Sun's stars: Where are they now? And why did they leave?

A massive exodus of Sun's senior executives raises questions on how development and innovation can continue under Oracle ownership

Oracle, which spent $US7.4 billion to acquire once-high-flying Sun Microsystems, has been losing prominent Sun technologists since shortly after the deal was forged. The acquisition was supposed to give Oracle control not only over such technologies as Sun's flagship Java implementation and Sun's Sparc hardware, but access to engineers and developers who were nothing short of celebrities in their field. But it has not worked out that way.

It was not unexpected that Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz and Sun chairman and former CEO Scott McNealy did not make the switch to Oracle. Those high-ranking positions were already taken at the database giant. But the number of former Sun personnel residing in Oracle's top executive offices is sparse.

In fact, the only Sun alumni found on Oracle's Web listing of top executives are Executive Vice President John Fowler, who had dealt with Sun hardware; Senior Vice President Cindy Reese, who was a worldwide operations executive at Sun; and Vice President Mike Splain, who also was involved with Sun's hardware systems operations.

Key departures have included Java founder James Gosling, XML co-inventor Tim Bray, and Simon Phipps, Sun's chief open source officer. After serving as CTO of client software at Sun, Gosling worked for a couple months with the same title at Oracle before leaving in April under what appears to be acrimonious circumstances. Bray, who was director of Web technologies at Sun, also quickly left Oracle, becoming a developer advocate at Google. Phipps, never offered a job at Oracle, is open source strategy director at integrator and identity platform vendor ForgeRock.

Other departures include Sun engineers Charles Nutter and Thomas Enebo, who shepherded the development of the JRuby programming language at Sun but joined Engine Yard last summer several months after the Oracle acquisition of Sun was announced. A key developer on the open source Hudson continuous build project, Kohsuke Kawaguchi left in April to form a company to continue working on Hudson.

Sun's tech leaders say why they didn't fit in at Oracle

In a blog post, Gosling noted his need for a lawyer after resigning. "I've spent an awful lot of time reading these [blog and other] messages and answering as many as I could. Between all this and spending quality time with my lawyer, resigning has been a full-time job (before I quit, several friends said I'd need a lawyer because 'this is Oracle we're talking about' ... sadly, they were right)," wrote Gosling, who has not indicated where his next employment would be.

Oracle's offering, at times, substantial salary cuts to former Sun personnel was likely to result in the development of many small businesses as Sun alumni leave, according to Gosling. In a blog post last week, he offers praise for ForgeRock and consternation for Oracle: "They're another great little company spinning out of the rubble that Oracle created out of Sun. They do service, support, and development on what used to be called OpenSSO (among other things)," Gosling writes.

"While Sun had open-sourced the code, Oracle still owns the name, so the ForgeRock folks picked a new name: OpenAM (Open Access Manager). OpenSSO is another case where Oracle [ended] the superior product and then sent salesdroids to OpenSSO customers with term sheets that were truly frightening. They did a great job of creating a business for ForgeRock," he adds.

"Sun and Oracle are very different sorts of companies, not necessarily in a bad way," says Nutter. Oracle has not been as committed to open source as Sun was, he says. "Sun was basically all open source. That's basically what they've been doing for the past four or five years," Nutter says. (Oracle declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Nutter cites uncertainty about JRuby as reason for leaving: "We were still excited to work on JRuby and we didn't have a lot of negative indications, but we didn't have a whole lot of positive indications that the project would continue. It seemed like a good time to move on to someone willing to fund JRuby."

Bray revealed little about his departure in a blog post but hinted at animosity: "I'd had an offer to stay with Oracle, which I decided to decline; I'll maybe tell the story when I can think about it without getting that weird spiking-blood-pressure sensation in my eyeballs. So I reached out to a couple of appealing potential next employers, both were interested, and Google seemed like the best bet," Bray wrote.

Oracle is about making money; Sun was about inventing technology

Sun and Oracle have had "massively different cultures," says Forrester Research analyst John Rymer. "I don't think the Oracle guys respect the Sun guys. The Oracle guys are really expert at making a lot of money, at selling software." Rymer said. "The Sun guys, they were pretty good at inventing things but they weren't good at making money. That's why they got sold."

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison has said as much, telling Reuters recently, "The underlying engineering teams are so good, but the direction they got was so astonishingly bad that even they couldn't succeed."

Sun's open source strategy clashed with Oracle's profit strategy, Rymer says. "If you're sitting in Larry Ellison's chair, where he's all about 20 percent growth and massive amounts of revenue and all that, he looks at [former Sun CEO] Schwartz's strategy and says, 'Why would I do that?' Buying MySQL [as Sun did] on the theory that you could sell all those people servers and storage, that didn't work," Rymer notes.

Rymer says, "I wasn't surprised at all that [Gosling] left. Gosling is more of a research kind of guy. He just didn't strike me as a guy who would be happy working inside of a big money machine like Oracle."

"I think the assessment of cultures not fitting is pretty near the truth," says RedMonk analyst Michael Cote. While Sun sought exploratory, cutting-edge engineering talent, Oracle's business model has centered on building and buying up successful portfolios, such as Siebel and PeopleSoft, Cote says.

IDC analyst Al Hilwa also acknowledged cultural differences and different agendas at the two vendors: "I think Gosling was an example of that. He's much more of a sort of a freewheeling spirit." Oracle, meanwhile, has been much tighter with its messaging and does not like multiple reports going out, he notes. But Hilwa dismisses the notion that the concept of open source presented a clash, since Oracle also is promoting open source.

Oracle eventually could suffer a loss of innovation from the Sun departures, says Forrester's Rymer. But most of the software products that Sun worked on such as the Glassfish application server are not strategic to Oracle anyway, he notes. (Oracle has expressed intentions to continue Glassfish as a departmental offering.)

Rymer adds, "I still don't think [Oracle has] figured out the [plan for Sun's] hardware."

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