5–1/2 Questions for Scott McNealy

Scott McNealy

Co-Founder, and Board Member, Curriki — Our Children’s Future, Our Future

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 the startup stage to large corporations, including Curriki. Curriki is an independent 501(c)(3) organization and a leader in open educational resources. Curriki’s flagship technology product, CurrikiStudio is a free authoring software that leverages over 50 open source learning tools, ranging from interactive video, games, virtual tours, and simulations. CurrikiStudio helps organizations across K-12, higher ed, and corporate learning create engaging interactive digital courses, and publish to major Learning Management Systems, content platforms, mobile, and other web-enabled sites. Through Curriki, we are driven to improve educational opportunities and break down the barriers that divide those who have access to high-quality education and those who do not.

As the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, one of the largest start-ups in the 80’s, Scott was an innovator in the technology field. His keen business insight helped make Sun a leader in the technology space up to its sale in 2010 for $5.6 billion dollars. His passion for technology didn’t stop there.

Scott McNealy is an enthusiastic ice hockey fan and an avid golfer.

BA, Harvard, 1976 MBA, Stanford, 1980


5–1/2 Questions for Scott McNealy

1 — What was the biggest risk you took in your career?

You know I actually had a hard time with this, because I don’t feel like I took a lot of risks in my career.

Looking back, I will tell you that the biggest risk I took was going to business school because that was 2 years that I’ll never get back.

I had to pay money. I wasn’t getting paid. I wasn’t learning things at anywhere near the rate — nowhere near the rate — of stuff that I learned while working 2 years before business school, and the rest of my career after.

So I think the biggest risk anyone can take is taking 2 years out of your life to go get an MBA.

But probably after that, the next big risk I took was actually becoming CEO, and the risk was that my life would be totally dominated by my job.

And I think as a CEO, I always felt I had the responsibility to work harder than anybody else in the company, and I also felt that my personal needs and family needs and all the rest of it were put on the back burner to taking care of and leading and stewarding the shareholder’s investments, and the employees careers. and that’s a the risk — that you give up on a lot of things.

Now, fortunately, I was able to, at the age of 39, get married, and I have 4 boys. And as I’ve gotten later in life. I stayed healthy and I’ve enjoyed kind of the best of both.

But you know being a CEO is a very risky job. You don’t last in it very long. Typically I think the average term is 2 to 3 years, maybe no more than 4 years for the average CEO. And that’s a big risk. You’re probably gonna get knocked off. I actually stepped back when I wanted to. After a couple of decades in the pinata — but that’s a risky decision.

2 — Tell us about the strangest meeting you ever attended?

Well, there were many — there were all my meetings on my first trip ever to Japan.

So I’m a young kid … let’s see 29–30 years old. Never been to Japan before, and this was somewhere between post-war Japan and current Japan.

And so there’s still some people in that day’s culture, who don’t even want to shake your hands because it’s just you’re a foreigner. Then there are other people who are fascinated by what’s going on in America. I go into my first meeting with Hitachi, and I think it was the CEO of Hitachi, and he looked sort of like he was right out of a Japanese warplane with the scarf and the leather hat and the goggles — and he just sat back there looking at me like — ‘you know I wanna take you out !’

Then I ask a question, and it would get translated, and he would laugh. And he would say some things, I can see the translator go “I can’t say that!”

My question was something like ‘you know’ we’d like to partner with you.’ He’d laugh, he’d say some things and the translator would say, “Well, that’s interesting “ — when that’s not exactly what he said. I think what he said ‘over my dead body, we’re gonna work with you guys!’

And it was the strangest meeting. Our guy I was there — our country manager — after the meeting I said, “What did he say?” And he wouldn’t tell me. He didn’t want to embarrass me, or lose face, or whatever.

But this guy, this guy [the Hitachi CEO] was still fighting World War 2 — and you know, the Americans were the enemy. And [I’m thinking to myself] “Oh, boy, do we have work to do here!”

The next one was I went to Fujitsu — who became our just most important technology and computer partner in Japan. And I remember sitting down at the first meeting, and I had been schooled (prepared): “You know you’re younger you’re visiting you’re the guest there. They’re the boss don’t start talking. Let them start the conversation. Don’t be a rude American.”

