A Better Flow of Data – Storage and Conference Calls

We recently held one of our regular department update calls that included as a guest speaker the Lead Technologist responsible for driving flash memory across Sun’s product portfolio. Truly fascinating stuff. In his presentation, he illustrated how storage technology has not kept pace with advances in servers (especially multi-core systems). The result is that today’s systems spend significant time “waiting” for data to be accessed from storage and insuring that it is not altered or corrupted.

Although flash technology has been around for years ( think of your cellphone or camera), it has only now developed to the point that it can be used in servers. The result is a system that is faster, but uses significantly less energy. (There are also no moving parts as with traditional disk drives.)

But it is not just advances in flash technology that enable this shift in server design. It also requires an operating system that is able to recognize and manage different types of storage (e.g. flash, tape, disk). That’s the beauty of the Solaris operating system with its ZFS file system – that, and the fact that it’s open source.

The presentation caused me to think about a human analog to the same problem of data flow. One that was right before me – our conference call. It’s purpose is to provide a quick and effective flow of information (i.e. data) to employees located in differing time zones around the world. We rely on technology – in our case, a live conference call using a WebEx interface – but technology alone is not the answer. At some point it comes down to changing human behavior. As a test, I periodically listen to the recorded version of our calls so that I can have the same experience as an export person in Germany or an attorney in China. It can be painful to listen. Some calls don’t begin promptly, people speak over one another, there are distracting noises and unidentified speakers. The result is that those dialing in are likely to tune out or worse yet, hang up and that important information is never received.

So, while we are solving the problem of data flow in the technology world, the human element requires much more continuous work. In that vein, I found this to be a pretty good start. It’s excerpted (with thanks) from Management for the Rest of Us.

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Conference Call Tips

Do get comfortable with the fact you will be talking in front of a group and receiving no visual cues or feedback.

Do use the right phone in a quiet, undisturbed room.

Don’t use cell phones or phones that pick up background noise. Calling from an open plan office is the equivalent of having a conversation in a nightclub. If you really can’t find a quiet room, use the mute button until you are required to speak.

Do learn to use the mute button and other phone technology to avoid a Homer Simpson style “Doh” moment. Your intelligent contributions mean nothing if no one can hear them.

Do set up the meeting in advance and communicate the dial in number, passcodes and other information. “Spring forward, fall back” is something to keep in mind for your timezone crossing colleagues. Don’t work out time differences on your fingers – check on the internet or even phone a colleague in that country and ask what time it is!

Do start the meeting absolutely on time; don’t reward latecomers’ bad behaviour by waiting for them. Take a role call at the start of the meeting, highlighting the missing attendees. Go on, get tough, people will love you for it!

Do treat the conference call as if it were a meeting. You know the routine; prepare and circulate an agenda, take notes ya-de-ya-de-ya.

Do get each caller to say hello and introduce themselves. Even though you may never meet in person, it’s a good relationship builder and gets the shyest of people to at least say their name.

Don’t assume everyone recognises your voice. Unless you are dis-respecting the boss and want to stay incognito, say your name before you speak. This is particularly important for the poor soul taking meeting notes.

Do make use of guest speakers. Invite a special or important guest and get them to say a few words at the beginning of the meeting. No one will know they slipped out after five minutes and you’ll get the benefit of undivided attention and best behaviour.

Don’t allow the topic to wander. Be an iron fist in a velvet glove – polite but firm if people talk too long or over each other. If your callers are at home sitting in their pyjamas nursing a hot chocolate, be considerate that all they want is to go to bed.

Do ask for input by using a person’s name. People will pay more attention to avoid the embarrassment of needing the question repeated.

Don’t shuffle papers; scrape chairs, pencil tap, hum or other distracting, noisy activities. It…….drives…………people…………mad!

Do close the meeting formally, thanking everybody for their time. That little bit of recognition will make them feel good about talking to you again.”

