Last week I spoke with Ray Rothrock, former Director of CAD/CAM Marketing at Sun Microsystems, to discuss his time at Sun and how the Internet has evolved. In this conversation, Ray discusses the importance of trust as a principle, the growth of Sun in sales and marketing, and that time he gave Vice President Bush a Sun demo. Listen to our conversation and read the full transcript below (or click here to open in a new window).
John Graham-Cumming: Here I am very lucky to get to talk with Ray Rothrock who was I think one of the first investors in Cloudflare, a Series A investor and got the company a little bit of money to get going, but if we dial back a few earlier years than that, he was also at Sun as the Director of CAD/CAM Marketing. There is a link between Sun and Cloudflare. At least one, but probably more than one, which is that Cloudflare has recently trademarked, The Network is the Computer®. And that was a Sun trademark, wasn’t it?
Ray Rothrock: It was, yes.
Graham-Cumming: I talked to John Gage and I asked him about this as well and I asked him to explain to me what it meant. And I'm going to ask you the same thing because I remember walking around the Valley thinking, that sounds cool; I’m not sure I totally understand it. So perhaps you can tell me, was I right that it was cool, and what does it mean?
Rothrock: Well it certainly was cool and it was extraordinarily unique at the time. Just some quick background. In those early days when I was there, the whole concept of networking computers was brand new. Our competitor Apollo had a proprietary network but Sun chose to go with TCP/IP which was a standard at the time but a brand new standard that very few people know about right. So when we started connecting computers and doing some intensive computing which is what I was responsible for—CAD/CAM in those days was extremely intensive whether it was electrical CAD/CAM, or mechanical CAD/CAM, or even simulation solid design modeling and things—having a little extra power from other computers was a big deal. And so this concept of “The Network is the Computer” essentially said that you had one window into the network through your desktop computer in those days—there was no mobile computing at that time, this was like 84’, 85’, 86’ I think. And so if you had the appropriate software you could use other people's computers (for CPU power) and so you could do very hard problems at that single computer could not do because you could offload some of that CPU to the other computers. Now that was very nerdy, very engineering intensive, and not many people did it. We’d go to the SIGGRAPH, which was a huge graphics show in those days and we would demonstrate ten Sun computers for example, doing some graphic rendering of a 3D wireframe that had been created in the CAD/CAM software of some sort. And it was, it was hard, and that was in the mechanical side. On the electrical side, Berkeley had some software that was called Magic—it’s still around and is a very popular EDA software that’s been incorporated in those concepts. But to imagine calculating the paths in a very complicated PCB or a very complicated chip, one computer couldn't do it, but Sun had the fundamental technology. So from my seat at Sun at the time, I had access to what could be infinite computing power, even though I had a single application running, and that was a big selling point for me when I was trying to convince EDA and MDA companies to put their software on the Sun. That was my job.
Graham-Cumming: And hearing it now, it doesn’t sound very revolutionary, because of course we’re all doing that now. I mean I get my phone out of my pocket and connect to goodness knows what computing power which does image recognition and spots faces and I can do all sorts of things. But walk me through what it felt like at the time.
Rothrock: Just doing a Google search, I mean, how many data stores are being spun up for that? At the time it was incredible, because you could actually do side by side comparisons. We created some demonstrations, where one computer might take ten hours to do a calculation, two computers might take three hours, five computers might take 30 minutes. So with this demo, you could turn on computers and we would go out on the TCP/IP network to look for an available CPU that could give me some time. Let's go back even further. Probably 15 years before that, we had time sharing. So you had a terminal into a big mainframe and did all this swapping in and out of stuff to give you a time slice computing. We were doing the exact same thing except we were CPU slicing, not just time slicing. That’s pretty nerdy, but that's what we did. And I had to work with the engineering department, with all these great engineers in those days, to make this work for a demo. It was so unique, you know, their eyes would get big. You remember Novell...
