12 tech leaders’ resolutions for 2012

Stay nervous

By Scott McNealy, Chairman, WayIn (as told to Derrick Harris)

Scott McNealy was one of the four founders of Sun Microsystems, where he served as CEO until stepping down in 2000. In 2011, McNealy reemerged onto the tech scene with his new startup WayIn, a social networking platform through which users share their sentiments on specific topics. We wanted to find out how the startup scene has changed in the 29 years since McNealy launched Sun, and whether an enterprise IT veteran making a social media play has changed along with it.

The big trends in the coming year are pretty obvious. Big data–we’re only accelerating in terms of the amount of data that’s being gathered. So deduplication technology is going to be big. Data warehouses, data analytics, the kind of stuff that Greenplum and EMC are doing–that’s going to be huge.

Somebody has to step in front of the open source parade any really lead it, because the community is too large to not have a spiritual leader at the enterprise level. Now that Sun is gone and Larry [Ellison], well, sharing isn’t his middle name, so somebody needs to take the lead.

And here’s the most interesting thing that I think will change–we get 5G, WiMAX everywhere, and HTML5, and now you don’t need apps. Back to the cloud, as opposed to the seven pages of applications that I have on my iPad alone. Now I have personal computer again in my hand. It’s kind of a pendulum that swings back and forth.

I’m always pining away for my old Sun Ray. I hate my Mac. I hate my phone. The amount of time our family spends on administrating this stuff is outrageous. The horror of the expenses we pay to keep upgrading the client! I had the same Sun Ray in my home office for seven years. It’s the best computing in the world–absolutely stateless, data-less, super-thin. It is still the right answer, and we’ll get there someday.

The good news, bad news part about this industry is that it’s a little bit like the fashion business. Apple’s technology is not great, but it’s fashionable. What Steve Jobs understood was that he was more like Calvin Klein than he was like Andy Bechtolsheim.

I come from the enterprise side, where if your product has real value, you can sell it. On the consumer side, it’s like Top 40 music. You’ve gotta have a hit. Legislating a hit is a little harder to do than legislating a value-add enterprise product. Now, the upside on a consumer hit is way higher than on the enterprise side. The enterprise side takes a lot longer to build, but it’s a lot more durable.

With WayIn, we’ve tried to have a good balance of both–something that’s psychotically addictive to the individual consumer, yet has explicit value we can charge enterprise customers for. We’re also trying to take a big enough swipe at the market to be revolutionary and not just evolutionary.

I think WayIn is one of the few social, mobile, cloud, big data things that actually has explicit enterprise value. We can offer companies real insights, because we’re not talking about inferred consumer sentiment. We ask users direct questions. The whole social/mobile thing hasn’t really solved the conversation issue, and we’re closing the feedback loop.

We’re trying to do all the things I wish we’d done at Sun back in the old days. We’re very lean and mean, 25 people, and we’ve outsourced a lot of the non-core functions, so we’re very flexible. I think we’re modern in terms of cloud computing, big data, HTML5, Hadoop, smart phones, all the rest of it. Organizationally, we’re running on Amazon, so we’re able to get to market quickly without having to put a lot of capital in. I’m chairman, not CEO, which is sort of like being a grandfather instead of a father, which is way better in dirty-diaper mode. So I’m smarter that way. But I’m not so smart, because I’m putting my own money into this one as opposed to other people’s money.

It’s still crazy. I’m still nervous as all get-out. I find myself up in the middle of the night thinking about the business, but it’s fun. I mean, that’s why you’re in the game. If you’re not anxious, if you’re not worrying, why be in it? You should be out there trying to make stuff happen. It’s not risk-free, but it sure feels good.

You know what I like most about this? I stepped down from Sun eight years ago because my boys were 2, 4, 6 and 8 years old, and I wanted to be with them. Now, they’re 10, 12, 14 and 16. Wayne Gretzky’s kids never really got to see him play hockey. My boys are getting to see me do what I do. They’re all using the app and coming up with great suggestions. When they get home from school, they ask, “How’s WayIn doing, Dad?” and they actually want to know.

It may not be successful, but they may learn more from it failing. Seeing how something gets started and watching it grow quickly is always more interesting than watching Oracle morph.