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Starting the year on a high note

…thanks to the Higher Keys.

Our legal and compliance team was fortunate to begin the New Year with a visit from the Higher Keys, an a cappella group consisting of eighteen amazingly gifted students from Brown University. While the break area of the Sun Microsystems Legal Department may not be the preferred venue for most of their performances, I doubt they have had a more appreciative audience.

I’m sorry those of you outside the Bay Area could not join us for the performance. But, here’s a chance to enjoy it by video.

You’re likely wondering how we managed to get such a group of accomplished entertainers to perform for us. Let’s just say it helps when one of them has a very proud father who works in the Sun Legal Department.

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A Holiday Gift

I’m sure many of you spent the month of December looking for something significant for that special GC in your life. Well, you can forget about the wine, chocolate and fruit baskets. Last week, the justices of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit provided the perfect gift for GCs of companies facing increased litigation with patent trolls. It came in the form of a decision in the case of In Re TS Tech USA. (A PDF of the ruling is here.) This decision increases the likelihood that courts will grant requests for a change in venue in well known “plaintiff friendly” jurisdictions.

It’s a nice way to begin the year. Although, on reflection, a good bottle of wine is always appreciated.

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“Stumbling”

I travel a fair amount. And, I’m an insomniac. It’s not an ideal combination. Often, I find myself in a hotel room in another country still awake in the early a.m. having finished all the books I’ve carried with me. Jet lag, work stress and unfamiliar surroundings are not conducive to a good night’s sleep. (Bill Murray nailed the feeling in “Lost in Translation”.)

For a time, I would spend those nocturnal hours watching YouTube videos or randomly searching websites for something of interest. The results were usually little more captivating than the rerun of McCloud (dubbed in German) that I watched during my last trip to Munich. As Ian Hurt once said, “There’s a statistical theory that if you gave a million monkeys typewriters and set them to work, they’d eventually come up with the complete works of Shakespeare. Thanks to the Internet, we now know this isn’t true.”

Recently, I installed StumbleUpon and it’s greatly improved my web-surfing experience. It’s a free download that employs a personal preference system for websites similar to what NetFlix uses for DVDs and Amazon for books. It’s both effective and addictive.

Here are some examples of what I “stumbled upon” during a recent trip:

– A “smack” of jellyfish – who knew?

– Instruction on how to convert my motorcycle to electric.

U.S. electoral maps (where was this when I took polysci)?

– Interesting “art”.

– Incredible photographs of space.

– The opportunity to brush up on my Latin.

– An excellent atlas using maps and satellite photography.

And, of course, you never know when you will need a bacon flowchart.

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That first step

Earlier this week, we held our annual intern “meet and greet” at Sun’s campus in Menlo Park. It was a chance for local law students to connect with attorneys in our organization to learn about internship opportunities and, more generally, what it’s like to work here. We had a great turnout with more than fifty students from a number of regional law schools. All of them were bright, energetic, interesting – and interested.

At the beginning of the event, I spoke for a few minutes about my career and the value of internships. I pointed out that few people are fortunate enough to identify early in life what their “perfect job” will be. Instead, for most of us, career paths are really nothing more than a process of elimination. You explore, try new opportunities and leave others until (hopefully) you find the right role. For me that journey has been a meandering path through several law firms, two companies (one of them, Sun – twice) and multiple areas of legal practice.

I arrived home last evening and with a glass of wine in hand, sat down and read our town’s local newspaper. On the second page, I found an article noting that Pat O’Laughlin, our former mayor, had passed away as the result of a rare disease called spinal arachnoiditis. Besides serving as mayor, Pat was also a very well known civil litigator in the San Jose area. Just about every local judge and attorney knew Pat and admired him for his intellect and tenacity in the courtroom. But it was Pat’s wit and frequently displayed humor that were his hallmark.