Graham-Cumming: I was literally just thinking about Novell because I actually worked on IPX and SPX networking stuff at the time. I was going to ask you actually, to what extent do you think TCP/IP was a very important part of this revolution?
Rothrock: It was huge. It was fundamentally huge because it was a standard, so it was available and if you implemented it, you didn’t have to pay for it. When Bob Metcalfe did Ethernet, it was on top of the TCP stack. Sun, in my memory, and I could be wrong, was the first company to put a TCP/IP stack on the computer. And so you just plugged in the back, an RJ45 into this TCP/IP network with a switch or a router on it and you were golden. They made it so simple and so cheap that you just did it. And of course if you give an engineer that kind of freedom and it opens up. By the way, as the marketing guy at Sun, this was my first non-engineering job. I came from a very technical world of nuclear physics into Sun. And so it was stunning, just stunning.
Graham-Cumming: It’s interesting that you mentioned Novell and then you mentioned Apollo before that and obviously IBM had SNA networking and there were attempts to do all those networking things. It's interesting that these open standards have really enabled the explosion of everything else we've seen and with everything that's going on in the Internet.
Rothrock: Sun was open, so to speak, but this concept of open source now that just dominates the conversation. As a venture capitalist, every deal I ever invested in had open source of some sort in it. There was a while when it was very problematic in an M&A event, but the world’s gotten used to it. So open, is very powerful. It's like freedom. It's like liberty. Like today, July 4th, it’s a big deal.
Graham-Cumming: Yes, absolutely. It’s just interesting to see it explode today because I spent a lot of my career looking at so many different networking protocols. The thing that really surprises me, or perhaps shouldn’t surprise me when you’ve got these open things, is that you harness so many people's intelligence that you just end up with something that’s just better. It seems simple.
Rothrock: It seems simple. I think part of the magic of Sun is that they made it easy. Easy is the most powerful thing you can do in computing. Computing can be so nerdy and so difficult. But if you just make it easy, and Cloudflare has done a great job with that at that; they did it with their DNS service, they did it with all the stuff we worked on back when I was on the board and actively involved in the company. You’ve got to make it easy. I mean, I remember when Matthew and Lee worked like 20 hours a day on how to switch your DNS from whoever your provider was to Cloudflare. That was supposed to be one click, done. A to B. And that DNA was part of the magic. And whether we agree that Sun did it that way, to me at least, Sun did it that way as well. So it's huge, a huge lift.
Graham-Cumming: It’s funny you talk about that because at the time, how that actually worked is that we just asked people to give us their username and password. And we logged in and did it for them. Early on, Matthew asked me if I’d be interested in joining Cloudflare when it was brand new and because of other reasons I’d moved back to the UK and I wasn’t ready to change jobs and I’d just taken another job. And I remember thinking, this thing is crazy this Cloudflare thing. Who's going to hand over their DNS and their traffic to these four or five people above a nail salon in Palo Alto? And Matthew’s response was, “They’re giving us their passwords, let alone their traffic.” Because they were so desperate for it.
Rothrock: It tells you a lot about Matthew and you know as an attorney, I mean he was very sensitive to that and believes that one of the one of the founding principles is trust. His view was that, if I ever lose the customer’s trust, Cloudflare is toast. And so everything focused around that key value. And he was right.
Graham-Cumming: And you must have, at Sun, been involved with some high performance computing things that involved sensitive customers doing cryptography and things like that. So again trust is another theme that runs through there as well.
Rothrock: Yeah, very true. As the marketing guy of CAD/CAM, I was in the field two-thirds of the time, showing customers what was possible with them. My job was to get third party software onto the Sun box and then to turn that into a presentation to a customer. So I visited many government customers, many aerospace, power, all these very high falutin sort of behind the firewall kinds of guys in those days. So yes, trust was huge. It would come up: “Okay, so I’m using your CPU, how is it that you can’t use mine. And how do you convince me that you've not violated something.” In those days it was a whole different conversation that it is today but it was nonetheless just as important. In fact I remember I spent quite a bit of time at NCSA at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Larry Smarr was the head of NCSA. We spent a lot of time with Larry. I think John was there with me. John Gage and Vinod and some others but it was a big deal taking about high performance computing because that's what they were doing and doing it with Sun.
