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Rocket Fuel


9 min read
CNET News.com Newsmakers
September 18, 1996, Kim Polese
Rocket Fuel
By Margie Wylie
Staff Writer, CNET NEWS.COM

In 1994, Java was an obscure, nearly dead interactive TV project buried deep in the bowels of Sun. Then Kim Polese came along and made it into a household word. Today, the 34-year-old software engineer is CEO of her own company.

Like everything she does, Polese (pronounced po-LAY-zay) made it all look easy. The project manager for what was then called Oak, she was instrumental in convincing Sun to take Java to the Internet. Then she, with three of Sun's best engineers, took off to start their own company and managed to convince Sun's

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management team to be grateful in the process. And grateful they should be. Sixteen months after Java's announcement, Sun's stock price has soared. Now Polese's new company, Marimba, is on the brink of releasing not-so-sexy, but oh-so-crucial Java programming tools, just in time to head off criticisms that Java is only good for making icons dance.

If Polese is under any strain, it doesn't show. The down-to-earth Berkeley native laughs easily and keeps the lop-sided start-up mentality under control by dancing--you can even catch her performing occasionally--and keeping the rust off her Italian, with a firm eye on a year off in Italy. NEWS.COM interviewed Polese in our San Francisco offices, where she talked about the miracle of Marimba, Java security, and keeping an even keel in Silicon Valley.

NEWS.COM: You're 34 years old. That's young to be a CEO.
Polese: I suppose it's all relative these days. In the start-up environment you have CEOs of 24 or 25, so I sort of feel seasoned at this point!

NEXT: How it all started

Kim Polese

Age: 34

Claim to fame: Brewed up Java's hot strategy

Biggest coup: Took Java's best engineers to Marimba, with Sun's blessing

Other life: Dance performance

CNET News.com Newsmakers
September 18, 1996, Kim Polese
How it all started

What inspired you to start Marimba?
I had always wanted to start my own company. It had been this life-long dream. I always knew that the right opportunity, the right set of people, and the right product would present itself at some point. At the end of last year, it became clear that it had happened and I would be an idiot for not for going and doing this now.

I had been product manager of Java at Sun Microsystems and I had been working on the product for three years. We succeeded in our goals of getting it out to the market and making it wildly popular. I had the opportunity to go off and start this new company now with three of the best engineers on the Java team. So that was a big factor. The right people.

Then it was the right time in the market. The platform had been established and what was missing were all the tools and applications that needed to be built on top of that. Also, the financial landscape of the marketplace for starting new companies right now, especially Java-related companies is really good. So it just became obvious that there was this confluence of events, timing that was happening, and now was the time to go. And we know kind of what needs to happen next.

So you're saying you were lucky?
Yeah, and we had the right timing. I think it's kind of the ultimate success of Java to see people splinter off from Sun and start new companies because that's really a validation of the fact that Java has become a platform.

How did Sun feel about you taking off with obviously some of the finest engineers they had? Well, I think Sun, of course, was a little surprised to have three of us leaving at the same time. The fourth cofounder came from Starwave but he had been at Sun also previously for a long time. So it was a surprise. It was a shock, but they recovered quickly because I think they really understood that this was in fact a good thing for Java. The more new companies out there springing up, building products on top of the basic platform, the more chance that Java will truly become ubiquitous. Scott McNealy, the CEO of Sun, was the first person that we went to and told we were leaving. He was instantly supportive. So he gets it clearly. He's been an entrepreneur himself.

So you said you know what needs to happen next. What does need to happen next?
Well, we had some ideas for products that we wanted to build on top of Java and we're focusing in on one of those and building it. [Java] is like real estate in California in the 1950s or something right now. There are so many opportunities to focus in on one particular tool or application and build a killer app.

I know you can't talk about that specifically right now, but can you give us a general idea?
We're building tools for Java programmers. The area that we're focusing on right now is moving past what you can accomplish with simple applets in browsers today and enabling more full-blown applications, not just applets, but applications so that you can do more sophisticated things than you presently can.

When do you expect to have the first product ready?
We're shipping in October. We're putting it out in public beta on the Web site; it's actually out in alpha right now. It's been out since May to about 25 companies who are using it and building applications with it.

Let's talk a little bit about Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and your relationship with them. Were you instrumental in helping their Java Fund get started?
The Java Fund? I had heard about it months ago and heard little whispers about it. We chose Kleiner Perkins as our venture partner because we felt that their personality and philosophies matched best what we needed in a venture firm. For instance, strategic alliances: they're very strong in that area. Their focus on Java was a big plus for us. We didn't have anything to do with starting the Java Fund per se, but when we found out about it and Kleiner's interest in us, I think there was a synergy there that made just a lot of sense.