In 1984, it was Pat who gave me my start as an attorney. At that time, I had just graduated from law school and passed the bar exam. I had little concept of what it meant to be a litigator, but Pat took a chance and hired me. Over the following three years, he trained me and gave me increasingly more complex cases to handle. He clearly had far more confidence in my abilities than I did at that early stage.

It has been more than fifteen years since I last saw him. Ultimately, I realized that litigation was not what I wanted for my professional career and I left to a position with another firm. And from there… like I said, a meandering path to where I am today.

Lao-tzu famously said, “A journey begins with a single step.” In many careers that first step is the most important. But, equally important is having a person who helps you take it.

Thank you, Pat. You will be missed by many.

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Seeking a bit of white space

Earnings announcement, board meetings, stockholder meeting and the continued melt down of global economic markets. All in all, it’s been a stressful few weeks. So, when a few friends offered the chance for a weekend of camping and hiking in Yosemite Valley, I happily accepted.

Yosemite Valley is always wonderful. But at this time of year, it is at its most beautiful. The leaves of the black oaks have turned shades varying from crimson to mustard and color the air with every breeze. In the background, the majestic icons of the valley – El Cap, Half Dome, Glacier Point and Royal Arches, all watch silently. I’m still astounded to meet residents of California who have never visited this sublime geologic wonder.

The hike itself was grueling. There was no trail to follow and we had to move at a good pace to avoid navigating in the dark – or worse yet, being included in the next edition of this.

Our starting point was Olmstead Point off of Tioga Road. From there we descended (and more than occasionally – stumbled) down Tenaya Canyon to the valley floor. Along the more than ten mile route we discovered the engine of a plane that had crashed in the late 1950s; had an encounter (thankfully, a friendly one) with a large black bear; enjoyed the adrenaline of a few rappels and the refreshment of a chilly swim in the Tenaya river. In this environment, it is impossible to think about work. Or, the economy.

Now, at the office a week later, my legs remain in pain and the blisters on my feet have not yet healed. But each time I experience a moment of stress, I reach down and touch my still aching legs. When I do, I’m transported back to Yosemite and find a moment of repose.

(Photographs courtesy of Rene Schaub)

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Computer Professional Exemption

Last month, as part of the resolution of the impasse over the California state budget, AB10 was passed and signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger. This piece of legislation amends California Labor Code Section 515.5, known as the “Computer Professional” exemption to state overtime laws.

Prior to this amendment, Section 515.5 required that “computer professionals” receive at least $36 per hour in order to be exempt from overtime payments. While the original legislation may have had a positive intent, the result was not because in order to qualify for this exemption computer professionals were required to track their hours to verify that they received the hourly minimum.

AB10 was the subject of a great deal of lobbying prior to its passage, with the plaintiff’s bar arguing that it would be the first step in the elimination of all hourly wage requirements. Others claimed the existing legislation was necessary to ensure that computer professionals were paid a living wage. The reality is very different.

AB10 is not about paying fair wages. Qualified computer engineers remain in high demand. This market demand is reflected in the fact that most computer professionals receive an annual salary that far exceeds the $75,000 minimum level set forth in Sec. 515.5 and includes stock options, benefits and other perquisites. And it should be noted that California’s minimum level remains more than three times what is required in other states where the federal standard applies.

AB10 is important to keeping jobs in California. Technology companies consistently rank among the top employers and best places to work in the state. But, we are in an era of increasing globalization where employment opportunities are moving to other states and countries. Some of the most attractive and portable jobs are those of the computer industry. The passage of AB10 brings California law more in line with other states by making the computer professional exemption a true exemption that can be relied on by companies. It will also help reduce the tsunami of wage hour class actions that arose under the previous legislation which resulted in companies paying litigation costs rather than investing in job creation.

In a global economy, California can not afford to be an island if it desires to keep taxpaying jobs for its citizens. Congratulations to the governor and California legislature. AB10 is a positive thing for its technology employers and employees, and for California.

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