THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GOD AND LARRY ELLISON
Inside Oracle Corporation
By Mike Wilson
Morrow 385pp $25
It was a fascinating crossing of paths: On Sept. 20, President Bill Clinton and Silicon Valley software mogul Larry Ellison shared the microphone at a San Carlos (Calif.) elementary school. Ellison, chairman of database maker Oracle Corp., made a pledge to outfit 100 of California's neediest schools with simple and inexpensive network computers. Clinton was there to offer his support for wiring schools to the Internet.
The two men are cut from similar cloth. Ellison is a hugely ambitious and vital man in his early 50s who thrives in the spotlight. And both are dogged by questions about their truthfulness and morals. But there's a difference. Few would question Clinton's sincerity about wishing to improve the public schools. But does Ellison really care about disadvantaged kids? Or does he just want to help sell a ton of network computers?
For Silicon Valleyites who have followed Ellison's career, the later conclusion seems plausible. But despite the barrels of ink that have been spilled about Ellison, he remains enigmatic. That's why it's exciting to see that a biography has finally been written about him, The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison by Mike Wilson, an investigative reporter for the St. Petersburg Times. (The title refers to a joke that went around Oracle last year. Answer: "God doesn't think he's Larry Ellison.") Although Wilson isn't totally successful at penetrating Ellison's defenses, his book is worth reading. That's mainly because Ellison is such an outrageous character--flamboyantly rich (he is trying to buy a Russian MIG fighter), outspoken on everything from computing to public policy, and willing to do practically anything to make a billion.
Wilson starts off by promising something of a psychological portrait of his subject. His thesis is that Ellison is like Charles Foster Kane, the lead character in the 1941 Orson Welles film Citizen Kane, which was loosely based on the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Like Kane, Wilson argues, Ellison is a larger-than-life personality who wants desperately to be admired--and believes in nothing but himself. Kane suffers a tragic end, alone and despised. Ellison isn't at that point, at least for now. He seems to be surrounded by admirers (just try to get a ride on his yacht!). Friends and colleagues credit him with acts of kindness and generosity: He even gave a car to one of his two ex-wives long after they were divorced. But is Ellison a hollow man like Kane? The answer to that question is Wilson's quest.
Wilson spent many hours with Ellison and interviewed dozens of the significant people in his life--including ex-wives, ex-girlfriends, and ex-friends. What emerges is a detailed portrait of Ellison's rise, from his troubled childhood on Chicago's South Side to the corner office at the world's second-largest software company. Along the way, according to Wilson, Ellison often told lies (for example, exaggerating the quality and capabilities of his software), cheated on his wives, and shortchanged employees. And, he suggests, Ellison didn't seem to know right from wrong. Writes Wilson: "The Oracle Way, to the extent that such a thing existed, was simply to win. How the goal was achieved was secondary. As a former Oracle board member put it, Ellison established no `magnetic north'--no common direction, no sense of how things would or would not be done."
And he bears at least some responsibility for Oracle's near-meltdown in 1990. That's when years of inflated promises to customers and order-booking shenanigans resulted in a $36 million quarterly loss, along with a stockholder suit that was settled for $23 million. It must be noted that, since then, the company has become an upstanding corporate citizen under the watchful eyes of such newcomers as Raymond J. Lane, its president, and Jeffrey O. Henley, its chief financial officer.
Wilson doesn't nail Ellison for Oracle's screwups. Those he blames on an out-of-control sales force and loose accounting practices. Oracle salespeople were famous for promising customers the world--then rushing back to headquarters to beg developers to create the features they had just promised. They also booked orders they knew customers would never fully pay for. Wilson points out that the sales force was whipped into a frenzy of fear and greed by managers who demanded a doubling of revenues every year. In essence, Wilson lets Ellison get away with the following explanation: "I was not a competent and capable CEO. I'm still responsible. But it was neglect, not malice."
Wilson is a biographer, not a detective. But after 385 pages, we're left with no more than a queasy feeling about Ellison--not a clear verdict on his credibility when it counts. Why should that matter? Because, for one thing, Ellison has taken the national stage. By championing his new kind of network computer, he is the ringleader of a movement that seeks to topple mighty Microsoft Corp. from its perch as the dominant player in the computer industry. Others who join his crusade, including school administrators and President Clinton, should know who they're siding with--and just what sort of gamble they're making on his network-computer scheme.
In the end, Wilson's book has more in common with Melrose Place than with Citizen Kane--it's more soap opera than morality play. But it's also a fascinating tale of the rise of a Silicon Valley icon who bears public scrutinizing.