Andreas, or simply, Andy, Bechtolsheim holds the distinction of having employee badge #1 among the thousands of people who have worked at Sun Microsystems in its 25 years of existence. Perhaps best known as the inventor of the Stanford University Network (SUN) workstation, he is among the four founders of the company, along with Vinod Khosla, Bill Joy, and Scott McNealy. Although he left the company in 1995 to found Granite Systems, a Gigabit Ethernet startup, he returned to Sun in 2004 via the company's Kealia acquisition. Bechtolsheim also was a vice president at Cisco Systems while away from Sun.
Paul Krill recently spoke with Bechtolsheim about Sun's past and present situation, with Bechtolsheim chiming in on about topics including open source and the Intel and SPARC chip architectures.
First of all, was Bill Joy actually the fourth employee at Sun? Or wasn't he more like the 15th or 16th employee?
I think his official badge number was 6 because there were two people we hired on day one, and he came [onboard approximately] the next week. But he was considered a founder.
And you wore badge number one, right?
Well, that's because I worked on the workstation for three years before the company started, although I think Bill worked on Berkeley Unix longer than that. So maybe he should have been number 1. The way the company started was I had a previous business that was actually licensing the design [of] the Sun workstation to other companies in exchange for royalties. And I had a whole bunch of people set up making these boards. It dazzles me that none of these companies had any clue about the workstation business. They had all the pieces, but they didn't see the market opportunity, and I was kind of getting frustrated because I was really more the engineer, the hardware guy, than the businessman. So Khosla called me saying, "Let's just start a company. This was the obvious solution to the problem of how to bring this product to market.
I know you've left Sun, you've come back, and I think there's been a couple exits and returns.
No, no, no, there was just one. I left in 1995 to start a Gigabit Ethernet company called Granite, which Cisco acquired in 1996, and then I spent seven years at Cisco until the end of 2003. And then I left Cisco to start a company, which Sun acquired in 2004.
What are you doing these days?
Well, my official title here is chief architect of industry standard [products] and I'm basically responsible for the product definition of our industry-standard architectures [offerings].
How do you view Sun after 25 years? The company has had its ups and downs,mostly ups except for the last few years.How do you view the company at this point and where do you think it's headed?
One reason I left in 1995 is that one of my concerns at the time was that we should be really building an x86-based server, and I was getting worried that the cost performance of those systems was edging up with the SPARC architecture. Here I am 10 years later or 12 years later actually doing what I suggested the company should be doing earlier.... People keep asking was this like a prearranged marriage? But the honest truth was I had no idea I would be coming back to Sun. I was actually happy building this [sort of] little business, but when Sun decided to enter the industry-standard market, it became an opportunity to build a much more significant business here. So that's why I'm back here.