Graham-Cumming: So just to dial forward, so you’re at Venrock and you decide to invest in Cloudflare. What was it that made you think that this was worth investing in? Presumably you saw some things that were in some of Sun’s vision. Because Sun had a very wide-ranging visions about what was going to be possible with computing.
Rothrock: Yeah. Let me sort of touch on a few points probably. Certainly Sun was my first computer company I worked for after I got out of the nuclear business and the philosophy of the company was very powerful. Not only we had this cool 19 inch black and white giant Macintosh essentially although the Mac wasn't even born yet, but it had this ease of use that was powerful and had this open, I mean it was we preached that all the time and we made that possible. And Cloudflare—the related philosophy of Matthew and Michelle's genius—was they wanted to make security and distribution of data as free and easy as possible for the long tail. That was the first thinking because you didn't have access if you were in the long tail you were a small company you or you're just going to get whipped around by the big boys. And so there was a bit of, “We're here to help you, we're going to do it.” It's a good thing that the long tail get mobilized if you will or emboldened to use the Internet like the big boys do. And that was part of the attractiveness. I didn't say, “Boy, Matthew, this sounds like Sun,” but the concept of open and liberating which is what they were trying to do with this long tail DNS and CDN stuff was very compelling and seemed easy. But nothing ever is. But they made it look easy.
Graham-Cumming: Yeah, it never is. One of the parallels that I’ve noticed is that I think early on at Sun, a lot of Sun equipment went to companies that later became big companies. So some of these small firms that were using crazy work stations ended up becoming some of the big names in the Valley. To your point about the long tail, they were being ignored and couldn’t buy from IBM even if they wanted to.
Rothrock: They couldn’t afford SNA and they couldn’t do lots of things. So Sun was an enabler for these companies with cool ideas for products and software to use Sun as the underpinning. workstations were all the rage, because PCs were very limited in those days. Very very limited, they were all Intel based. Sun was 68000-based originally and then it was their own stuff, SPARC. You know in the beginning it was a cheap microprocessor from Motorola.
Graham-Cumming: What was the growth like at Sun? Because it was very fast, right?
Rothrock: Oh yes, it was extraordinarily fast. I think I was employee 130 or something like that. I left Sun in 1986 to go to business school and they gave me a leave of absence. Carol Bartz was my boss at that moment. The company was like at 2000 people just two and a half years later. So it was growing like a weed. I measured my success by how thick the catalyst—that was our catalog name and our program—how thick and how quickly I could add bonafide software developers to our catalog. We published on one sheet of paper front to back. When I first got there, our catalyst catalogue was a sheet of paper, and when I left, it was a book. It was about three-quarters of an inch thick. My group grew from me to 30 people in about a year and a half. It was extraordinary growth. We went public during that time, had a lot of capital and a lot of buzz. That openness, that our competition was all proprietary just like you were citing there, John. IBM and Apollo were all proprietary networks. You could buy a NIC card and stick it into your PC and talk to a Sun. And vise versa. And you couldn’t do that with IBM or Apollo. Do you remember those?
Graham-Cumming: I do because I was talking to John Gage. In my first job out of college, I wrote a TCP/IP stack from scratch, for a manufacturer of network cards. The test of this stack was I had an HP Apollo box and I had a Sun workstation and there was a sort of magical, can I talk to these devices? And can I ping them? And then that was already magical the first ping as it went across the network. And then, can I Telnet to one of these? So you know, getting the networking actually running was sort of the key thing. How important was networking for Sun in the early days? Was it always there?
