The Network Is the Company

John Gage, chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, blends '90s technology with '60s activism. His manifesto: free speech, open companies, virtual work.

John Gage is holding court at one of his favorite haunts, the Espresso Roma Cafe in Berkeley, California. With laptop and latte, he's spinning scenarios about the future of the Internet and marveling at the explosive growth of Sun Microsystems, the company he's been part of since its earliest days nearly 15 years ago.

Gage's official title at Sun is director of the science office, but most everyone refers to him as the company's "chief scientist." It's a role that leaves him less and less time for latte. Gage, 53, logs 1 million air miles per year in his role as techno-troubadour and scientific ambassador. He compares notes with Russian supercomputer designers; keeps in touch with officials at the ultrasecret National Security Agency (an early and still-important Sun customer); swaps ideas with software nerds in Japan; reviews product strategies with hard-nosed executives at Sun's Mountain View, California headquarters. His most important job, he says, is "keeping the smartest people at Sun thinking, talking, and working together."

At the moment, though, Gage's thoughts aren't on business. He plans to spend the evening generating more than 10,000 World Wide Web pages — that's right, ten thousand, one for every K-12 school in California — in connection with a nonprofit initiative called NetDay96. Gage is organizing an army of up to 100,000 volunteers to descend on the state's schools on a Saturday in March and wire them for Internet access. It's a program bold enough to be laughable. But NetDay has won the endorsement of President Clinton and captured the imagination of business leaders. "I'm a one-man organizer of a virtual company with 100,000 employees," Gage beams.

Why would a senior leader in a $6 billion enterprise choose to complicate his life with a project like NetDay? Partly to demonstrate the power of Sun's technology; this initiative simply could not exist without e-mail and the World Wide Web. The larger reason is that Gage is more than just a scientific visionary or business executive. He's a rabble rouser, an agent provocateur, a product of the 1960s who never lost his activist fire or democratic values. Gage was active in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. He was a California organizer for the Robert Kennedy presidential campaign and a delegate to the 1968 Chicago convention. He coordinated the national traveling campaign for McGovern for President. "Do you remember that book, The Boys on the Bus?" Gage asks. "Well, that was my bus!"

These days, "Power to the People" sounds like the quaint rallying cry of a bygone era. But it's a way of life at young companies like Sun — where information flows freely and people aren't afraid to express their opinions — and in the explosion of activity around the Internet. For Gage, the Net — and in particular, the World Wide Web — is an electronic frontier that marries technology and democracy, the last best hope for an economy built around grassroots participation and personal expression. "The Web represents the biggest explosion in publishing and distance collaboration in history," he says. "It's the enabling mechanism for fast companies."

Where better to pursue this vision than Sun, http://www.sun.com, one of the most "connected" organizations on the planet? Its hardware products account for more than one-third of the world's Web servers. Its Java programming language is the hottest thing since the Netscape Navigator. Sun's 15,000 people generate up to 2 million e-mail messages per day. The company's 1,000 internal servers store 250,000 Web and other electronic pages. By mid-1996, all U.S. employees will be equipped with desktop videoconferencing. The ethos is simple: people should be able to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time, through any media imaginable.

All of which leaves John Gage thoroughly in his element. "This whole thing has a '60s flavor to it," he says. "There's a populist ethic. You don't like the news? Make some of your own. Put it on the Net."

We're here to talk about business, but at the moment one of your passions is wiring the California school system for Internet access. Does NetDay96 offer lessons for business?

NetDay is only possible because of e-mail and the Web. It has no office, no telephone number, no fax number, no paid staff. It's a totally decentralized virtual company. We don't order anyone to do anything. We give people an opportunity, and they choose whether to embrace the opportunity. People can visit our Web page, http://www.netday96.com , decide if they're interested, identify the school where they want to volunteer, tell us about their skills, and become part of the company. The best way to organize 100,000 people is to let them organize themselves.

And there's a message in there for organizing companies?