I gotta tell you the Japanese for the most part are the most polite and nicest — and you don’t often know what they’re saying cause they [nods and bows his head] and they say “yes,” but they don’t really mean yes. They just mean: “yes, I heard what you said.” So it takes a long, long time to get to know that.

But I remember sitting down for the first time with the CEO of Fujitsu and his staff. We started the meeting. We all exchanged cards, and then we sat down. And they just stared at us. And I wanted to say something in order to break the ice. Just, like — can I ask “how you’re doing?” or anything like that?

Literally, it felt like 10 minutes — but they just stared at us. And I’m thinking — I don’t think this is going well …

But that was just the way the meetings started — until they could take the measure of you.

And I went to Japan every 3 months, for many, many years, and they finally got comfortable that this was a crazy American that could actually work with and that they could trust. And to this day I still have very many good friends, and well, great fond feelings — but boy, did it start off rough in my first trip out there as a 30-year-old.

3 — What kind of people in business annoy you?

Complainers. And you know, I don’t mind people who have an issue and have a problem and see something wrong. But there’s the complainers who just state the problem.

And then there’s other people who come in and say this isn’t working right: It should work this way Here’s the root cause and here’s what we need here’s how we can implement some solutions that will move us in in a positive direction.

There are people who like to stand back and throw rocks, and then there’s people who come in and say “I see the problem. I think these are some solutions, and, by the way, I wanna get involved in fixing it.”

So there’s there’s 2 kinds of people in the world: there are victims and then there are doers.

There’s “It’s not fair!”, versus “Hey — that’s the way it is. Now let’s go fix it, okay?”

There’s 2 kinds of people in the world there are victims and then there are doers.

4 — What business mistake do you wish you could “do over” ?

I struggle with that kind of question all the time, and you know, over a couple of decades, man — there’s a million of them.

You know in the early days, I wish we had grabbed an open source database and just embedded it with Sun’s OS and Solaris, and just put 3 or 4 engineers on it — just constantly, making it better and better and better. We never would have been as good as DB2 or Oracle but we probably could have been as good as the Microsoft product, but we could have had a default, no cost fully integrated database on our product so that our customers didn’t necessarily have to go spend a ton of money for Oracle or IBM databases and that would have lowered the cost of our product massively because one of the reasons why Oracle ended up buying us was because they overcharged for their database on our platform to compete with the other OS competitors. They knew we were kind of locked into them, cause you know, IBM and Microsoft weren’t going to be aggressive on there — so they can run the price up there. So that was a big mistake. I just wish I’d done that.

Secondly, the Chinese Internet was originally just Sun OS with Route D running on it. It was a router — they just took the monitor off of our computers and turned those into routers.

I didn’t know that there was a business called “routers”, and that Cisco was going to grab that space. If we had just did a little sidebar, and just peeled off all of the unnecessary stuff in our computer and built on Route D, we could have done Cisco — and there would have been no need (for Cisco). We could have been SUN and Cisco — which would have been pretty impressive.

We launched X86 product, which was smart to get on the X86 volume. But we were 98% compatible. What a brain-dead mistake! We just did it wrong.

Then, finally, the biggest mistake is — day-one we should have offered SUNs equipment as a cloud service. I wish we started in 1986 doing that, and you know, we could have been AWS.

But that’s that’s having hindsight. I mean we did pretty darn well, even though you know we missed some things. Sometimes, you know, if you take your eye off the ball maybe we wouldn’t have done well in workstations, or in the Internet and Java and all the other things too.

But you know, if I knew the future I could be pretty good. You asked me to look in the rearview mirror. I like to look out the windshield.

You asked me to look in the rearview mirror. I like to look out the windshield.

5 — What career skill do you wish you were better at?

Well, this one’s easy and in and you can ask my wife this: I’m horrible at explaining why I’m right.

