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FEATURE SERIES: Network Trailblazers

Network Trailblazer: A Conversation with Kim Polese

Kim Polese talks about her role in helping transform the early Web, and what excites her about the tech landscape today.

Kevin Maney
October 07 , 2013

Kim Polese helped bring us one of the most significant developments in the early history of the Web: Sun Microsystems’ Java. At Sun in the early-1990s, she was part of a small team that developed a product at first known as Oak -- and which came to market as Java, the “write once, run anywhere” plug-in that made the Web interactive.

Polese left Sun in 1996 to start her own company, becoming the founding CEO of Marimba and along the way emerging as a high-profile woman in a male-dominated field. Polese went on to found SpikeSource, which helped companies evaluate open source software, and ClearStreet, a social finance startup.

Polese has long worked to influence public policy, and was appointed to President Obama’s Innovation Advisory Board in 2011. She talked with Kevin Maney.

Kevin Maney: Back in 1994, before most people had heard of a browser or the web, you were focused on interactive television.

Kim Polese: It was an interesting time. Microsoft was really on a roll. Desktop computing was taking off, finally, and AOL and CompuServe, as well as some of the nascent online services, were starting to get some steam. This was pre-internet days, and I was part of a team at Sun working on technology that was designed for a world that didn’t yet exist. We were part of a secret skunk works project called First Person, a small team of some of Sun’s most brilliant engineers.

We were basically designing a software platform for an interconnected world. Our task was to get this out to the world pre-internet, and so we were basically trying every conceivable platform. We kept trying and failing to get this very powerful technology – at the time, it was called Oak – out to the world.

Maney: So what ended up working?

Polese: In the nick of time, Mosaic (which evolved into the Netscape Navigator) came along. This was the world’s first browser, out of the University of Illinois. We downloaded Mosaic and realized that it was basically a perfect vehicle for getting Oak, which we renamed Java, out to the world.

Up until then, web browsers were only capable of displaying text. So this was transformative because it created the platform that we now are using in everyday life, of interactivity and applications on the Internet. 

Maney: How did the story about what you were working on with Java break in the media?

Polese: I gave an interview to a reporter from the San José Mercury News, David Bank, and he really got it. He understood the potential; he wrote a very accurate description of the technology and its potential application to the very nascent Internet at that time. And it ended up being the front page, above the fold headline of the newspaper that day. In one day, that thrust us on stage as a project, and began this incredible momentum behind Java. Netscape, then, very quickly thereafter became a partner of ours. And there was a subsequent article where Marc Andreessen blessed Java and that was, you know, obviously an important moment for the project.

Maney: Nobody quite knew how to use it at first, right?

Polese: Right. Well, that was what was so cool - the developers got a hold of it and they built applets, and that’s what made it take off. One thing we had done was really spend a lot of time with the first set of developers, making sure they had the right tools in the form of the Hot Java browser. Netscape imbedded Java shortly thereafter.

Of course, Sun had tremendous investment in Java, but Scott McNealy, Bill Joy, and Eric Schmidt all were very supportive of us giving it away for free to the developers and opening up the platform. And that’s why Java took off, that developer explosion of creativity and innovation.

Maney: How did Java affect Sun?

Polese: Well, it really transformed Sun. Sun had always had that vision of “The Network as the Computer” - that was one of the early famous taglines for the company. Suddenly, Java made that vision reality. And so the company really became a Java company - obviously still a hardware company, but the main thrust of the message was the Internet.

Maney: So, not long after Java became known, you decided to leave and do your own thing. What was behind that decision?

Polese: It was a moment when we realized that we could take Java to the next level by creating a new company and actually enabling businesses to take advantage of Java in a new way. We could stay at Sun and do that, but the opportunity to go out on our own was really exciting.

Maney: And that was Marimba.

Polese: The product was basically the first systems management technology for the Java platform. [It was] the idea of remotely deploying and managing software, being able to update software applications or an application in a data center remotely. What we now often think of as cloud computing.

Maney: Around the time you were starting Marimba, you became the poster girl for women in technology. That must have been weird.

Polese: Well, you know, this was such a crazy time. It was the beginning of the Internet and there were not very many startup companies. I can’t even think of anther female founder at the very, very beginning, so I got a lot of attention as a result. I did get a lot of attention. I went from being an anonymous product manager at Sun, toiling away, to suddenly giving speeches to tens of thousands of people and being on CNN. And that was an interesting experience.

