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Larry Ellison

Interview: Larry Ellison
Founder & CEO, Oracle Corporation

May 22, 1997
Baltimore, Maryland

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Looking back on your childhood, can you see the Larry Ellison of today taking root when you were young?

Larry Ellison: I don't think my personality has changed much since I was five years old. The most important aspect of my personality, as far as determining my success goes, has been my questioning conventional wisdom, doubting the experts, and questioning authority. While that can be very painful in relationships with your parents and teachers, it's enormously useful in life.

I was born in New York City. My mother was 19, she wasn't married, and really was unable to care for me. She tried until I was nine months old, and then I was adopted by my maternal aunt and uncle in Chicago. I moved to the south side of Chicago. I'll never complain again about living in a bad neighborhood, after moving from the lower east side of Manhattan to a still worse neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. After my ninth month, I kept my mouth shut about the neighborhood.

How did this affect you?

Larry Ellison: I believed until I was twelve years old that I was not adopted. I had no idea that I was adopted within my own family. I don't attribute very much of my life, my personality to my adoption. I attribute an awful lot to my relationship with my father, who was a Russian immigrant. He came here and was very, very poor. He dearly loved this country as only an immigrant can, loved our government as only an immigrant can. He was a pilot in World War II, bomber pilot. He really had the philosophy of "my country, right or wrong." He never questioned the government's policies, never questioned authority, and he didn't really want me to question authority. I had some teachers when I was very young that I thought were telling me things that weren't true. When I tried to ask questions, they basically wanted me to parrot back what they said. They really weren't interested in a discourse with a child, or a debate with a child. They said this was true, and "You are smart if you can repeat back to me exactly what I said to you." I had a real problem with that as well. I had very strong authoritarian figures, both in school and at home, which served as wonderful examples of how not to be.

Was there anybody who was supportive?

Larry Ellison: Oh sure, my Mom was supportive, and I had a mixture of teachers. Some of the teachers were wonderful, and some of the teachers were awful, but the awful teachers served a good purpose by being a bad example. All examples are good. Bad examples are useful; good examples are useful. It taught me to question experts, to question authority figures. Don't assume they're right just because they're in authority, or just because they're experts. In other words...

Think things out for yourself. Come to your own judgments. Don't simply conform to conventional ways of thinking, conventional ways of dressing, conventional ways of acting. A lot of things are based on fashion, even morality at times is based on fashion. Slavery was once not considered not to be immoral. People are shocked that the ancient Greeks had slaves, that we had slavery in this country as recently as one-hundred-and-thirty, one-hundred-and-forty years ago. You have to really go back to first principles, and think things out for yourself. Whether they're scientific principles, or moral principles, or business ideas or product ideas, you have to think things out for yourself.

What was it about your dad that you rebelled against? Was it just his pat acceptance of the American value system?

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Larry Ellison: I don't know if you watched the movie Independence Day, but there's a scene between a father and son where the father says, "The government knows everything. The government has experts for everything." It's this notion that we really can't understand anything, that the government is always right, that our teachers are always right, that our clergymen are always right. Use them as your sole beacons in life, and don't try to figure these things out on your own, because you're not smart enough. Just find the appropriate experts, and follow their light."

It's interesting that you had the insight to realize you could let yourself be brainwashed or not. I don't know if many kids question those things at such an early age .

Larry Ellison: I think an awful lot of kids are incredibly bright.

An awful lot of kids, I think we're born slaves to reason. It's really reason that's beaten out of us, through a process of trying to please our teachers. I think we have two fundamental drives in our life: we want to be loved and we want to please people; and we know how to think, we know how to reason. These are often quite at odds, because we're asked to believe that certain things are correct, that we have to wear our hair a certain length, and dress a certain way. And if you want to be loved, if you want to be accepted by your peers, you want to be accepted by your family, there is a tension there. Sometimes we're pleasing our parents, sometimes we're pleasing our peers, but we're often just conforming to some fashion, figuring out what the group wants from us, and then conforming to that because we want to be accepted and loved. There's this other fundamental drive inside of us, that there is often tension between the two and that is the ability to think, the ability to reason, the ability to come to conclusions as to what works and what doesn't, what's fair and what's not fair, what's right and what's wrong. When fashion and the pursuit of love is in conflict with reason, too often fashion and the pursuit of love usually win. In my case, it didn't.

