Oracle's Stormy Visionary


An Intimate Portrait of Larry Ellison and Oracle

By Matthew Symonds

Simon & Schuster -- 508pp -- $28


The Unvarnished Truth about Oracle and Larry Ellison

By Karin Southwick

Crown -- 320pp -- $27.50

Few Silicon Valley executives inspire such visceral reactions as Oracle CEO Lawrence J. Ellison. He's either a tech-industry visionary who sees trends before anyone else -- or he's a megalomaniac who casually discards employees and whose self-indulgence could drag his software company over a cliff. Just how you see him can depend on the mood you catch Ellison in or whether you're one of those casually discarded employees.

Both sides of Ellison are meticulously described in a pair of new books. The first, Softwar: An Intimate Portrait of Larry Ellison and Oracle by Matthew Symonds, political editor at The Economist, is an authorized and largely favorable account of Ellison's adventures in and out of the company's Oz-like, green-windowed headquarters. The second, due out in November, Everyone Else Must Fail: The Unvarnished Truth about Oracle and Larry Ellison, is a harsh -- and sometimes scolding -- account by Karen Southwick, executive editor at CNET's and the author of three other Silicon Valley-related books. The first is better on Ellison the man; the second is better about his business.

Symonds, who spent more than two years on his book, struck a novel deal with Oracle Corp.'s CEO. Ellison gave the author near-unfettered access and complete editorial control. In return, Ellison got to respond, in footnotes, to Symonds' narrative. The result is an odd, running commentary by Ellison on Symonds' commentary on Ellison. The mogul seldom disagrees with the writer -- and disappointingly, most of the often-sharp-tongued mogul's footnotes are focused on technical explanations of Oracle's business.

There are, however, a few stabs from Ellison. In the mid-1990s, Oracle President Raymond J. Lane was considering leaving Oracle to take over the corner office at struggling software maker Novell Inc. Ellison persuaded Lane to stay. But now, says Ellison in a note, "I should have let Ray go." In fact, several years later, Ellison forced Lane out of Oracle.

Symonds excels at letting readers into the 59-year-old Ellison's often-turbulent personal life. From the unhappy Chicago childhood, through three marriages and divorces, to a surprisingly stable relationship with fiancée Melanie Craft, a romance novelist 25 years his junior, it may well be the first complete picture of the private Ellison.

The author also provides a wonderful image of an Ellison who is far from being all-business. Two years ago, after benefiting royally from the tech boom, Oracle fell short of Wall Street's expectations. It was an embarrassing experience for Ellison, who had publicly speculated that Oracle could emerge from the tech crash unscathed. A few days after the bad earnings news, Ellison hopped into a car with Symonds. He was distraught, on the verge of tears, and constantly on the phone with Craft. Why? His cat had just died.

But Symonds falls flat when he considers Oracle's business. He accompanied Ellison to meetings with customers around the world, but he doesn't describe Oracle's often testy relationship with them. The author can be too kind, as when he fails to recount fully the bugs in Oracle's software, which handles processes like companywide financials and customer management. Just when he should call the mogul on the carpet, Symonds settles for Ellison's rationalizations.

Southwick has no such problems. She has a keen appreciation for Oracle's business machinations. And although she didn't enjoy anything like Symonds' access, she did get several interviews with Ellison. The result is a tough, gimlet-eyed view of Oracle told largely via the experience of people Ellison has ticked off over the years.

Southwick nails the colder side of Ellison. When Oracle was nearly forced into bankruptcy in 1990, because of its sales force's questionable accounting practices, Ellison didn't take full responsibility, says Southwick. She also details the row between Ellison and Lane, whom she says Ellison viewed as a threat.

But Southwick goes too far when she says that Ellison's vanity could drag Oracle into ruin. Certainly, Oracle has had trouble finding revenue growth in the past two years and has missed prime opportunities. But every quarter, it turns a profit larger than any software company not named Microsoft Corp.

The authors agree on one thing: Oracle can be a most unpleasant place to work. Each provides numerous examples of bitter former Oracle execs, many of whom left to run rival companies. Perhaps that's the final lesson: Larry Ellison is brilliant, charming -- but ruthless. And as with any person with outsize ambitions, it's best to stay out of his way.

By Jim Kerstetter

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