Kleiner is one of the more well-known venture firms of the Valley, and seemed to be the obvious choice, but we talked to a lot of really good top-tier venture firms before making that decision. It was tough because there are a lot of great firms out there. It was very difficult to narrow it down to one.

You don't often hear people having the luxury of choosing their venture firm.
I know! It's kind of an unusual situation, and during the whole process we kept looking at each other and saying, "It's not supposed to be like this. It's not supposed to be this easy." But again: unique time, unique situation. So we realized this is not normal.

What do you think about the whole controversy of the hostile applets?
The thing that's really ironic about it, that I find really amusing is, that people download binaries, DLLs, plug-ins, and what have you every day of their lives and never think about it. But that code (that's C or C++ code or whatever) is so open to hacking, so much more than Java! Yet people never think about it. Java's a secure programming language. It's much, much more difficult to introduce a virus into a Java program than it is into a C or C++ or Visual Basic program or what have you. Java was designed for building applications that would fly across networks and that could be open to being hacked by random bad people out there.

So things are missing in the language that makes it really easy to introduce viruses. Like, there are no pointers in Java. The scares in the press have come because there are some researchers at Princeton University who have been sort of making it their life's goal to uncover as many potential theoretical holes in the security model of Java as possible. They've been doing a great job. This was in fact the intent of putting Java in source code form out on the Net. It was to get people working with Sun and working with the Java community in general to iron out whatever needed to be ironed out. That's what they've been doing.

What's interesting is that no one has to date introduced a virus in a Java applet or application. No one has done it. No one has hacked into a Java applet. I think with all the headlines and all the scares in the news about security in Java, that message gets dropped. That's extremely relevant because there are viruses introduced every day into random plug-ins or DLLs that get downloaded across the Net.

So the bottom line is Java is the most secure programming language, bar none. And if you're going to be sending code across the network and you're not encrypting it, Java's the way to go.

NEXT: Life, the universe and everything  

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CNET News.com Newsmakers
September 18, 1996, Kim Polese
Life, the universe and everything

I understand you dance in your spare time.
I suppose it's not the norm. I guess I'm breaking the mold. I should take up golf and stop dancing. [Laughs.] I don't see other CEOs hanging out in dance studios. It's just not the same as strolling around the green, but it keeps me sane. I need to dance. If I don't have something else that totally absorbs my attention for a few hours a week that has nothing to do with work, I find myself going kind of crazy. Running doesn't do it for me or cycling. I'm athletic in general, but dance is really cool because it just takes total, absolute focus because there's a technique that you're constantly trying to master. It's athletic, there's art involved, and there's music. I've been doing it for years, I love it and I'm going to keep doing it because it keeps me sane.

What does that say about you?
I suppose you might say "I'm intense." I've been told I'm intense; I don't see myself that way. I think I'm very laid-back, but some people seem to think I'm intense.

What sort of a kid were you?
Just constantly doing a million things at the same time. "Oh, I'm going to learn clarinet and I'm going to dance, I'm going to be on the tennis team and I'm going to read 25 books this week." Just tried to shove too much into the day.

Haven't changed much, huh?
No. That's a trait that's continued.

That's a little bit unusual for Silicon Valley CEOs and presidents, too.
Yeah, I suppose that's true, although some of the more interesting people I know in Silicon Valley have kind of double lives. For example, at our company, Jonathan [Payne], one of the cofounders, is a really great drummer. He could be in a rock band. He's really good. Josh is a race car driver. He's going to go off and race in the Nationals two weeks from now and take a week off doing it. I think that's great. I think that people should have balance. I'm a real believer in balance.

Do you think it has made any difference that you are a woman in this business?
It's funny because I'm so used to being the only woman, or one of very few women, in my workplace. That's the way it's been my entire career. My background is technology and sciences, so even in college I was one of few women in the computer science classes. So I don't even notice it to tell you the truth. I think that helps me because I haven't looked at [being a woman] as a barrier or necessarily an asset. I focus more on making myself as effective as I can, doing the best job that I can, and working as part of a team.

However, harassment is not a nonissue. I have encountered it on the job, and it shocked me when I encountered it. I kept thinking, "This is Silicon Valley, it's the '90s, how can this be?" But Silicon Valley is made up of people and they all come with their problems and issues. So those kinds of incidents have been very few and far between. If I wake up every day and approach my job as if what I'm accomplishing is what's really important, then I find that being a woman is a nonissue altogether.

I think [growing up in Berkeley] made me more open-minded. A lot of the barriers or blinders that people have, oftentimes I find that I grew up without, so I don't have to shake off a lot of that stuff. I grew up in a multiracial environment and I grew up with the idea that women could be CEOs and doctors.

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