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John Gage: Sun's voice to the outside world

  • November 11, 1998
  • By Kieron Murphy
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November 11, 1998
John Gage: Sun's voice to the outside world

by Kieron Murphy

John Gage feels the need to get involved. Then again, he always has.

Recently, the director of Sun Microsystems' science office proposed a new push to identify schools the world over not yet connected to the Internet and match them with volunteers willing to help.

The idea is an ambitious extension of his well-known NetDay project, which has been successful over the last three years in bringing the people and resources together to wire some 50,000 schools and libraries in the United States. The plan now calls for NetDays to be held in over 40 countries over the next two years -- and even further in the future.

It is typical of the man to believe he can pull it off and equally typical that he believes in the power of other individuals to make it happen. For an idealist, he is a very pragmatic man.

Gage orchestrates one of the most advanced computer research groups in the world. Sun's innovations are legendary, from symmetrically parallel architecture chips to the Java programming language. As its chief scientist, he represents the company in dialog with governments and institutions at the highest levels. But he has never lost sight of the goal of scientific progress, as one gets to know when they listen to him. He really believes his mission is to improve all our lives.

His long, winding road

John Gage was born in Los Angeles and grew up in the heyday of the Newport Beach surf culture -- Beach Boys music and all. As a college student at Berkeley in the Sixties, Gage was an early leader in the anti-war movement. To this end, he worked for the fateful presidential candidacy of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, even meeting the man just before his assassination.

"I was running the Kennedy campaign in Alameda County ... we had hundreds of volunteers," Gage said somberly. "As we watched the television [of Kennedy's nomination-winning California primary victory] and learned he'd been killed, it reduced everyone to despair, because it was clear, no matter how hard you worked, an instant of violence could change the course of history. I think everyone would agree that if he'd remained in the race, the outcome would have probably been different. We saw Bobby as a voice for Americans who had no voice.... I'm still fundamentally convinced that if he had become President, this country would have become a much healthier place than it is today."

Gage represented RFK as a delegate at the tumultuous Chicago Convention, casting his ballot for Sen. Eugene McCarthy.

Gage slowly drifted away from politics, after a stint in the Robert Kennedy Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C., which "worked for the poorest Americans." He split altogether with the anti-war movement when it became deliberately violent. He then quietly sublimated his passions to the study of mathematics.

He looks back to that time, though, with a sense of profound hope for the way things should be now.

"The same ideas from those days are the same ideas of today. That decisions should be made with the involvement of everyone. Precisely the ideas that Java and Jini and source-code available Unix and Tcl have.... That technology [should] be made available to everyone."

Info to the people

As a grad student, Gage's work with computers was limited to noodling with APL, until one day in the Seventies a systems administrator named Bill Joy answered a request to help Gage typeset math equations. Joy set him up with a university account and showed him the ropes for working with applications such as Macsyma. The scales fell from his eyes.

"I fell in love with it.... The notion that you could use a very small computer, like a VAX 1170 and ... typeset ... or telnet ... or send e-mail around the world. I thought this gave power to people who before just didn't have it."

In 1982, to supplement his teaching pay, Gage took a job working at a Berkeley book store. There, he ran into Joy again. This time the computer whiz told him: "You know, I was just talking with the first hardware person I ever met who knew a thing about software, and I think we're going to start a company."

The two went for a cup of coffee, where Joy sketched on a napkin something that looked like an APL-based IBM 6100 workstation but used Unix and had TCP/IP connectivity, running on new microprocessors recently designed by engineers at Stanford University. What Gage saw was a potentially breakthrough product: an inexpensive, powerful desktop computer that would run over a network. Newly versed in Unix, Gage shared his ideas on improving the software, and Joy knew he had found a colleague he could work with.

Shortly afterward, the two joined about a dozen other partners to form Sun Microsystems.

Stepping back for a moment, the hardware person Joy mentioned to Gage was a grad student named Andy Bechtolsheim, who had been working on the logic boards for the new Stanford University Network (SUN). He had been trying to license his designs to several companies when he was approached by a recent Stanford business grad who had gone into venture capital. Vinod Khosla convinced Bechtolsheim that he should start his own business. Bechtolsheim enlisted the aid of his computer-science advisor, Prof. Vaughan Pratt, to help design the new machine. But they soon realized they would need someone to write the software for it.

Bechtolsheim had heard about Joy, known for his advances in the Unix OS, as well as working on the special effects for the "Star Wars" movies.

"So Andy came to Berkeley and met Bill. Vinod and Scott [McNealy] came, too; but Bill thought they were grad students, so he had them cool their heels out in the hallway, because he was the central point of activity at Berkeley, you know. So Andy and Bill hit it off: They both talk fast, think fast. And bingo. A company forms."

