Java Creator James Gosling: Why I Quit Oracle

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2010-09-22

Java Creator James Gosling: Why I Quit Oracle

SAN FRANCISCO - When James Gosling led the team that created the Java language and platform, Sun Microsystems was riding high and Java stood as a landscape-changing revolutionary technology, but financial realities eventually brought Sun to its knees and Oracle entered in as a potential savior--saying all the right things, but behind the scenes, as far as Gosling was concerned, doing all the wrong ones.

Gosling created Java, a feat that many would assume would demand some modicum of respect, but instead, from Oracle, Gosling says all he got was the opposite. In an exclusive interview with eWEEK, Gosling came clean about why he left Oracle and what he thinks of the company's stewardship of his creation going forward.

In his April blog post announcing his resignation, Gosling would only say, "As to why I left, it's difficult to answer: Just about anything I could say that would be accurate and honest would do more harm than good." However, over dinner with eWEEK in San Francisco during the week of Oracle's first JavaOne conference - held concurrently with Oracle OpenWorld here - Gosling went a bit deeper, telling a tale of low-balling key employees and cutting off at the knees projects and strategies Sun had put into play.

"There is actually a long list of things that played into my leaving Oracle," Gosling said. "There were things like my salary offer. After getting my offer from them I tried to figure out what my compensation would be like on my W-2 form and it was a major hit. They copied my base salary [from Sun]," he said. However, at Sun, any executive that was a vice president or above was given what amounted to a bump or bonus based on the performance of the company. "In a mediocre year you did OK, but in a good year you did great" in terms of this compensation, he said.

An Oracle spokeswoman said the company had no comment on Gosling's claims.

Thus, "For the privilege of working for Oracle, they wanted me to take a big pay cut," Gosling said.

That in itself was not a showstopper. Indeed, given that constraint, Gosling moved on with his employment with the database giant. However, another annoyance arose when, according to Gosling, Oracle did not have a notion of a senior engineer or at least one equivalent to Gosling's grade at Sun, where he was a fellow. "In my job offer, they had me at a fairly significant grade level down," he said.

But, even that was not the final factor in leading to his decision to leave the company. Perhaps the final straw was what Gosling said was Oracle's move to rein him in. indeed they owned Sun and thus Java, so they also owned its creator and his intellectual property, so it was up to Oracle to decide what Gosling or anybody else had to say about Java.

"My ability to decide anything at Oracle was minimized," Gosling said. "Oracle is an extremely micromanaged company. So myself and my peers in the Java area were not allowed to decide anything. All of our authority to decide anything evaporated."

That bent Gosling's resolve like a wishbone in the hands of two eager siblings in mid-pull after Thanksgiving dinner, but even that didn't break it. What ultimately snapped the wishbone and made Gosling want to holler and throw up his hands Marvin-Gaye style was that "My job seemed to be to get up on stage and be a public presence for Java for Oracle. I'm from the wrong Myers-Briggs quadrant for that," he said.

Add to that sentiment that Gosling already had the sense that Oracle was "ethically challenged" and he said he had simply had enough, and decided not to work there anymore.

Asked if the onstage part of the deal made him feel like baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays signing autographs at San Francisco Giants events and other venues, Gosling said: "Well, Willie liked that stuff. I didn't."

Also, asked whether in hindsight he would have preferred Sun having been acquired by IBM (which pursued a deal to acquire Sun and then backed out late in the game) rather than Oracle, Gosling said he and at least Sun Chairman Scott McNealy debated the prospect. And the consensus, led by McNealy, was that although they said they believed "Oracle would be more savage, IBM would make more layoffs."

Ellison Just Gives Me the Creeps

So the leadership, most of whom were getting nice payoffs in the transaction, also was thinking about the Sun workforce and how they would fare in the acquisition. And, given IBM's record of quiet-but-legendary rounds of layoffs in recent years, that was a legitimate concern. Yet, leading up to the announcement of the totally merged Oracle/Sun company there were several rounds of layoffs, Gosling said.

