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Marimba founder steps aside to move company forward

Just a day after announcing her company's first profitable quarter and her own decision to step aside as chief executive, Kim Polese speaks with CNET about the transition of Marimba and its future.

Just a day after announcing her company's first profitable quarter and her own decision to step aside as chief executive, Kim Polese spoke with CNET about the transition of Marimba and its future.

Long a media darling for being one of Silicon Valley's few female chief executives and prominent engineers, Polese first gained notoriety for her role in jump-starting Java, Sun Microsystems' cross-platform programming language. She subsequently launched Marimba in the then-red-hot market known as "push" technology, designed to send information directly to people's desktops over the Internet.

As Marimba's new chairman and chief strategy officer, Polese reflects on the company's recent string of executive departures and how Marimba can survive this transition to become the Cisco Systems of Internet infrastructure management.

CNET Why did you step aside as CEO?
Polese: I launched a search for COO (following Steve Williams' announcement that he would leave May 1) six months ago, and it became obvious in that search that the caliber of people I was interested in only respond to CEO calls. It became apparent that that was going to be an issue.

I decided that it was not about ego or title but building a billion-dollar company for the long term. I decided the title is meaningless--let's get the best person.

So the main reason you gave up the CEO title was to get a new executive with it?
The primary motivation was making sure we had the operational depth and breadth we needed. No matter what it took, it was about getting that person in the door. One thing that took was stepping aside as CEO. Another thing is now I get to focus on partnerships and alliances and strategy. That's what I've always loved.

Will you remain full time at Marimba or will you be pursuing other outside business interests?
I am 100 percent full time at Marimba. I'm not scaling down my involvement in any way. But my focus is shifting from doing everything to focusing on product strategy, business strategy, alliances, mergers and acquisitions. Aggressive growth is our No. 1 priority.

Why have there been so many executive departures at Marimba recently?
In every case it was about a lifestyle change. These people were not leaving to go to a competitive firm. In every case they were leaving the industry. Rob Currie, our VP of engineering--he wanted to sail around the world for a year. It was a life dream of his. In the case of Steve Williams, he wanted to go into VC and wound up at Sierra Ventures. And in the case of Fred Gerson, he wanted to retire. The fact that in all these cases it was not about going to a competitive firm I think is very significant.

Also, for people who were there at the beginning, who pour themselves into the job, at a certain point they move on to other life interests. The mark of a good company is that it can manage through that and attract great talent from outside.

How successful have you been in doing that?
It's been the No. 1 thing on my list. With John Olsen, we were very successful. That search took some time, but it ended in an unqualified success. He is a fabulously statured, seasoned executive with real experience in running a billion-dollar business and an organization with thousands of people. And that's what Marimba is going to be.

What is the company doing to shore up morale and keep employees in the wake of the recent rash of departures, especially now that options are nearly worthless for most employees? Are you thinking about repricing options?
We are not contemplating repricing. It's very common to see volatility in Internet stock prices, and our employees realize what matters is what the price is one or two years from now and focusing on the value of the company overall.

Having a vision see related story: Dot-com exec schuffle and communicating that to employees is extremely important. It's not just the stock options. Our vision, putting it bluntly, is to be the Cisco of Internet infrastructure management. If you want to turn the Internet into a utility like water and electricity, you have to have a whole range of infrastructure and management processes. People want to be at a company that will help shape the industry. That's the No. 1 reason people stay at a company. We're building out the fundamental foundation of the Internet, and that's an exciting quest.

What was the biggest challenge in bringing Marimba this far?
The biggest challenge was keeping our finger on the pulse of the market, making sure we were part of the trends that were evolving very quickly.

When we started the company there was no such thing as Internet infrastructure. That concept was foreign, so there was no natural category where (Marimba's flagship product) Castanet fit. When you're ahead of your market, which we are and were for quite some time, you fit into the category that's closest. The first was Java development tools, then push. Then push became closely associated with PointCast, which failed, and everything associated with it got a black eye.

