Stuart Read, a Harvard graduate who grew up in Marblehead, Mass., and dreamed of becoming a naval architect, ended up in computer science, and spent six years at Oracle Corp., in Redwood Shores, Calif. “What took me into computer science was the need to pay my tuition bills at college,” he says. “Programming was a much more efficient means of generating income than washing dishes, which is what most of the architecture people were doing.”
Now VP of marketing at AvantGo Inc., a Silicon Valley startup that caters to the personal digital assistant (PDA) market, Read joined Oracle in July 1988 as a product manager in the desktop division. By the time he resigned in August 1994, he was senior director of marketing in the new media division. Why did this rising star leave Oracle? “I was recruited into a videoconferencing startup by Bruce Mitchell, who was the person who hired me into Oracle in the first place.”
But Read’s fascination with his former employer has not waned. His recently published The Oracle Edge: How Oracle Corporation’s Take No Prisoners Strategy Has Created an $8 Billion Software Powerhouse, is only the second book that has been written about Oracle; the first was Mike Wilson’s not overly flattering 1997 The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison. By contrast, The Oracle Edgeis basically pro-Oracle. In fact, it’s annoyingly so in the beginning. I almost threw the book at the wall in disgust. “It does start that way,” Read admits. “I think I should have included a timeline as part of the book. At the beginning, Oracle was a very young and explosive company. I was completely rah-rah. Then once it started to become more mature, more dominant, and more visible, well, the bloom began to fade.”
Read’s motivations for writing the book are seemingly complex–parts of it read like a memoir, while others simply document the way Oracle did (and largely still does) business. For example, Read describes how Oracle fostered internal competition and even quotes a senior marketing person as saying, “We would be in meetings and Larry would give the same task to two or three different people, quite openly. That way, those people would have to compete for Larry’s attention and would really kill themselves to outperform the others….”
Once you get past the first 20 or so pages, which can seem like an annoying series of sound bites, the book is a very good read that will help you understand Oracle’s corporate culture. It’s just an inside look for anyone who’s interested in how Oracle generates huge profits. A few chapter and section titles give you a feel for the book’s contents: “Image Matters: Dress for Success,” “Develop for the ‘Built-In Consumer,'” “Create Infrastructure that Supports Revenue Generation,” and “Crush Your Competition.”
I spoke with Read during the book’s launch at Oracle Open World in November 1999, where the publisher had arranged to have Read do a book signing one afternoon.
Karen Watterson: Was this book sponsored or underwritten by Oracle? Did you spend any one-on-one interview time with Ellison for this book?
Stuart Read:No, it wasn’t sponsored by Oracle, and although I tried to interview Larry, he was apparently a bit gun shy as a result of the Mike Wilson book. I did leave a copy of the manuscript for him to look at prior to publication, hoping he’d add an endorsement, but I didn’t get any response.
KW: If you had to describe Oracle’s corporate culture in one word, what would that be?
KW: With its recent acquisitions of Thinking Machines Corp. [for Darwin, a data-mining tool] and Carleton Corp., Oracle seems to have done an about face on its policy of building products in house rather than acquiring them. While the company certainly has taken a long time to integrate Oracle Express, do you think they’ll do better with the current acquisitions? You make a point in the book of stressing Oracle’s strong preference for building its own software when you were there.
A:I’m really no longer in a position to speculate. The “we’d rather do it ourselves” was certainly part of the culture when I was there.
KW: What single thing do you think Ellison is most proud of as far as Oracle goes?
A:Building the campus. It’s the outward and visible symbol of Oracle–and Oracle’s power. And it’s growing.
KW: What mistake do you think he rues the most?
A:The 1990 crash associated with financial irregularities. [Oracle’s stock plummeted when reports indicated how it logged sales.] The head of sales at the time was focused on winning customers at all of the Fortune 100 companies…. There were posters all over the Oracle sales offices listing the target companies. The ones that Oracle had won were tagged. Those that Oracle wanted were highlighted.
But, in addition to focusing on the target market, [the head of sales] introduced a new sales tactic called “The CAP.” In the book, I describe how a former sales rep who actually worked during the CAP era explained it. He’d tell a customer, “If you buy a database for 10 computers this year, and promise to buy databases for 50 computers over the next five years, we’ll give them all to you at the special rate that we have now.” What Oracle sometimes did, however, was book the sales for all 60 systems when the current time period’s 10 were delivered.
KW: When you were an employee, did you like Ellison? Admire him? Fear him?
A:My goal was for Larry never to know my name. Larry can be ruthless–[he] takes no prisoners. I figured that anonymity was my friend.
KW: What one question would you ask him if you could?
A:Why he still does it–why a multibillionaire keeps on working.
KW: Well, one day he probably will retire, at least from day-to-day oversight. Who do you think will be the next head of Oracle?
A:Ray Lane. [As Oracle’s president, Lane is currently the No. 2 man.]
KW: What was your favorite job at Oracle?
A:Director of network products in the desktop division, from 1990 to 1991. It was a really fantastic job because I had development, marketing, and documentation for an entire product line, and I had a great team.
According to Read, “The story of Oracle is an extraordinary one,” and that’s why he wrote the book. “In many ways it is more extraordinary than that of Microsoft, yet there have been many books on the foundation of Microsoft and none on Oracle,” he adds.
This book is neither a whitewash of the company nor a kiss-and-tell. It’s just a fascinating read for anyone who’s interested in how Oracle generates huge profits. For example, Read explains how Oracle’s goal is to sell high in an organization, and that “every one on Oracle’s management team is prepared to support the effort,” noting that the CFO “spends several weeks a quarter out in the field selling Oracle financial applications.”
The bottom line: If you’re at all interested in what makes Oracle tick, The Oracle Edge makes fascinating reading. //
Karen Watterson is a database and data warehouse design consultant and the editor of the SQL Server Professional newsletter (http://www.pinpub.com/sql). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.