Blogging hasn’t just moved the needle for Sun Microsystems, Jonathan Schwartz, president and COO told us, it’s moved the whole damned compass. The company as of April 2005 had well over 1000 blogging employees, out of 32000 employees worldwide. Sun, he points out, has always “been about leveraging networks to successfully compete with competitors like HP and IBM, which are 10 times its size.”
Sun’s blogging began with XML pioneer Tim Bray and Simon Phipps and company CTO Greg Papadopoulos among others who were already prominent tech sector bloggers when Schwartz became Sun president in April 2004 and began blogging two months later. The senior team saw the implications, made it a strategic initiative and encouraged others in the company to join the conversation. Says Noel Hartzell, executive communications director for the Office of the President and COO, “It took off like gangbusters from there.”
Schwartz, as far as we know, is the highest ranking blogger by title in the technology sector. It’s central to what he does and how he communicates. He told us, “ It’s a community of communities. I recently had breakfast with Dave Winer. What do we have in common? We both blog.”
Schwartz has steered Sun toward becoming a flagship for the growing open source movement. Third-party analysts say that its Solaris operating system software is the most secure available. He has predicted that in the near future all software will be free and that surviving companies will need to move the value away from traditional delivery of a piece of software.” This perception is part of his vision for a new Participation Age. We asked him what blogging’s role will be in this new Era.
“It’s kerosene on the fire. The Participation Age has been on the Net since email. Moving from there to blogging is like moving from carrier pigeon to phone. The emergence of blogs means we have passed beyond early crude tools and it results in fundamental changes on how everything relates. While a journalist is writing about my blog, I’m blogging about his journalism. This is change,” he told us.
While many executive bloggers discuss blogs as a way to bypass journalists and thus gain direct access to audiences, Schwartz extols their value. “They are there because they are independent thinkers, who provide fresh insights. Like the rest of us, they may get a fact or two wrong from time-to-time. But that’s not the point. Journalists can jump off the rail companies are on and take it to points that interest audiences more than corporate spokespeople. That adds value even if they get a few facts wrong.”
Blogging’s advantage, from his perspective, is in the transparency and authenticity that nothing else can provide. With more than 1000 company bloggers, people can see inside Sun in ways that are infinitely more valuable than Federal governance regulations. “Executives are missing a point. There is no perfect truth despite transparency.” He argued that SEC requirements for quarterly reporting is far from as revealing as 1000 Sun bloggers talking about “the guts of the company,” on a daily basis in a public forum.
Sun’s blogging explosion was embraced without ambivalence by the corporate communications people. “Most PR teams would cringe, but ours didn’t. We have a transparent culture and competitors like HP do not. Our PR team is thinking about how to use technology and culture as a corporate weapon and blogging does both. Hartzell added, “Sun is a company whose success is based on building communities. So a key function of the communications team is to be an information gatherer, analyzer and counselor on participating in these communities. A bad way to do PR is to blast press releases every Thursday. We help feed the right information into the right channels. What could be better for a PR organization than blogs?”
Shwartz sees blogging, not as a tactic but as a watershed bi-directional change. “I don’t read blogs—I read. Blogs are more searchable. Technorati and PubSub are more useful to me than Google. It’s easier for me to connect in a blog-based world. People in Morocco and Australia have input into how we grow. I graze Sun’s blogs and read the comments. If a developer has a perception on J2EE, that’s valuable I know about it fast. We get all kinds of helpful comments. I just read a comment from a developer in Portugal, who thinks we’re the bee’s knees and it’s terrific to see that kind of stuff.”
Schwartz’ postings generate a great deal of attention. A competitor we know, speaking in background told us, “We had counted Sun out, assuming that by now they would be dead or irrelevant. They’re back. I think it’s their [expletive] blogs.”
We asked Schwartz how he became so good at blogging. “I type fast and I talk a lot. Good bloggers are chatty and are into relationships.” The blogosphere lets him hang out where he can meet people good for Sun. “I care deeply about developers and they hang out on the Web. So do good analysts. When I started seeing who was reading me I was stunned. It was our customers and the analysts. Everywhere I go, more and more people tell me they are reading my blogs.”
I had an epiphany one day: blogging is a bad broadcast mechanism, but it’s a tremendous interactive medium. Besides, what are my other options to reach my developers? Take out an ad in LinuxWorld? My readership is bigger than theirs is.”
Schwartz postings usually relate to Sun, but they include whatever comes into his mind. One blog started by discussing his son’s haircut, meandered through a Zen reference, then explained that Sun had made a mistake by installing sidewalks before observing routes taken by employees, which often strayed from walkways. “Sun’s culture encourages people to cut their own paths,” he observed. This is an important point to communicate he feels. “We are in a global war for talent. We have to prove we are a more vibrant, interesting and open company. These blogs reflect the quality of the people and that’s the quality of the company.”
He often tweaks competitive noses, sometimes playfully, occasionally with vitriol. He recently made direct appeals and offered sympathy to the HP community after the company announced a barrage of bad news. He once posted an open letter to IBM’s Sam Palmisano, in which he chided the chairman and CEO for not supporting an upgrade to Sun’s Solaris operating system, charging that IBM was preventing IBM customer access to the “most secure operating system available.” He knew full well that the letter would do little to endear him to Big Blue. But it was a clever ruse to bypass the company and appeal directly to IBM customers who rallied to Sun’s cause. “Now, IBM is much more accommodating,” he stated flatly.
Like other bloggers, he takes risks, occasionally stepping into a bucket. He once confessed to having sampled kangaroo meat on a trip to Australia , entreating readers not to tell his kids. A while back, a Sun executive sent him a link to a Japanese company that promised blogging would “enhance your physique.” Schwartz thought it was funny, human and culturally interesting. He did a quick post. Later, alarmed colleagues informed him that had he looked closer he would have seen some graphically explicit enhanced physiques on the site.
From Schwartz’ perspective, blogging is not an appendage to Sun’s marketing communications strategy, it is central to it. He believes that the 1000 Sun bloggers contribution hasn’t just moved the needle for the company, “they’ve moved the whole damned compass. The perception of Sun as a faithful and authentic tech company is now very strong. What blogs have done has authenticated the Sun brand more than a billion dollar ad campaign could have done. I care more about the ink you get from developer community than any other coverage. Sun has experienced a sea change in their perception of us and that has come from blogs. Everyone blogging at Sun is verifying that we possess a culture of tenacity and authenticity. “