Rothrock: Yeah, it was there from the beginning, the idea of having a network capability. When I got there it was network; the machine wasn’t standalone at all. We sort of mimicked the mainframe world where we had green screens hooked into a Sun in a department for example. And there was time sharing. But as soon as you got a Sun on your desk, which was rare because we were shipping as many as we could build, it was fantastic. I was sharing information with engineering and we were working back and forth on stuff. But I think it was fundamental: you have a microprocessor, you’ve got a big screen, you’ve got a graphic UI, and you have a network that hooks into the greater universe. In those days, to send an all-Sun email around the world, modems spun up everywhere. The network wasn’t what it is now.
Graham-Cumming: I remember in about 89’, I was at a conference and Whit Diffie was there. I asked him what he was doing. He was in a little computer room. I was trying to typeset something. And he said, “I’m telnetting into a machine which is in San Diego.” It was the first time I’d seen this and I stepped over and he was like, “look at this.” And he’s hitting the keyboard and the keys are getting echoed back. And I thought, oh my goodness, this is incredible. It’s right across the Atlantic and across the country as well.
Rothrock: I think, and this is just me talking having lived the last years and with all the investing and stuff I did, but you know it enabled the Internet to come about, the TCP/IP standard. You may recall that Microsoft tried to modify the TCP/IP stack slightly, and the world rejected it, because it was just too powerful, too pervasive. And then along comes HTTP and all the other protocols that followed. Telnetting, FTPing, all that file transfer stuff, we were doing that left, right, and center back in the 80s. I mean you know Cloudflare just took all this stuff and made it better, easier, and literally lower friction. That was the core investment thesis at the time and it just exploded. Much like when Sun adopted TCP/IP, it just exploded. You were there when it happened. My little company that I’m the CEO of now, we use Cloudflare services. First thing I did when I got there was switched to Cloudflare.
Graham-Cumming: And that was one of the things when I joined, we really wanted people get to a point where if you’re putting something on the web, you just say, well I’m going to put Cloudflare or a thing like Cloudflare just on it. Because it protects it, it makes it faster, etc. And of course now what we've done is we’ve given people compute facility. Right now you can write code and run it in our in our machines worldwide which is another whole thing.
Rothrock: And that is “The Network is the Computer”. The other thing that Sun was pitching then was a paperless office. I remember we had posters of paper flying out of a computer window on a Sun workstation and I don't think we've gotten there yet. But certainly, the network is the computer.
Graham-Cumming: It was probably the case that the paperless office was one of those things that was about to happen for quite a long time.
Rothrock: It's still about to happen if you ask me. I think e-commerce and the sort of the digital transformation has driven it harder than just networking. You know, the fact that we can now sign legal documents over the Internet without paper and things like that. People had to adopt. People have to trust. People have to adopt these standards and accept them. And lo and behold we are because we made it easy, we made it cheap, and we made it trustworthy.
Graham-Cumming: If you dial back through Sun, what was the hardest thing? I’m asking because I’m at a 1,000-person company and it feels hard some days, so I’m curious. What do I need to start worrying about?
Rothrock: Well yeah, at 1,000 people, I think that’s when John came into the company and sort of organized marketing. I would say, holding engineering to schedules; that was hard. That was hard because we were pushing the envelope our graphics was going from black and white to color. The networking stuff the performance of all the chips into the boards and just the performance was a big deal. And I remember, for me personally, I would go to a trade show. I'd go to Boston to the Association of Mechanical Engineers with the team there and would show up at these workstations and of course the engineers want to show off the latest. So I would be bringing with me tapes that we had of the latest operating system. But getting the engineers to be ready for a tradeshow was very hard because they were always experimenting. I don't believe the word “code freeze” meant much to them, frankly, but we would be downloading the software and building a trade show thing that had to run for three days on the latest and greatest and we knew our competitor would be there right across the aisle from us sort of showing their hot stuff. And working with Eric Schmidt in those days, you know, Eric you just got to be done on this date. But trade shows were wonderful. They focused the company’s endpoints if you will. And marketing and sales drove Sun; Scott McNealy’s culture there was big on that. But we had to show. It’s different today than it was then, I don’t know about the Cloudflare competition, but back then, there were a dozen workstation companies and we were fighting for mindshare and market share every day. So you didn't dare sort of leave your best jewels at home. You brought them with you. I will give John Gage high, high marks. He showed me how to dance through a reboot in case the code crashed and he’s marvelous and I learned how to work that stuff and to survive.
