Former Sun, Robbins-Gioia exec on witnessing three tech revolutions
Longtime industry executive shares his views on technology and the value of content
- By David Hubler
- Mar 22, 2011
John Marselle retired March 5 after four and a half years as CEO of Robbins-Gioia LLC. His career in technology began in the 1970s when he joined a start-up company named Sun Microsystems Inc., for which he held several executive positions, including president and chief operating officer of Sun's federal business. He spoke recently with Washington Technology Associate Editor David Hubler.
WT: You entered the technology community in its infancy in the 1970s. What drew you to it?
John Marselle: I always wondered about how we would do things better, and my thoughts migrated to technology. I remember in high school and entering college that it was hard to get information. That’s probably what did it for me. It didn’t matter what it was — voice, image, text, data, graphics — whatever it was, it was all about content. And content kind of morphed, changed, and was being delivered differently. Think about recordings: those early records all the way through eight-tracks and eventually to digital. I was always fascinated by how often the same content was being delivered differently.
WT: Is that any different from how content is delivered today? Are you surprised by the many data delivery systems today?
John Marselle: It’s the same content essentially. Everything goes back to the early stuff — voice, image and text, and data and graphics — and how you are going to deliver it. At Sun, we always talked about bigger, better, faster networks, and they’re out there now. And we talked about more portable devices for delivery, and they’re out there now. And there are different compositions of content, and they’re out there now, too. So the last phase is choice: What do you choose to use? Now we have the pads and the ability to get that data anywhere. In the early days, we said, “Data anywhere, any place, any time for anyone.” I look at where we’re at now, and it doesn’t surprise me. I do believe that instant apps are where [content] is going, delivered over networks and clouds.
WT: But some believe there is too much reliance on, and confusion about, the many apps that are available now.
John Marselle: It’s exciting, but the real question is: Are you really more productive because of it, and does it make it better? That’s the point about all those apps out there. Cute is nice, but if it’s too cute, it’s a fad. But if it’s good, it stays forever.
WT: You spent 20 years at Sun Microsystems and led its federal sales division. What attracted you to a company that was still in its infancy?
John Marselle: They had one of the most fascinating CEOs of the generation in Scott McNealy. He was a huge visionary. Most of the things that are happening today he was talking about in the early 1980s. For me, it was the fascination of what could be. That was one of our tag lines. We were talking about the network is the computer — and that was in the early ’80s. We were talking about clouds, delivery devices — in those days, they were called “thin clients.” We were talking about workstations that were going to take the power of supercomputers and put them on people’s desks. I got to see us grow from a baby to a very mature company.
WT: Sun had offices on two floors of the World Trade Center, and you faced some extreme and personal challenges following the 2001 terrorist attacks.
John Marselle: I was packing to fly to Silicon Valley for a meeting, and I looked up and saw it on TV. My first thoughts were of my USO friends at the Pentagon and am I still flying. And then I recalled that just a week earlier I had been to the World Trade Center. I was also thinking of my employees on the 26th and 27th floors there. All of our employees got out of the building thanks to a very zealous Xerox rep who ran around the building and got people out. We lost all our stuff. A few days later, I took the train to New York. There were posters and candles and dust everywhere. The shell [of the tower] was still burning. But, my gosh, there was an overwhelming sense of helpfulness in the city.
WT: You left Sun and went to Robbins-Gioia, a much smaller company, as CEO in 2006. What attracted you to that company?
John Marselle: I was on the USO board for a couple of years with John Gioia, another great pioneer. What Scott was to hardware and technology and software, John was to program management. I joined his board at his invitation and then came on board when I retired from Sun. John’s view was just because you have great technology doesn’t mean you have a great program. That’s what he built the company on. What entrepreneur doesn’t miss the start-up mentality? I loved working there. Not everybody gets an encore act.
WT: You’ve stepped down now to deal with some health problems. How do you feel about a second retirement?
John Marselle: It’s a wonderful time to retire because I got to see three revolutions. The first was the use of technology to make life substantially better. Then I got to see the use of technology in the program element; you have to measure what you’re doing with this technology to know if it was working. Now I’ve come full circle knowing that it is the technology that is fueling the advancements in performance management. That seemed like a good time to step down — that and a couple of heart issues.
WT: What are you going to do now?
John Marselle: Fish. It’s one of the things I really enjoy to do. I haven’t hidden the fact that I basically went through some heart issues, so I’m healing. I want to get back to my fighting weight. And I’m going to do a lot of great things for the USO still. I’ve been a volunteer with that organization for 20 years, and I’ve been the chairman of the board of USO Metro for a lot of years as well. It’s my passion. But I can’t even imagine all the new and exciting challenges that I’m going to find in life.