audits, student loan grants/ forgiveness, health care choices, judicial decisions, etc. It is truly scary how much the government knows about you and how much they can change your life. You can leave FB but you cant escape the Feds or even the local governments with their regulations and permits, etc.

Q8. Big Data, Machine Learning, AI driven algorithms: How these new technologies will change the world (for the better or the worst)?

Scott McNealy: All these new technologies will drive massive changes in the landscape from a business sense—the gorillas of today are not the gorillas of tomorrow. Of the three, though, big data is the most overarching and still the largest challenge organizations face today. And frankly it is something that will only compound as the years go on.
First and foremost, machine learning and AI driven algorithms are a byproduct of big data, and the more sophisticated those technologies become, the more data, insights and inferences can be made – ultimately resulting in more data. The ability to not only store, but make better use of data, will always be at the center of innovation.
Opening that whole data market to innovation is why we bought MySQL when I was at Sun — it’s a huge opportunity and a necessary step in the evolution of the technology. Now, as data continues to get bigger and the use cases and applications require faster transactions and 99.99% uptime, it’s critical that organizations have the right database for the right time.
At this point, however, web applications and the infinite number of edge and IoT use cases are multiplying by the day and a common theme underlying each of them is speed and reliability. And because of this shifting landscape, the incumbents are not in the best position to drive that innovation. This is why new approaches and open-source friendly solutions such as Redis are so critical.

Q9: Why did you join Redis Labs’ advisory board?

Scott McNealy: I love the management team, the technology, and their desire to use me as a mentor and advisor.

Q10. Curriki: What is the road ahead?

Scott McNealy: Curriki (curricula + Wiki) was founded over 11 years ago with the idea of creating a free and open community for teachers, parents and students where they could go to find, share, and contribute learning resources. It was modeled after the success of the Java Developer Community. At the time this was a completely new and innovative concept for K-12.

Today we are the leaders in this space with close to 15 Million users from 194 countries around the world that have touched over 200 Million students since our inception. We have over 250,000 multi media learning resources and over 1,000 groups of educators collaborating on creating free and open content. Our vision is to build out this high quality content into full K-12 multi media curricula, that can be used in the classroom or self paced. We want it to be real time scored so that students and educators know exactly where they stand and what resources they need to access to improve their outcomes.

Q11. Wayin: What is the road ahead?

Scott McNealy: Wayin has been used by major brands such as Coca Cola, IBM, P&G, and Nordstrom a number of years to create interactive experiences that collect first party data. These experiences have lived on clients owned and earned channels.
Wayin has just released the capability to publish these data collecting experiences inside Google DoubleClick ad units, Snapchat ads, as well as call to actions on Instagram and Facebook ads. Being able to deliver paid media ads, that aren’t just trying to force someone to watch a video or look at an image, but instead deliver an interactive experience, where the brand can collect first party data and marketing optins in return for entering into something like a competition is exciting. It’s changing the relationship of ads being interruptive on digital channels to something participatory with a value exchange. And given the risks brands now have with using third party data for targeting ads, after the Cambridge Analytica fallout and the EU’s enforcement of GDPR, marketers are now all trying to build up their own first party datasets around consumers. So this solution is timely.
McNealy Press Photo
Scott McNealy (@ScottMcNealy)
Co-Founder, Former Chairman of the Board, and CEO, Sun Microsystems, Inc.
Co-Founder, and Board Member, Curriki

Co-Founder, and Executive Chairman of the Board, Wayin
Board Member, San Jose Sharks Sports and Entertainment

Scott McNealy is an outspoken advocate for personal liberty, small government, and free-market competition.
In 1982, he co-Founded Sun Microsystems and served as CEO and Chairman of the Board for 22 years. He piloted the company from startup to legendary Silicon Valley giant in computing infrastructure, network computing, and open source software.
Today McNealy is heavily involved in advisory roles for companies that range from startup stage to large corporations, including Curriki and Wayin. Curriki (curriculum + wiki) is an independent 501(c)(3) organization working toward eliminating the education divide by providing free K-12 curricula and collaboration tools through an open-source platform. Wayin, the Digital Campaign CMS platform enables marketers and agencies to deliver authentic interactive campaign experiences across all digital properties including web, social, mobile and partner channels. Wayin services more than 300 brands across 80 countries and 10 industries.
Scott McNealy is an enthusiastic ice hockey fan, and an avid golfer with a single digit handicap. He resides in California with his wife, Susan, and they have 4 sons.


– Technology Pioneer Scott McNealy Joins Redis Labs Advisory Board

Related Posts

– On Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Deep Learning. Interview with Pedro DomingosODBMS Industry Watch, 2018-06-18

– On Technology Innovation, AI and IoT. Interview with Philippe KahnODBMS Industry Watch,  2018-01-27

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