The single company whose history people most often ask me about is Oracle. That makes sense — Oracle is a hugely important company, which I’ve known for almost all of its 30-year commercial life. And of course, this being the week of Oracle OpenWorld, Oracle is top-of-mind.
Let’s start with a breezy overview, setting the stage for more detailed posts to follow. As I see it, there have been four eras at Oracle, which between them reflect just about every tech company management theory I can think of.
Startup: This period comprised initial development, custom contract with the US military (CIA, I think, even though the demo database was always naval), and initial product release. This is the one phase of Oracle’s history I didn’t witness personally. But it seems to have been pretty much a story of “build a minimum viable product for a great vision, and hustle until somebody buys it.”
Hypergrowth: Roughly speaking, Oracle grew 100% per year on its way from $5 million in revenue to $1 billion. This period formed much of the basis for Geoffrey Moore’s famous “Crossing the Chasm” series of books. In line with Moore’s later observations, Oracle’s priorities in this period were:
- Ship good enough product to sell.
- Worry about the details later.
By the backhanded “good enough … to sell”, I mainly mean two things. First, Oracle quality was pretty questionable, across the board. Second, as I observed in a post on Oracle’s arch-rival Ingres,
Ingres was first to market with new features such as a 4GL or a truly distributed DBMS. Oracle, however, was the first to market with the features customers most cared about, at a level of completeness they found acceptable.
Plateau, Professionalization, and Conquest: Oracle then hit a wall. New “adult supervision” management came in to clean up everything from product quality to accounting. This is when Oracle got serious about competing with IBM and EDS. It’s when Mike Fields and I coined the label “Enterprise Data Babysitter”.
Regaining momentum, Oracle pulled irreversibly past the other independent DBMS vendors of the era, and in essence past IBM mainframes as well. Its application business also finally got some traction, albeit with a long way still to go. And most interesting to me, Oracle triumphed with a blend of product and professional services efforts in a way that hasn’t been seen before or since.
This was also the era during which I was most closely involved with Oracle myself. Oracle was my biggest consulting client for multiple years. I double-dated with Larry Ellison. Geoff Squire bought me an obscene statuette in Indonesia, and presented it to me at an Oracle analyst day.* I stayed for a week in Oracle PR chief Gail Snider’s house, and a night in Marc Benioff’s. Oracle VP Bob Jesse explained to me what raves were. (He later left Oracle to start a charitable foundation promoting drug use in the context of religion.) And Oracle analyst relations chief Daniel Sagalowicz didn’t even bother talking to me, on the theory I was getting along just fine without his help. Fun times.
*It was a lovely carving of two pigs fornicating. He said he saw it and instantly thought of me. I presume this was a reference to my Wall Street background.
Empire expansion: Now Oracle was atop the heap, selling complex, expensive products to complex, deep-pocketed customers. This left Oracle in what Clayton Christensen would call the Innovator’s Dilemma position, subject to disruption from below. And so Oracle adopted the Innovator’s Solution with a vengeance, by:
- Thickening its stack, to ensure that wherever the profit opportunity went, Oracle would be there.
- Going to great lengths to buy a leading disrupter, MySQL. (Oracle endured expensive delays in the Sun acquisition it could have averted by divesting MySQL.)
In particular, Oracle bought huge numbers of software vendors — PeopleSoft, Siebel, BEA, and many more. And then Oracle went further, bundling hardware as well — but that brings us pretty much to the present day.
- Wikipedia’s timeline for Oracle’s history is pretty reasonable overall, but there certainly are errors and omissions. For example, Wikipedia seems to think Mike Fields and Ray Lane joined Oracle the same year, when in fact Mike’s (and Geoff’s) replacement by Ray Lane was a key event in Oracle history.