05 August 2009


Thoughts on Softwar, former Economist correspondent Matthew Symonds's bio of Larry Ellison.
  1. Symonds's agent, Andrew Wylie, brokered a deal in which Ellison had the right of reply---in footnotes. These added some color to the book, but not as much as I'd hoped.
  2. Most of his conversations with Ellison appear to have taken place on private planes, yachts, or exotic resorts --- not the places that one would expect to find a biographer who wanted to play Robert Caro to Ellison's Robert Moses. The author himself is in twenty percent of the book's group photos featuring an adult Ellison.
  3. The most interesting part of Ellison's career --- how he went from being an itinerent rock-climbing hacker to founder of a fast-growing database company --- is compressed into far too few pages. I realize that paper is expensive these days, but I would have preferred more material about Oracle/SDL/RSI's early stages and fewer anecdotes about how Ellison's head of sales talked him into ditching his "cheap Seiko wristwatch" and buying a Rolex---"'but in stainless. I couldn't deal with gold.'" An entire chapter (I skipped it) is devoted to sailboat racing. Some of the "lifestyle" material -- for instance, the Adelyn Lee wrongful-termination/extortion case -- is illuminating. Most isn't.
  4. One early anecdote featured the proto-Oracle nearly running out of cash because, despite some early sales to three-letter intelligence agencies, Ellison & Co. hadn't realized that the feds can spend years between closing a sale and cutting a check.
  5. Ellison himself presents some intriguing ideas. It's better to reengineer business processes to fit software than the other way around (p. 476) Software is so abstract that the key to selling it is customer references: "selling the architecture only works with a few early adopters"; "people have this innate belief that there is safety in numbers". (p.239).
  6. The California Oracle license-sales debacle was, according to Symonds, an attempt to smear Gray Davis that happened to involve Oracle. Oracle, by way of the systems-integrator Logicon, actually gave California a spectacular deal on licenses. When the scandal (which involved an ill-timed campaign donation) broke, Oracle even offered to cancel the contract, but the state declined. (On that note, there are few scandals in the book where Symonds concludes that Ellison or Oracle was less sinned against than sinning.)

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