From many months, I have been yearning to read the story behind Oracle’s success and more so about its megalomaniac founder Lawrence Ellison, who is very often seen in the media, sailing boats rather doing anything else.

I was very curious to know about the individual who is portrayed in the media as one who makes bombastic statements about his company and deplores his rivals. He is also known to remove any key people whom he thinks as rising starts at Oracle. With so much said about him in the media, I was more than keen to understand the way he runs his company. From what the media has painted, it definitely looks like he runs his company in an autocratic fashion. If that is the case, how come a company can withstand 25 years in the fierce competitive Technology Industry? All these above made me immediately pick up a book written by Mathew Symonds who has written a book titled “ Softwar – An Intimate Account of Oracle and Ellison”

The book has dispelled quite a number of my notions about Oracle and Ellison.
Ellison is a very methodical engineered person who got 2 aspects absolutely right on target. The importance of Relational Database and Internet Centric E-Business Suite in the companies. In the process of 25 years, he got many many things wrong. C’mon, he is a human after all. However the beauty lies in the fact that once he knows there has been a mistake, he moves very swiftly in correcting or lessening the damage done by it.

The book gave me an insight in to the founding of Oracle in 1977 when Larry Ellison, Bob Miner, Ed Oates, and $2,000 started Software Development Laboratories, the company we now know as Oracle. It started as a consulting company. The main reason for founding a company was not that they had some breathtaking idea but all the three wanted to get out the drudgery of working in a place where there were not enough challenges and demanded very minimal of their talents.

Ellison saw a great potential in Relational Database, a technology which is avidly followed by Bob Miner. In 1977 only IBM was trying to bring that technology to the outside world by incorporating that in their DB2 Database which works for Mainframes. Ellison studied the competitive landscape and noticed that no one is working on it. He also sees that RDBMS when applied to PC can be a market in itself. By getting their product in to a market where there are no players, it can create an entire new database market. IBM, despite all the research was only willing to use the technology to the Mainframe and PC was not its scope of operations

Ellison saw this as a huge opportunity and got some funding from his family and started the development of the database with Ed Oates and Bob Miner. There was only one software company which was also trying to come with a similar product – Informix founded by MikeStonebraker.

In the words of Ellison
“We pick our enemies very carefully. It helps us to focus. We can’t explain what we do unless we compare it to someone else who foes it differently”

He did exactly that. He followed SQL language in the database and along with IBM tried to market it as the standard for the RDBMS. Informix on the other hand was using QUEL and was under the impression that QUEL was THE LANGUAGE that needs to be used. ANSI supported by IBM declared SQL as a standard and it killed Ingress

Lessons: Hire the best; get the standards right in your product and recruit good salesmen

The major lesson I draw from the Informix checkmate is that one always needs to be very observant to the standards evolving in the industry and adapt your product accordingly from the beginning. Once you get the right standards in to your product, it can be easily marketed. Blindly sticking to some language for the sake of it even when market is ignoring it is foolishness. Definitely it does sound as though Technology Business and Fashion have a lot in common. Why did fail (a UK based fashion on line retailer)? I will reserve the explanation for some other time

One of the main reasons for its superb software is the people whom Oracle hired. They were all graduates from Princeton, MIT, and Caltech etc, who built terrific products. Ellison main job next turned out to be hiring sales man. And he did with élan. His success at hiring can be easily gauged by the number of companies which were started by ex-oracle personnel. A few of them are
Marc Benioff –
Tom Siebel – Siebel
Craig Conway – PeopleSoft
GregBrady – i2

Various versions of the database were released. In the process of the evolution of the various versions of the database, Ellison’s faith in Network Computing as the next generation technology strengthened. He started to advocate strongly that Client Server is dead.

When the entire database market was churning out Client Server apps , Oracle went ahead and took the risk of developing Internet centered Database Architecture

Risk taking is not important but imperative for one’s success in life. In the words of Ellison:
“I admire risk takers. I like leaders – people who do things before they become fashionable or popular. I find that kind of integrity inspirational”

He laid the foundation of Internet in to the database through the release of Oracle 8i where i stood for internet.

Ellison wanted to have applications on the top of the core database and start competing in a completely different market which is the applications business where the landscape has firms like SAP, etc. SAP with its vast application development experience in Europe had captured the market. Oracle on the other hand was way behind. It took 3 years to develop global financials package. To meet the Wall Street Pressures, Ellison was told that Best of Breed Software by integrating Oracle Fledgling app Software with Other software’s would help Oracle. Larry got convinced by senior managers whose logic remained that the best of breed solution was the way to bridge the gaps .That turned out to be a big mistake as the entire organization’s philosophy went for a six because for the first time Oracle’s code was being changed at the customer’s end, there was no repeatable process at all and each implementation became a separate project and System integrators which Ellison hates, started to poke their noses and make the customer go nuts. Apart from version mismatches, support problems, multiple databases were all delaying implementation time at customer’s end. The sales organization was also at odds with the engineering team. In such distressing time, Ellison once again took control of things (He is a classic delegator) and changed the strategy of the company. The most important element in the turn around strategy was returning back to the integrated suite approach and implementing it in Oracle first so as to gauge its performance.

His marketing strategies included strongly sending the following messages to its customers:

– 80:20 rule of product implementation: Implement 80% of the product and the company will reap huge dividends, rather than trying to go for the full hog and spending millions trying to implement the entire software
– Centralized database – All the Modules talk to one database
– Internet centered architecture of the application suite
– Best of breed software will not work in the long term whereas an integrated suit will be a better solution for the customers
– Information systems with process automation on the top
Oracle 9i was marketed as E-Business Suite

There was some mistakes by Oracle when Oracle 9i was released which lead to a lot of problems for the firm, one mainly being that of Early release with out proper Quality testing– Wall Street Pressures, Announcements with out checking out the ground realities. However Ellison saw to it that customers realized that Oracle 9i offered a speedy implementation of its software and some of its features like Clustering and Daily Business Intelligence were a great value addition for the customer. Eventually it came out the crisis and successfully marketed Oracle 9i. Thomas Kurain, an Indian is credited for the success of Oracle 9i’s Application Server and is slated to succeed Ellison at Oracle.

Through out the life of Ellison, he has always been excited by technology and has CHOSEN TO BE HAPPY. He did undergo a lot of emotional turmoil when the first 2 marriages did not work out. However he found ultimate solace in his work. He always says that “ Work defines a person” and has always tried to live his life working on problems, be it solving the Oracle 9i crisis or be it beguile winds in a sailing competitions. Problems always excite Ellison and he maintains that life after Oracle would mean working in Quark, a life sciences company which is trying to solve deadly diseases like cancer through innovative means

I sum up in a few words what I feel about Ellison’s life:
“Life is what one defines and what one carves it to be. The beauty of life lies in doing something on which zillion people say “Nay! It’s not possible”