However, in Gosling's case personally, he may have fared better at IBM, where technical savvy is generously rewarded. For instance, when IBM acquired Rational Software they saw value in Rational's chief scientist Grady Booch, co-creator of the UML (Unified Modeling Language), and made him an IBM fellow and more. And although Booch does his share of onstage rah-rah stuff - partly because he is good at it and he loves it - he also is a key liaison between IBM's software group and its research organization, and he is keenly involved with innovation. Gosling might have shared a similar fate. Who knows?

And the micromanagement Gosling says he felt may have been less of an issue at IBM. Specifically, Gosling says he felt the hand of Larry Ellison in nearly all the decisions affecting Java. Certainly IBM Chairman and CEO Sam Palmisano would not personally get his hands into the goings on with an acquisition, even a key one like Sun. But then IBM is not the house that Sam built like Oracle is Ellison's creation. There is a major difference in that.

From this reporter's view, Gosling paints the picture of Ellison being like a sports magnate from his sister city, Al "Just Win Baby" Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders, who continually hires coaches and drafts talent only to run the show himself. But unlike Oracle, Davis and the Raiders have not had a winning season for awhile - not since my Baltimore Ravens flattened their hopes and the shoulder of quarterback Rich Gannon after a vicious pancake tackle by Tony Siragusa on the way to a Ravens' Super Bowl winning season in 2001.

And although Gosling said he never had direct dealings with Ellison, "He's the kind of person that just gives me the creeps," he said. "All of the senior people at Sun got screwed compensation-wise. Their job titles may have been the same, but their ability to decide anything was just gone."

Making his point about the "creepiness," not only with Ellison but with Oracle's power structure, Gosling said he sparked a notion to try to improve morale amongst the Sun faithful who endured the Oracle acquisition. He said the company decided to rent out the Great America amusement park in Santa Clara, Calif., and allow the Sun folks to have a day of fun. Scott McNealy and Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz signed off on the project that came in well under budget and all systems were go, Gosling said. Except a few days before the event was to occur, Oracle Co-President Safra Catz got wind of it and put the kibosh on the thing.

"Safra found out and had a fit," Gosling said. "The word came down that Oracle does not do employee appreciation events. So she forced the thing to be cancelled. But they didn't save any money because the money had been spent - so we ended up giving the tickets to charities. We were forced to give it up because it wasn't the -Oracle Way.' On the other hand, Oracle sponsors this sailboat for about $200 million."

Meanwhile, speaking to the "savagery" McNealy alluded to from Oracle, Gosling said Oracle's lawsuit against Google over the use of Java in the Android mobile OS is the kind of thing they expected. Indeed, in a blog post, Gosling said Oracle's lawyers' eyes lit up when Sun talked about its Java patent situation.

However, Gosling said despite the legal wrangling and how it will result, he cannot say that Google was malicious in its intent, or whether they were "like a young Microsoft," just zealous to take over the world using the tools at hand. Nor does Gosling denigrate any of the former Sun employees that went to Google and likely had a hand in the creation of Android.

"We were pretty ticked off with what they were doing and the way they were doing it," he said of Google. "But getting into litigation is phenomenally expensive, not just in terms of money but in the time of senior people. The U.S. vs. Microsoft trial pretty much destroyed a year of my life."

Besides, "Google has the PR aura about it as being the universe's love child," and suing the universe's love child was not necessarily a position Sun wanted to take, he indicated. In another blog post, Gosling explains further how Sun tried to handle the Android phenomenon.

Despite deciding he had no business working at Oracle under the hand he says he was dealt, Gosling said he has no concerns about Java's fate under Oracle.

"I'm actually not very concerned about Java at Oracle, because Java's really acquired a life of its own," Gosling said. "There's only so much damage Oracle can do, because so much of their business depends on Java. It's in their best interest to treat it well."

However, "It's going to be rocky for awhile," he said. "There's a lot of arrogance on the Oracle side, some of which got smacked out of them very quickly. They said they could root out the problems with the JCP [Java Community Process], but the JCP remains at loggerheads."

Mik Kersten, developer of the Mylyn task-oriented framework and CEO of Tasktop Technologies, said, "There is some concern for the future of Java as a platform. For companies and organizations building on the platform, the comfort comes from the fact that Java is bigger than any single vendor."

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