Then the concept of infrastructure to manage the services of true businesses on the Internet became real. So our market category started to emerge, and a customer base started to emerge--and the enterprise became our first real customer. These were businesses that were trying to deliver sophisticated portfolio management service and automate and target personalized content. Intuit was turning Quicken into a service rather than an out-of-the-box product. A need started to emerge. In the last year, server-management need has emerged. The category has changed and the market needs have expanded.

What went wrong with push technology?
There was a lot of misunderstanding about what push was. The category was flawed because it was too broad. People didn't know what it meant. It took on the definition of PointCast, which meant sending ads and content to the desktop, where there was no viable business model. And at the heart of the PointCast downfall, there were technical problems. It clogged bandwidth and brought servers to their knees. That was never a problem we had.

What did you like least about being CEO? When did you stop enjoying the role?
One of the most challenging aspects was being spread very thin because I have had the entire company reporting to me, which means dealing with both all the internal stuff--everything from product-management decisions and facilities--to all the external stuff, like closing deals and investor relations. And of course the strategy piece, figuring out where we're going two years from now. There was this feeling (of being) spread way too thin.

It's always been more than a full-time job, let's put it that way. It's also always been fun. But when it started feeling like way too much for one person was in the fall time frame, when it became obvious that our market was finally catching up with us and we had all sorts of opportunities that we needed to take advantage of. We couldn't scale the way we needed to with the size of the management team that we had.

Tell me a little bit about your family life. Are you married?
I'm not married. My life has been very much focused on the company, starting almost five years ago. I do have a hobby, which is dance--jazz and ballet. I do that a couple of times a week. It's my workout, in addition to being what I love. I always encourage people to pursue outside work because that's what makes them more balanced.

Four years ago you said you were surprised by incidents of sexual harassment you had encountered working in the Valley. Has your perspective and experience changed since becoming a CEO?
I'm often asked what it's like to be a woman CEO, and frankly being a woman is about the last thing I think about. I think about how do we get the company to the next level, how do we get to be a billion-dollar company, how do we launch that next product line. Being a woman is irrelevant to all of that. I'm only reminded of it when the topic is brought up. Our investors are not investing in Marimba because of my being a woman; our employees don't care, our customers don't care.

I have not encountered any harassment, but typically as a CEO you're not going to be in a situation where you would. I think it still exists, but we're making progress, and seeing women in leadership positions is really making progress in changing the structure and the attitudes of the workplace.

How much engineering do you still do?
The product strategy part of my job requires a technical understanding and knowledge, but in terms of coding, it's been years. I do miss it. One of things I was concerned about when I moved into product management at Sun (with Java) was losing my technical edge. But involvement in product management involves me enough to keep me satisfied.

Java was your baby. How do you feel about how it's doing now? What are its prospects?
From my perspective, Java is doing great. It's achieved the goal we set for it, which was making it ubiquitous, making it the prevalent technology for building applications on the Internet. That's happening. It has taken root and is real. The majority of our customers are using Java, and we've built all our products in Java. It has taken root and is one of the core standards of the Internet.

What new challenges does Marimba face, particularly what new competitors?
In the areas of server management, we have new competition like Inktomi and Interwoven that we're encountering in sales situations. But they mostly do content deployment. We win because we do content and software deployment. We can update 1,000 servers with the latest patches and replicate that throughout multiple data centers. It's becoming a huge problem because these companies don't have people sitting in front of servers in remote data offices, and it becomes a "lights out" situation. So we're very able to compete.

With Castanet, we've often competed against companies trying to "roll their own" who then find out what a huge task it is. Microsoft has SMS, which is free and is excellent with the desktop environment. But ours was built from the ground up for the Internet. It can get outside the firewall and is built with all the security and bandwidth efficiency. The competition hasn't changed very much, and our products do extremely well in comparison.