Bill Vass on the Sun Microsystems you thought you knew

Bill VassBill Vass of Sun Microsystems fuses the best of two worlds: his decades of experience in both the private and public sectors. Since becoming president and chief operation officer of Sun Microsystems Federal a year and a half ago, Vass has put his rich pool of experience to use. Sun is one of the biggest contributors to the open source community — and Vass aims to keep it that way. In the following Q&A Vass discusses some surprising facts about Sun Microsystems. He also fills you in one of his favorite toys — a 1976 industrial bulldozer — and how he put it to use (don’t try this at home, folks).

How big is the Sun Microsystems’ federal business, if you were to break that out?

Bill Vass: We don’t usually break that out. We have about 800 employees and are one of the fastest growing business units within Sun Microsystems. In addition, more and more of our customers are focused on open source and recognize the security and cost benefits — both administrative and power — of open source technologies.

Tell us your background and your current role at Sun.

Bill Vass: I’ve been in and out of the federal government and commercial industry throughout my 28 year career. I started in software engineering, and software development; most of my background is around software and distributed systems. Then I started to focus on deploying and operating large scale information technology systems, operating large IT infrastructures, and designing the architectures of web facing enterprise systems. I’ve programmed in probably every major programming language out there.

Eventually worked my way into CIO and CTO positions. I was a CTO with the U.S. Army and CIO at the office of Secretary of Defense working at the Pentagon. I moved directly from the Pentagon to Sun Microsystems and became the company’s CIO. I was then given the opportunity to truly meld my private sector and public sector experiences when I was named President and Chief Operation Officer of Sun Microsystems Federal, Inc., about a year and a half ago. My role at Sun Federal has me focused on increasing our federal business and building new partnerships with the government.

Based on my experiences, I can build relationships with CIOs, CTOs and technical folks because that is where I have spent most of my career, I speak their language. I think everyone in the commercial space would enrich their careers by working in the government and serving their country for a while. And I think everyone who wants to make a career of working in the government should look at doing some time in the commercial industry as well. I think that the cross pollination would benefit the country and the individual and enrich their experience and careers.

How big is the Sun Microsystems’ federal business, if you were to break that out?

Bill Vass: We don’t usually break that out. We have about 800 employees and are one of the fastest growing business units within Sun Microsystems.

What is your approach to get federal business?

Bill Vass: Obviously, it is very important to us that we are getting our message out to the leaders in the federal government who support technology — that includes both the federal employees and the large systems integrators. A lot of people have a 7-year-old view of Sun, so we are working on ensuring decision makers in the federal government know about today’s Sun. We are not proprietary and we are competitively priced. All of our technology is open source or in the process of becoming open sourced, and we are a leader in that space. We continue to focus on working with systems integrators and partners because they are the ones making a lot of the technical, product, and architectural decisions. Sun doesn’t compete with SIs like IBM and HP, because we are a partnering company. We partner with channel partners and we partner with all of the major SIs and work to help make them successful.

What is your biggest challenge in your business right now?

Bill Vass: I think it goes back to getting messaging out to the government. The fact that everything we have is either open source or in the process of being open sourced is a huge message. We need everyone to know that our products have the lowest power footprint of anyone in the industry. Our servers are the lowest cost per thread and our operating systems are the cheapest operating systems to deploy and maintain. We’ve done a lot of evolution over the last five years, we even support and sell Windows and Linux products. We’ve spent 2.5 billion dollars a year in research and development.

What are the hottest trends you are tracking that will affect your customer base over the next 12 months?

Bill Vass: Power consumption is getting to be a bigger and bigger deal for our federal customers. In addition, more and more of our customers are focused on open source and recognize the security and cost benefits — both administrative and power — of open source technologies. High performance computing along with virtualization is a big space for us as well. We have the ability to virtualize within our operating systems and run other operating systems on top of it. Desktop virtualization with thin clients is also a very large growing market for us, since we can enable better security, reduced cost, and secure remote worker environments better than any other vendor.

Are you doing anything in the Web 2.0 space?

Bill Vass: Yea, some obviously. Sun is one of the biggest contributors to the open source community. We’ve enabled all our development tools to support Web 2.0. We provide easy collaboration, we’ve got visual web services that are role based. It allows them to use all open source technology to quickly put together role-based portal environments, like MySpace where they change based on user … and where you can subscribe or unsubscribe when your views change. We also provide delivery to mobile devices and centralized messaging and we offer it all at a per employee cost instead of per server or CPU, so it’s cheaper than our competition. Sun gives the user the security of open source and the stability of knowing that they can get support from anyone. They are not locked into a vendor. We are also very multi-platform. We have a new 64-way, symmetrical, multi-processor on a chip , a 64-way chip that is absolutely fantastic for the Web 2.0 space. So you can consolidate 64 computers onto a single computer and the computer starts at under $3,000, so it’s a very inexpensive solution as well. We also recently purchased MySQL, which is the largest open source database in the Web 2.0 space.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Bill Vass: I believe in setting rules, standards and direction and then setting metrics to track those. I always say, “You manage what you measure.” I think I’m pretty well structured from a communication perspective. I’m very communicative. There are lots of different types of media for communication. From video to SMS messages to portal access and dynamic channels to Second Life to podcasts. A good amount of communication comes from me out to the entire Sun Federal organization. I have a lot of published rules on how to do business and how Sun is supposed to operate, so it’s very well known. There are standard structured meetings and directions. I think I do a significant amount of evangelizing as well — just check out my blog. Innovation, energy, commitment, and consistency are all important parts of my leadership style.

You mentioned blogging, what is your approach and how is that going?

Bill Vass: Blogging is a great way to communicate, not only to your internal employees but your external customers. I‘m pretty excited about it. I’ve been blogging for many years. I was early as an executive blogger. I used to have an internal blog and an external blog when I was CIO, so I would blog internally and then filter what I would blog externally. Now I just have a single blog, which is external. Obviously anyone can internally access it. I often use the blog to respond publicly to things I might disagree with. That’s one of the things I like. It’s unfiltered press, if you like. I can respond if a competitor has publicized some untruths. I have done that before by looking up facts, doing my research and then rebutting our competitors claims in my blog. I think it’s a great way to set the record straight and make sure people are hearing it correctly from the horse’s mouth.

What will Sun Federal look like in 5 years?

Bill Vass: Our goal is to grow revenue by two to three times within five years. We can achieve this type of growth by serving our government customer base, helping them to reduce their power and administrative costs and providing them the flexibility to utilize a multitude of applications and operating systems. In five years, we will be much better integrated within the SI community. I think structurally we’re where we need to be today. Our board of directors is quite robust right now. We see big growth opportunities in civilian agencies. We continue to be very strong in DoD and Intell, and we want to maintain that strength and grow it. Sun is a low power, highly scalable, highly secure, low cost open source software and hardware provider that is in a wonderful position to support Web 2.0 government deployments and future consolidations that are occurring in the federal government.

What are some things most people are surprised to learn about Sun?

Bill Vass: I think they are surprised that everything we have is open source or in the process of becoming open sourced, and that we are very, very competitively priced … and that we support other operating systems, in addition to Solaris, including Windows. I think that still freaks some people out, but yes, Sun does Windows and Linux and … we really focus on enterprise class products (availability, scalability, high security) at commodity prices.

What is something most people don’t know about you personally?

Bill Vass: I own a very large 1976 industrial bulldozer, and also a backhoe and other things like that. My wife and I built a log home ourselves. We did not hire a general contractor. We did all the electrical, plumbing and finish carpentry with our own hands. We even built a bridge over a stream, and built a road on the property.

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