Gage said he was asked to join the team after Khosla and McNealy had tried to recruit someone from the regular computing world but had everyone "laugh at them." Even Ed Zander, now chief operating officer of Sun but then a vice president at Data General, questioned why anyone would want "to work for a 12-person start-up with no revenue and some 'joy-ish' thing" to sell.

So instead, they went with the math instructor, who soon found himself "the voice to the outside world" at Sun.

"I was support, I was sales, I was marketing, I was anything that touched the rest of the computer universe," said Gage.

Asked whether the company had a vision from the start that "the network is the computer," he responded: "Pretty much ... Bill and I went on a trip to China in '84 or '85, and we gave these talks, long talks, because the people at these meetings didn't want us to stop -- they wanted us to just keep answering more and more questions. So it forced us to answer them in very brief, concise ways: 'The machine is the manual -- you don't need a manual. The network is the computer -- things are distributed. And so on'."

They brought their aphorisms back to California, where one of these struck a chord with Sun's marketing department.

Communication is the excitement

As the company he helped to found grew, Gage moved in to roles more suited to his pure-science background, but he still sees his fundamental role as that of a communicator -- to the outside world and to those he works with.

After 16 years, he considers this his major contribution at Sun: "You have to keep smart people thinking. The critical need of a company based on rapidly changing high-technology are the thoughts of people. We have a lot of computer-science geniuses -- the Bill Joys, the Guy Steeles, the James Goslings, the Ivan Sutherlands, and many others -- who think in ways you can't anticipate. And the one thing these creative people can not tolerate is boredom. The reason they constantly think of new things is that there is an atmosphere around them of excitement and directions for them to channel their energy. They want to do things. They don't want to waste time. So the last thing they want to do is explain it all to everyone.

"So one of the components of what I do is listen, which is wonderful, because I get an education from some of the smartest people in the world, and then explain their thoughts to others and try to link one group or person's work to others.... So that everyone remains creative."

Gage said he wants to see Sun remaining in the future "a cauldron, where the smartest people feel comfortable, arguing, creating, changing and developing, and that's a very serious challenge" in a corporation of 25,000 people.

He also pointed to the company's desire to continue to evolve a galaxy of partners in other enterprises that agree to work together within "the same gravitational field," a task he embraces with vigor. And a movement he regards as vital to the success of major computer firms in the years ahead.

In this regard, Gage said the next generation of Java, version 1.2, due next month, "is going to really take off" with developers and partners. And he lauded the work of Joy and Steele on Jini, the new distributed computing architecture, as revolutionary in the long-term to the interests of computer users everywhere.

Never a dull moment

Gage still lives in Berkeley. He is married to a journalism professor at the university, and they have two children.

"She tolerates my irregular hours and long travel schedules. Without that, I could have done nothing, none of this. It's thanks to my wife. My son is at Harvard, and my daughter is a junior in high school, thinking about what's next for her. The two of them have been extremely supportive. And by asking me the right questions, they allow me to think even more clearly about what we're really doing [at Sun]."

In his free time, Gage still surfs when he can get to the ocean. Lately, he has taken up wind-surfing, too, in San Francisco Bay. He also occasionally skis the California slopes and does some rock-climbing to keep in shape.

His new movement

Gage says he is now devoted to a pair of twin projects of his own: "One, getting every school in the world on the Net; two, getting every language and every manuscript accessible to every school over the Net. So that a school in Los Angeles, where the students speak many languages, will have the same access to every aspect of the world's rich literary heritage ... that the youngest child in a school in Marrakech has, and they can share this with one another, this very rich digital library of knowledge and understanding. This will change the way we one day all see ourselves."

With colleagues from 3Com, Apple, Cisco and Pacific Bell, he started the NetDay project in 1995, with an aim in mind of wiring and supporting all of California's learning centers for Internet service. The movement quickly spread throughout the networked computer world, and soon volunteers across the United States and abroad began joining the crusade.

Last year, President Clinton signed onboard in his State of the Union Address, issuing a call to government, the private sector, and individuals to pursue a goal of connecting every public and private school and library in the U.S. to the Internet by the year 2000. "We must bring the information and technology revolution to every classroom in America," the President stated.

The Congress backed the initiative with $200 million in Technology Literacy Challenge grants.

The latest move came two weeks ago when Gage and Oracle senior vice president Marc Benioff agreed at the State of the World Forum in San Francisco to commit their company's resources to create a global database of schools in need for NetDay2000 help, with a view toward connecting all the children of earth in the opening years of the 21st Century (see the link below).

The next NetDay is March 20, 1999. Look for John Gage to be out in front of the peaceful activists getting things done. He's no stranger to the position.

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