I read today about Java creator James Gosling and the reasons why he left Oracle. James Gosling is of course the person that created the Java language and platform and is very well known authority in the Java world. He announced his departure in his blog entry and in an interview with eWeek, he explains in more detail the reasons why he is leaving. I have to say, I felt some déjà vu (seen it, felt it) feelings when reading the article.
There are two forces on the market today: slow economy with cost cuttings and a fundamental change in business models. Large organizations have cut costs without reducing the workload and this is putting huge pressure on its employees. Salaries have been cut, bonuses have been sliced but people are asked to work more. It is OK as long as both parties have a good plan going forward and both parties agree that the actions are needed for the company to survive. The change in business model is forcing people to learn new things and some will never get adjusted to the change no matter how much they try. The outcome if this is either unemployment or change of company and maybe even career.
When reading the story of James Gosling, I think every imaginable move from the buying company (Oracle) went wrong. First of all, Oracle does not have the same status for employees as Gosling (Fellow), they failed to provide a salary level and bonus plan that would have made sense for Gosling. The final straw that made him leave was when he realized that he had no say in any decision-making of Java and its future. The new owner (Oracle) wanted to micromanage everything and for a person like Gosling, this must have been just unacceptable. Mr. Gosling was king on the hill in Sun and now with Oracle, he had to take directives from people that probably never had anything to do with the creation of Java programming environment/language.
Is Gosling the first one to have to experience this? No and one does not have to go far to see how people such as Monty (Michael) Widenius (one of the creators of MySQL) left Sun once MySQL was sold to Sun. Monty rumbles in his blog and has been very aggressive in trying to block the Sun deal and MySQL going to Oracle. He did not succeed and is now working on a branch of MySQL as he does not believe in what Oracle is doing. One can always argue of his motivations, but there is no doubt that he was one of the carrying forces in creation of MySQL.
Why am I interested in the story of Gosling? It is probably because I do not understand the logic behind some of these large organizations and their ability to retain people and keep them enthusiastic about the future of the merged company. I have seen too many of these stories throughout my career and having been part of 3 sell-outs, I have also experienced interesting things myself as part of the sold company. It seems that buying companies are very focused and bullish about the transaction and forget that there are people behind the products and service that need to keep their focus on upcoming things and not have to dwell on the past. Large companies with deep pockets can survive of key people leaving, but it is another story if most of the core competence leaves with the acquisition.
What I would like you to do is to list your own experiences in mergers and acquisitions (M&A) or other similar cases and dwell what happened and try to remember how many key people left after the merger. I am sure you have plenty of those in your memory and if you are part of management and in the process of buying companies, you might want to focus on this.
Java was not created by one person even if Gosling got lots of credit for it, but I am pretty sure that with him, Oracle lost a great innovator and at the same time the whole user community will lose. This is of course a tremendous opportunity for competition to turn Java developers to something else, but that was not the intention of this blog entry.
Another company in the past that reminds me a bit of changes in power is when the star architect Anders Hejlsberg (creator of Turbo Pascal compiler and Delphi Object Pascal environment) left Borland to join archrival Microsoft. The circumstances were different with Mr. Hejlsberg when compared to Mr. Gosling, but the future of Borland as software tools company started to detoriate when Mr. Hejlsberg left the company. Mr. Hejlsberg was in charge of creation of J++ programming language and later C# programming language. This move with many other moves finally took down Borland as it were and the company was sold and products divided into new owners. This ended the dream of Philippe Kahn to win the competition of Microsoft. Mr. Kahn was a charismatic leader and known for his bullish dreams of taking over the world in development tools.
I am sure that most of the moves that people make in their careers have nothing to do with money, the reasons are multifaceted and mostly due to personal reasons and desire to have a meaningful life with purpose. Large organizations (and small as well) need to keep in mind that people crave for happiness and purpose in their work and if you take that away from them, no money or fame will replace the ill feel that these people might have.
I was recently interviewed (in Finnish) by the amazing Cristina Andersson (author of Winning Helix: The Art of Learning and Manifesting Your True Potential) about courage and how collective fear can paralyze a company to its knees. Management teams often fail to realize that fear causes people not to make decisions and decisions that should have been done will create a death spiral in the company as everybody is trying to keep his/her own position without losing face or taking a risk.
In large organizations, the cost cutting has led to a corporate culture where people will keep their heads down in the cubicle and answer questions only when necessary. How do you think this will impact the long-term outlook for the company? I think we have seen this many times in our own careers and the outcome is always bad or in most cases fatal.
My recommendation to all companies, regardless of the size, is to analyze the well-being of people and quit looking at the quarterly numbers. These numbers will come down no matter what if people do not feel committed to their work and the teams that they work in.