My delivery is just it’s just not convincing people. I tend to say it in analogies. I tend to say it, using a little bit of humor, maybe a little sarcasm, maybe a little too much emotion, or not enough. I don’t present facts as aggressively as I should most people believe I’m just shooting from the hip when I’ve actually thought about it hard. And my delivery just sucks and then eventually they all come back and say — usually too late — “you are right.”,

My wife and have an ongoing, very fun and loving thing where, you know, I’ll tell her something — but she has to hear it from somebody else!

And then I’ll ask her — why, did you have to [go and ask someone else]? She goes “Well, I don’t know. But you were right.”

Some people have wrong answers — and are very effective at you know convincing people that they’re right. I do think that I’m just sort of more the opposite — because I don’t really take a position until I’ve really thought about it hard read about it.

I’m horrible at explaining why I’m right.

[Who do you think is good at explaining, why they’re right?]

Well, you know, obviously Elon musk has done a great job of that cause he’s gone out and convinced a lot of Government officials and other people and financiers to buy into his vision. So he would be an example of somebody who has done a good job of that.

I think somebody who’s probably more like me, and in fact “me on steroids” — would be Donald Trump — because almost all of his policies, in my view, are dead on right, but he has a really hard time with delivery for a lot of people. A lot of people think this delivery is dead on, but a lot of other people just fight it.

So, you know, there’s a lot of very wonderful politicians who deliver what they think is the right answer, in an articulate, compassionate and benevolent and “we gotta do this!” way — and it’s a freaking nightmare of a policy decision. So most of our elected officials are brilliant and wrong.

and … the BONUS “Color” Question

5–1/2 -In Star Trek, The Next Generation — Commander Data sometimes uses the Holodeck to have a poker game with some of the most brilliant scientists in history.

You’re able to have a dinner party with 4 historical characters. Who are they? And what do you talk about?

So I probably pick out, You know, some of the greatest historical leaders — that we’re good people: George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, or one of those folks. One of our founding fathers. Jesus Christ, would be a really interesting person. And Ronald Reagan, who, I consider just, you know, just a really great and non-compromised leader, and I would sit and talk to them all about leadership.

“Why wasn’t I better explaining what I wanted to do? Human nature? “Where does evil come from? How do you build community?” All of those sorts of things. Because these folks all did it and they did it in different ways and then different times. But they were all dealing with that thing called human nature — and I think all of them had a wonderful grasp of human nature — while having insecurities. Only the most secure can do nothing. So all of these people had to be in some way insecure.

Only the most secure can do nothing.

Maybe I’m getting Jesus Christ wrong, but I would like to talk to him about it. “Why do you do what you do?” And you have to be insecure to go do it. But you have to have strength of character to not let your insecurity drive you to do bad things. So you have to have that insecurity but strength of character. And I just like to meet with all of them and talk to them about how they do it, how they did it, and what made them that way.

For more 5–1/2 Questions Interviews, see:

“5–1/2 Questions” from CJ Cornell is a new series of mini-interviews with leaders in the entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem around the world. In less than a half-dozen short questions, we’ll try to learn more about each leader, and what makes them successful and unique.

The questions are designed a little like a “Magic Eight Ball” (my GenX colleagues know what this is): A set of questions, posed at random. Plus, at least one question, or half-question, is designed to find out something about their personality that most people might never suspect (I mean expect).

CJ Cornell is a serial entrepreneur, investor, advisor, mentor, author, speaker, and educator. As an entrepreneur, CJ Cornell was a founder of more than a dozen successful startup ventures that collectively attracted over $250 million in private funding; created nearly a thousand new jobs; and launched dozens of innovative consumer, media, and communications products — that have exceeded $3 billion in revenues.

He is the author of the bestsellingThe Age of Metapreneurship — A Journey into the Future of Entrepreneurship.”

And the upcoming “The Startup Brain Trust — A Guidebook for Startups, Entrepreneurs, and the Mentors that Help them Become Great.”

Follow him @cjcornell or visit: www.cjcornell.com



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CJ Cornell

CJ Cornell


Professor of #Entrepreneurship & Digital Media. Serial/Parallel Entrepreneur, Author, Speaker, Mentor, Angel Investor, #VC. Crowdfunding & #Startups Evangelist