The basic message is that the network creates the company — whether that company is NetDay or Sun Microsystems. Your e-mail flow determines whether you're really part of the organization; the mailing lists you're on say a lot about the power you have. I've been part of the Java group at Sun for four or five years. Recently, by mistake, someone removed my name, John.Gage@eng.sun.com, from the Java e-mail list. My flow of information just stopped — and I stopped being part of the organization, no matter what the org chart said. I got back on in a hurry.

The best way to understand what's happening in a company is to get to its alias file — the master list of all its e-mail lists. Before the Web, I used the alias file as my main mechanism for knowing what was going on at Sun. I didn't need anyone to tell me when we were working on a new chip project. Suddenly there's a new e-mail list, Sun Blazer, and I know what's happening. I didn't need anyone to tell me Java was getting hot. There used to be 35 people on the Java alias list, then there were 120. Something's happening.

And people create their own private aliases. I have one called JavaBoss. It lists the people I believe are the real players in Java, my personal view on the power structure. They're the people I send messages to. A fellow named Geoff Baehr is on my JavaBoss list even though he works in a completely different part of Sun. But he's one of the drivers. You'd never know it from the org chart.

You're suggesting everyone can develop their own organization chart, their personal view of who does what at the company?

That's right. And then there's a second round. Let's say I mail you a message about Java, or I mail [Sun CEO] Scott McNealy, along with everyone else on my JavaBoss list. Suddenly the CEO sees who I think should get this information, who I think is important. I remember bumping into Scott at a conference in Geneva. Java is really heating up, he's getting lots of mail, and everybody is copying a guy named Mike Clary. Scott asks me, "Who's Mike Clary?" He's never met him, Mike works with [Sun cofounder] Bill Joy in Aspen. There's a new, virtual organization taking shape below the CEO.

That's important. Because he is on a lot of e-mail lists, Mike Clary has been recognized by his peers as an important person. It's like the science citation index. This affects people's careers. If your name is on e-mails flying around the company, that's good. You're getting far better exposure than in any annual review.

That doesn't mean people can't play politics. E-mail is a Rorschach test. People who are masters of back-office politics still play lots of games. They prune their lists to limit distribution. They time-stamp messages so when you're at a meeting, they can tell you exactly when they sent the memo you're supposed to have read. They are legalistic in their style. E-mail breeds people like this too.

Will the spread of World Wide Web technology inside companies — intranets — make traditional e-mail less important?

The Web is a step beyond e-mail. Putting up a Web page means you have something to say. And the way you put it together says a lot about who you are — not just the words but also the style, and your links to other pages.

E-mail and the Web are merging. It means I can e-mail you a hypertext page which, when you bring it up on your machine, has links to other documents, other people, other computers in other companies. We've gone from "dead" e-mail to "live" e-mail. People won't just send messages anymore. They'll send their view of the world, and express it as a series of links to other pages.

It just alters things. With conventional e-mail, I can persuade you through my words, with ad hominem arguments about why something is important. With live e-mail, I can show you. There's power in that.

At what point does technology create too much communications? Sun's people generate 2 million e-mail messages per day and have created 250,000 Web pages. Now you're installing universal videoconferencing. Don't you risk overload?

Every time we've increased the ability of people at Sun to communicate electronically, good things have happened. So we just keep increasing it. I can think of lots of interesting ways to use video. Let's say Bill Joy is sitting in Aspen and he has an idea, and he wants to start a discussion about it inside the company. He can do a video and put it out on the Net. Suddenly the entire company can learn from its most brilliant person. People can play it over and over and have an electronic discussion. We are merging video, audio, publishing, and telecommunications to create a new work environment that lets us combine and distribute our collective wisdom.

Let's move from networks inside companies to the networked economy. Is it all that different doing business on the Net?

For one thing — and this is only a slight overstatement — you can fire your vice president of marketing. The Internet style is to put something up and let other people examine it — no hype, no hoopla, no advertising unless it's substantive. That style is the basis of Java's success. We didn't make a big announcement. There were no tents, no spotlights, no celebrity endorsements. We put up the Web page http://java.sun.com and invited people to visit. They could read about Java, download code, and make up their own minds. And lots of people do. Our Java page gets 1.5 million hits per day.

