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Sun didn't set on Arthur van Hoff

  • March 11, 1998
  • By Amy Oringel
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Arthur van Hoff had the developer's dream job: a key role on the Java development team at Sun Microsystems. Then, with piles of stock options, airtight job security and a golden rolodex of such names as James Gosling, he waved good-bye to his Sun comrades and headed off into the unpredictable start-up sunset. Now, as co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of the software distribution company Marimba, this native Dutchman is busy making sure the language he helped build and the company he is currently building are both around for the long term.

In early 1996, Arthur van Hoff was in a zone. He had a mind-boggling resume, hefty bank account and the respect of an impressive list of peers. For most people, that would be enough -- a satisfying testament to a ton of hard work. But Arthur van Hoff had much more to do. Trading his pension plan for a business plan, van Hoff founded Marimba (named after the dance) with two fellow developers from Sun's Java team, Sami Shaio and Jonathon Payne. Former Java project manager, Kim Polese, joined them shortly thereafter as CEO. The decision to leave at a time when Java was just gaining popularity was deliberate, intended to let the entrepreneurs capitalize on the potential of the language. The news raised the hackles of a few of the powers-that-be at the hardware and software giant. Van Hoff reveals that a hardly thrilled Scott McNealy's response was, "Good luck, but don't take any of my people." Overall, though, van Hoff says, even though they did sense frustration from other Sun-ers, the company has been supportive, "It's difficult for Sun to say it's great to do start-ups. They wish you good luck and that's about it."

Van Hoff has settled comfortably into his role as chief technology officer at Marimba, where he finds himself performing a juggling act. His days are comprised of everything from customer visits to speaking engagements to hands-on application development. Though he remains devoted to technology and claims, "I would never want to trade places with Kim (Polese)," van Hoff has also played an influential role in the business development of the company. His diverse responsibilities are exercised within the usual chaos of a start-up environment. Fortunately, van Hoff names one of his greatest strengths as the ability to keep a clear and focused head. "My main sticking point is to keep things simple," he says.

This entrepreneur doesn't just reserve his preference for simplicity for his own work, but applies it also to the way he runs the technology end of the company. Van Hoff claims, "It's always easy to find a complex solution to complex problems. Truly successful companies are those that find simple solutions to complex problems. I try to be very strict. I always have fights with sales people because I say we aren't going to add this feature because we're going to do it the right way -- it will take longer, but you will thank me." This commitment to simplicity is a main reason the company uses Java in its product development, since it provides a solution to the porting, internationalization and cross-platform issues which can arise when dealing with numerous clients with different needs.

Though Marimba is holding its own in the competitive Internet software business, the company's direction has been consistently questioned, particularly by the media. The staying power of push technology has been under fire since its inception, though van Hoff is quick to point out the distinction between Marimba and push companies like PointCast. Claiming they've been grouped together unfairly, he explains, "We're not a push company. This is one of the things we've been struggling with. We started off same time as PointCast, but we do software distribution and management which is much different than pushing Web pages around."

While he still spends time banging out Java code, van Hoff expends a good deal of energy sharing his wealth of experience and expertise to strengthen the Marimba engineering team. "Within the company I try to be an example for the engineers," he says. He heads up the Marimba Advanced Development group which builds prototypes for future products, and holds weekly seminars to educate the Marimba engineers on various programming issues. It's more than a little helpful having one of Java's chief architects available as a resource for Marimba developers.

Van Hoff's road to success began when he left home in Holland for Scotland's Strathclyde University where he received a Master's in Computer Science -- an interesting distinction considering, he says, "There were only about 15 programmers in all of Glasgow." While at Strathclyde, he developed a user interface environment based on the Windows system News. Sun eventually cancelled News and van Hoff was paid a personal call by Sun to apologize for pulling the project. Soon, though, disappointment over News was tempered by an attractive job offer to move to California and join the ranks at Sun. The timing was right and van Hoff shuttled off to Silicon Valley to work on DOE, Distributed Objects Everywhere, a highly complex and political project. The match was not a good one. A chance meeting with James Gosling at a party led van Hoff to give him a call in search of a smaller, simpler working group within Sun. Gosling hired him to work on a little-known project called Java.

Life on the Java project, as described by van Hoff, was a bit of a rollercoaster. By the time he joined the team in 1993, the language had already undergone several revisions and augmentations. Because of his commitment to ease-of use issues, van Hoff was hired to come in and clean house. He organized the language, doing away with extraneous features which only confused its definition. He also wrote the compiler for Java, integrating it into one pure system. Throughout his involvement, the numbers of team members fluctuated from 32 to 70, down to 15, back up to 100 and so on. With this level of constant change came the kind of internal strife van Hoff has always tried to avoid. As the project grew, the complexities intensified, and so did van Hoff's desire to strike out on his own.

"You really had to be a believer to stick with it (the Java project). I was for a long time, but in the back of our minds, we (van Hoff and Shaio) were thinking 'What if we go do a start up and get rid of all the politics?' I feel I did the right thing in leaving because I believe in easy solutions and it would have been difficult to continue that philosophy," he says.

Building a company from the ground up has afforded van Hoff the responsibilities and latitude a large company like Sun couldn't provide. He names the excitement and potential control of the new venture as the overriding factors which convinced him it was the right next step, "One of the differences with a small company is that every decision counts. If you make a mistake, it's your job." That sense of ownership and accountability combined with the intimacy of working in a small group has provided van Hoff with his ideal working environment at Marimba.

Arthur van Hoff is quick to bring a dose of perspective to the constant commotion which surrounds him, actually trademarking the phrase "Have Fun" and naming certain Marimba offices the "Have Fun" rooms -- quite a rarity in the pressure cooker atmosphere of Silicon Valley. But it's this very intensity of his adopted home which van Hoff finds most appealing. "I love technology and the industry is so alive here. Moving back to Holland at this point would be culture shock."

Please send any comments to Amy Oringel at: amy@earthweb.com.






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