Rothrock: Can I tell you one sort of sales story?
Graham-Cumming: Yes, I’m very interested in hearing the non-technical stories. As an engineer, I can hear engineering stories all the time, but I’m curious what it was like being in sales and marketing in such an engineering heavy company as Sun.
Rothrock: Yeah. Well it was challenging of course. One of the strategies that Sun had in those days was to get anyone who was building their own computer. This was Computer Vision and Data General and all those guys to adopt the Sun as their hardware platform and then they could put on whatever they wanted. So because I was one of the demo gods, my job was to go along with the sales guys when they wanted to try to convince somebody. So one of the companies we went after was Data General (DG) in Massachusetts. And so I worked for weeks on getting this whole demo suite running MDA, EDA, word processing, I had everything. And this was a big, big, big deal. And I mean like hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue. And so I went out a couple of days early and we were going to put up a bunch of Suns and I had a demo room at DG. So all the gear showed up and I got there at like 5:30 in the morning and started downloading everything, downloading software, making it dance. And at about 8:00 a.m. in the morning the CEO of Data General walks in. I didn't know who he was but it turned out to be Ed de Castro. And he introduces himself and I didn’t know who he was and he said, “What are you doing?” And I explained, “I’m from Sun, I’m getting ready for a big demo. We’ve got a big executive presentation. Mr. McNealy will be here shortly, etc.” And he said, “Well, show me what you’ve got.” So I’m sort of still in the middle of downloading this software and I start making this thing dance. I’ve got these machines talking to each other and showing all kinds of cool stuff. And he left. And the meeting was about 10 or 11 in the morning. And so when the executive team from Sun showed up they said, “Well, how's it going?” I said, “Well I gave a demo to a guy,” and they asked, “Who's the guy,” and I said, “It was Ed de Castro.” And they went, “Oh my God, that was the CEO.” Well, we got the deal. I thought Ed had a little tactic there to come in early, see what he could see, maybe get the true skinny on this thing and see what’s real. I carried the day. But anyway, I got a nice little bonus for that. But Vinod and I would drop into Lockheed down in Southern California. They wanted to put Suns on P-3 airplanes and we'd go down there with an engineer and we’d figure out how to make it. Those were just incredible times. You may remember back in the 80s everyone dressed up except on Fridays. It was dress-down Fridays. And one day I dressed down and Carol Bartz, my boss, saw me wearing blue jeans and just an open collared shirt and she said, “Rothrock, you go home and put on a suit! You never know when a customer is going to walk in the front door.” She was quite right. Kodak shows up. Kodak made a big investment in Sun when it was still private. And I gave that demo and then AT&T, and then interestingly Vice President Bush back in the Reagan administration came to Sun to see the manufacturing and I gave the demo to the Vice President with Scott and Andy and Bill and Vinod standing there.
Graham-Cumming: Do you remember what he saw?
Rothrock: It was my standard two minute Sun demo that I can give in my sleep. We were on the manufacturing floor. We picked up a machine and I created a demo for it and my executive team was there. We have a picture of it somewhere, but it was fun. As John Gage would say, he’d say, “Ray, your job is to make the computer dance.” So I did.
Graham-Cumming: And one of the other things I wanted to ask you about is at some point Sun was almost Amazon Web Services, wasn't it. There was a rent-a-computer service, right?