It's no-obligation marketing. And it creates a different kind of customer, a much more committed customer.

Most people view this "download-for-free" model as a way to build market share and establish a standard. We'll give it away first, dominate later. You see it differently?

What you're really trying to do is harness the collective brainpower of the Net in the service of your product. The old idea was that the only people who could help you invent new things were people inside your company. On the Net, you can invoke the talents of people worldwide, 24 hours a day, who are doing it out of love — doing it just to do it. You don't have to know their names; they're on the Net. You don't have to pay them; they're on the Net. They work all the time; they're on the Net all the time.

The Net doesn't let you do away with your vice president of engineering, but it does change the job. The VP of engineering becomes a conductor and an explorer who looks for advanced work around the world and how to incorporate it into your product.

The Net becomes the foundation for a vast acceleration in product development. It's the goal of the new fast company: instant communication with people you've never met, to create something of value that becomes the heart of a business.

It's an alluring model — and one that few companies have adopted. What's stopping more companies from competing this way?

The network style isn't for everybody. People who are over 40 and grew up in companies where proprietary information is a big deal go crazy. You're going to post internal product documentation on the Web? What if our competitors, the enemy, get their hands on it? Which of course they will.

But there's value in talking with the enemy. The more information you get, and the more quickly you get it, the more likely you are to adapt and survive. It's like accelerating the evolutionary cycle. There are no real secrets. Speed is the only form of security.

Are there times when Sun doesn't walk its talk when it comes to living on the Net?

One of these days I plan to add a new feature to my personal home page: a Hall of Shame. The first inductees will be some senior people who proposed in 1994 that Sun charge $50 per month to any employee who wanted to use the Mosaic Web browser. It's always the same objections — capacity and security. They claimed that Web browsers were a huge source of viruses and extremely dangerous to the Sun network. It was ridiculous.

Did the proposal go through?

There was a grassroots revolt. I happened to be in Germany, at the Hannover trade fair, the night the message went out announcing the policy. I'm in Sun's booth drinking beer with a hundred Germans. The e-mail comes across people's machines and there's this huge uproar. So the Germans start sending e-mail to Mountain View saying, "I can't believe this." The messages startled people here, because they didn't realize where they were being written. That's another thing with e-mail. You get a bunch of angry messages from people and you think they're sitting calmly in their offices. You don't realize they're on the floor of Hannover Fair, drunk, with the Sun rock-and-roll band playing behind them. This movement from Germany started a series of flames, and the company backed off — you know, "Upon further reflection..."

Are there other sources of resistance?

Many HR people, including ours, are terrified by these ideas. Just try finding a phone book at Sun. Impossible! Why? "Headhunters will come after our best people."

That whole attitude misses the point. People assume that if someone leaves the company, they're no longer part of the company, that it won't benefit from their ideas. The network model says that's wrong. Patrick Naughton was one of the early leaders of the project that became Java. In 1994 he went to Seattle to join Starwave, the sports-information and entertainment company owned by [Microsoft cofounder] Paul Allen http://www.starwave.com . Patrick championed Java at Starwave. One of the reasons Microsoft adopted Java is because Naughton's group showed how Java could create something powerful.

Business is in a struggle: Who speaks for the company? Is it always the CEO? I don't think so. Sun stands for the collection of talent we've assembled; lots of people speak for Sun. The power — and terror — of the Net is that it lets them reach a huge global audience.

We are a multifaceted human organism attempting to explain ourselves to other people. Suddenly, our explanations, which sometimes conflict, don't reach one person, they reach 30 million people. It makes lots of people nervous. To me it's the best thing that could happen.

Richard Rapaport (rjrap@aol.com) is a writer based in San Francisco. His articles appear regularly in "Wired", "Forbes ASAP", and other publications.

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