There’s a premise in big business that no single person is essential to the success of an organization. If I die on the job, microscopic cringely.com dies with me, sure, but if Steve Ballmer kicks-off during a sales meeting tirade, Microsoft will move smoothly onward, or so the idea goes — as far as it goes. Because of course it is frequently wrong. There are many instances where a single person can bring about a sea change in a company or an industry. In the 19th century that meant John D. Rockefeller in oil or Andrew Carnegie in steel. In the 21st century it means Steve Jobs at Apple and Pixar, or Larry Ellison at Oracle. There’s already way too much written about Jobs so this column is about Ellison.
I was thinking about Larry Ellison while preparing next week’s 2011 predictions column. What an extraordinary guy! I’m pretty sure I couldn’t work for him (nor would he hire me) but I have a lot of respect for Larry. For one thing, he doesn’t give a damn about what you or I think of him or his company, which I find refreshing. A few years ago I did back-to-back interviews with Carly Fiorina and Larry Ellison and the difference between the two was like they shared no DNA at all. They were from different galaxies. Or if we limit ourselves strictly to Broadway, Fiorina was Woman of the Year while Ellison had the lead in Glengarry Glenn Ross. I came away knowing almost nothing about Fiorina while Ellison revealed his underwear brand (Munsingwear).
Larry Ellison is all about the pursuit of wealth, power, and personal experience. He is unabashed. Ask him a question and he answers. Where’s the strangest place you’ve ever done it? “On a riding trail in Woodside, CA.” Bam! Take that, Jack Welch.
This level of honesty doesn’t make Larry what most of us would think of as a nice person. I once heard him refer to having “nailed” a dinner companion, if you know what I mean and I think you do. But with Larry at least you know where you stand, with most of us standing, frankly, nowhere.
Larry knows his objectives and is willing to use whatever power he has to achieve those objectives, which makes Oracle’s ownership of the former Sun Microsystems especially interesting to me.
Sun was a company filled with very smart people who frequently stumbled upon success, and that was the problem. Larry doesn’t stumble and as a result he has in a very short period of time taken the former Sun to new successes in almost every market. This is the same Larry and the same Oracle, remember, which were expected to dismantle Sun and throw most of it away. Instead the former Sun is creating hell for HP and IBM and even causing murmurs of concern at Intel.
But here’s the most amazing part — almost nothing changed to accomplish this. Sun management left and have pretty much disappeared, but other than that the company remains largely intact. Certainly none of the new Sun products being touted by Oracle are Oracle designs — it’s too early for that. The difference in servers and processors and even Java is that Larry’s behind it all now and everyone knows Larry takes no prisoners.
Look at Java as an example. Java was mismanaged from the start: everybody made money from it except Sun. Oracle and Ellison aren’t about to put up with that BS about the world using Java and Oracle getting nothing in return. They’re happy to let freeloaders complain and leave. So Oracle displaced or disenchanted many Java community members when it tried inserting at least one big customer into the product mix. One called Hologic was a medical software company — an academic nobody injected into the technical direction of Java’s future. Oracle didn’t win the vote for this obvious Open Source sellout, but it shows the direction they are headed with the language, which is into a commercial orbit somewhere between Red Hat and Pluto.
I am not defending Oracle’s undermining of Open Source nor do I support it, but the company is at least being clear about its intentions and convictions. Customers like that.
There are plenty of businesses entrenched in Java that can’t easily change. And now Oracle can start charging them. Think about if Microsoft had suddenly owned Java. This is how Redmond would handle it, too. Then there’s the whole Oracle+Apple angle, but I’m saving that for next week’s predictions.
Sun ostensibly believed in free, open software. Oracle and Microsoft clearly don’t. Look where it got everyone.