Rothrock: I don't know. I don't remember the rent-a-computer service. I remember we went after the PC business aggressively and went after the data centers which were brand new in those days pretty aggressively, but I don’t remember the rent-a-computer business that much. It wasn’t in my domain.
Graham-Cumming: So what are you up to these days?
Rothrock: I’m still investing. I do a lot of security investing. I did 15 deals while I was at Venrock. Cloudflare was the last one I did, which turned out really well of course. More to come, I hope. And I’m CEO of one of Venrock’s portfolio companies that had a little trouble a few years back but I fixed that and it’s moving up nicely now. But I’ve started thinking about more of a science base. I’m on the board of the Carnegie Institute of Science. I'm on the board of MIT and I just joined the board of the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington which is run by Secretary Ernie Moniz, former secretary of energy. So I’m doing stuff like that. John would be pleased with how well that played through. But I'll tell you it is this these fundamental principles, just tying it all back to Sun and Cloudflare, and this sort of open, cheap, easy, enabling humans to do things without too much friction, that is exciting. I mean, look at your phone. Steve Jobs was the master of design to make this thing as sweet as it is.
Graham-Cumming: Yes, and as addictive.
Rothrock: Absolutely, right. I haven’t been to a presentation from Cloudflare in two years, but every time I see an announcement like the DNS service, I immediately switched all my DNS here at the house to 126.96.36.199. Stuff like that. Because I know it’s good and I know it’s trustworthy, and it’s got that philosophy built in the DNA.
Graham-Cumming: Yes definitely. Taking it back to what we talked about at the beginning, it’s definitely the trustworthiness is something that Cloudflare has cared about from the beginning and continues to care about. We’re sort of the guardians of the traffic that passes through it.
Rothrock: Back when the Internet started happening and when Sun was doing Java, I mean, all those things in the 90s, I was of course at Venrock, but I was still pretty connected to [Edward] Zander and [Scott] McNealy. We were hoping that it would be liberating, that it would create a world which was much more free and open to conversation and we’ve seen the dark side of some of that. But I continue to believe that transparency and openness is a good thing and we should never shut it down. I don't mean to get it all waxing philosophical here but way more good comes from being open and transparent than bad.
Graham-Cumming: Listen it's July 4th. It's evening here in London. We can be waxing philosophical as much as we like. Well listen, thank you for taking the time to chat with me. Are there any other reminiscences of Sun that you think the public needs to know in this oral history of “The Network is the Computer.”
Rothrock: Well you know the only thing I'd say is having landed in the Silicon Valley in 1981 and getting on with Sun, I can say this given my age and longevity here, everything is built on somebody else's great ideas. And starting with TCP/IP and then we went to this HTML protocol and browsers, it’s just layer on layer on layer on layer and so Cloudflare is just one of the latest to climb on the shoulders of those giants who put it all together. I mean, we don’t even think about the physical network anymore. But it is there and thank goodness companies like Cloudflare keep providing that fundamental service on which we can build interesting, cool, exciting, and mind-changing things. And without a Cloudflare, without Sun, without Apollo, without all those guys back in the day, it would be different. The world would just be so, so different. I did the New York Times crossword puzzle. I could not do it without Google because I have access to information I would not have unless I went to the library. It’s exponential and it just gets better. Thanks to Michelle and Matthew and Lee for starting Cloudflare and allowing Venrock to invest in it.
Graham-Cumming: Well thank you for being an investor. I mean, it helped us get off the ground and get things moving. I very much agree with you about the standing on the shoulders of giants because people don't appreciate the extent to which so much of this fundamental work that we did was done in the 70s and 80s.
Rothrock: Yea, it’s just like the automobile and the airplane. We reminisce about the history but boy, there were a lot of giants in those industries as well. And computing is just the latest.
Graham-Cumming: Yep, absolutely. Well, Ray, thank you. Have a good afternoon.
Interested in hearing more? Listen to my conversations with John Gage and Greg Papadopoulos of Sun Microsystems:
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