But the reason I was doing this was because I loved being part of a team that was on a mission to create disruptive, groundbreaking technology that would help people and help transform the industry. And so there were kind of two realities - that was reality and then there was the poster girl kind of experience. It was kind of a strange time.

Maney: You also started to get involved in public policy issues beyond just technology. How did that happen?

Polese: John Doerr (of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers) called me in late ‘96 and said that he and a group of people were going to visit with Al Gore and invited me to join that group. I realized we needed to have an ongoing dialogue between the technologists, the innovators, the industry, and the politicians who were going to shape some really important decisions about access to this technology.

Maney: You’re still involved in policy discussions?

Polese: I enjoy it, and I find it challenging at times, and incredibly important because we’ve got to work together. We’ve got tremendous challenges as a country.  For example, [we need] broadband access for not only our urban areas, but also every part of the US. And every kid needs to have access to high speed Internet just to do homework.

Maney: As someone who was sort of in that mix, were you shocked by the NSA regulations?

Polese: I can’t say that I was shocked. It’s not that I had any kind of inside knowledge, to be sure, but I think that many Americans were not surprised to hear that there had been some amount of surveillance of communications from outside the US. 

Maney: I’d like to go back to your trajectory for a second. After Marimba, you had another jump. You went into SpikeSource. Could you talk a bit about that career move?

Polese: SpikeSource was a company that was focused on enabling businesses to make much more effective use of open source and to make open source platforms easier to adopt. And, as usual, we were ahead of our time. I mean, that’s been sort of the story of my career, starting from working on AI as my first job back in the ‘80s, and then of course Java and then Marimba and SpikeSource.

Maney: It’s not always good to be ahead of your time.

Polese: That’s right. While the ultimate vision that you’re driving at becomes reality, [you must have] investors who are willing to see you through for the long term. And sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s just part of being an entrepreneur.

Maney: Is there a theme to your career?

Polese: I find that it’s really the people that you know. I mean, the reason that I got involved in Java, and then left with the team to start Marimba, then SpikeSource, and then what I’m doing now, is because of the networks that you create. People you go into battle with shoulder to shoulder.

I’ve never been scientific about going from one project to the next. It’s just really always happened organically because I had a conversation with someone, and that led to another conversation, and we all got excited and decided to go for it. And then it’s a matter of persistence and sticking with it even though you realize, “Wow, we’re way early, and we’ve got to figure out another way to get this thing to market.”

Maney: Not every CEO can keep a team together through a company’s difficult journey. What about your management style or philosophy has helped you do that?

Polese: I have always been very passionate about the projects I’ve been part of. My own passion about what we are building and our vision as a company always comes through. For any leader, you have to have that fire in the belly.

Another element is that it’s all about the people you hire. I’ve been fortunate to found projects and companies with some of the best technologists in the industry. And, of course, great people attract more great people, and so having a team of phenomenally talented people does not hurt.

And then, most importantly, [I focus on] really bringing out the knowledge and the perspective of every member of the team.

Maney: Talk about ClearStreet and how that came about.

Polese: Many families – half of the population, for example – is ninety days away from falling off a cliff financially. We’ve seen a decline in financial wealth when it comes to the vast majority of the population and an increase in financial wealth for a very small part of the population. The decline in terms of wealth for the middle class and lower socio-economic class is a drag on the economy. 

We can’t keep doing things the way we have been doing them in the past. That’s sort of the backdrop to how I got excited about getting involved in ClearStreet and this class of companies that some people call Bank 2.0. ClearStreet is focused on helping people build assets, save money, and become financially healthy, eliminate debt long-term, and provide new sources of income through tools, through social incentives, and through merchant funded rewards.

Maney: As you look at the tech landscape now, are there a couple of things you’re really jazzed about?

Polese: I’m very excited about this intersection of social impact and for-profit businesses. I’m finding that some of the biggest challenges we’re dealing with as a society, whether it’s energy, climate, our financial system, or the job skills gap, the most interesting solutions are really coming out of start-ups, entrepreneurs, and interesting collaborations between public and private.

The whole crowd-funding phenomenon is another example of how we’re seeing the power of the individual and social transforming our world.

I studied biophysics in school because I was excited about the intersection between the digital and the physical sciences, and we’re now starting to see some very interesting applications coming out of that marriage of biological and digital sciences.

Maney: You’ll be busy for quite a while, then.

Polese: Yes, I have no doubt. I mean, that’s what’s so great about it.

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