You're known for speaking your mind and not following the norm.

Larry Ellison: It is true. I do not give fashionable answers to questions. That's what shocks people because when they ask you a question and expect everyone to answer it exactly the same way. In fact, you really don't need to ask the question, because this is the fashionable answer. Whenever you give your own answer, what you really believe to be true, rather than the fashion answer, people are sometimes shocked, amused or even horrified depending on the question.

People have accused you of launching some brutal attacks on your competition. Is that an okay thing to do?

Larry Ellison: Were you shocked by the way we treated Iraq? We were incredibly aggressive against them. Was that really right? Of course we were aggressive against the Iraqis. They invaded Kuwait, they were threatening our oil supplies, they were threatening the world order. It was the job of our armed forces to defeat the enemy.

It is my job to go out into the marketplace and win. We run adds that compare our products to the competitors' products. We don't lie about this, we just say, "We can do this; they can't." We name the competition, it's fact-based advertising. We say very clearly that we're faster, and these tests prove it. We're more reliable, and these tests prove it. We're more economical, and so we'll name a competitor. Even if the facts are true, it's considered a little bit rude by some people.

I don't think it's immoral. I think that we're giving true facts to customers, giving valuable information to customers so they can make better decisions.

It is Bill Gates's job to make Microsoft the biggest company on earth, that's what he's paid for. It's my job for Oracle -- to move from the number two software in the company in the world to become the number one software company in the world. That's my job, that's what I'm paid for. If I'm not aggressive enough in the pursuit of that, if I'm not successful in the pursuit of that, I should be gotten rid of. If the general running Desert Storm is not aggressive enough and successful enough in the pursuit of that goal, he should be fired.

Can you trace your interest in this type of modern communication? When did you first get on a career track?

Larry Ellison: I decided to go into the computer business in college. I started working part-time programming. I found that in a very short period of time, I could make more money writing programs than a tenured professor at the University of Chicago was making, and I was a teenager. I said, "Well, this is kind of cool." It was also fun, it was like a big game, it was like working on puzzles. So I enjoyed it. It paid extremely well, I could work at home, I could work my own hours. I closely associated with computers, because they were absolutely a slave to reason, they knew nothing about fashion. They were completely logical. I enjoyed spending time with them. I liked what I was doing, it was very profitable, and it was very creative.

It was also giving me immediate feedback.

I could start writing a program, and within several hours, I could have a result. Freud defines maturity as the ability to defer gratification. The great thing about programming is you don't have to be mature at all. You don't have to defer gratification for more than a few hours. You get wonderful, tight feedback. It's a lot of fun. That's characteristic of games and sports. The reason why games and sports are so popular is because you win or lose very quickly. You get immediate feedback. It's a very tight loop, you don't wait hours or days or years before you find out if you're winning or losing. You find out a second and a half after you release that basketball. You know whether it's going in or not.

How did you land that first job?

Larry Ellison: It was in school, and they noticed when I was writing programs for school, I was getting done faster than everybody else. They offered me a job. I figured out very, very quickly that rather than being paid by the hour, I was much better off being paid by the program. I was working at the University, and then I started doing consulting for local businesses. That worked very well.

You already had that work ethic. You're kind of a paradox. You have a very serious side, and a completely fun side.

Larry Ellison: I don't think it's paradoxical at all. As human beings we are endlessly curious about ourselves. We find all sorts of arenas to test ourselves in. Right now, I have the fastest racing sailboat in the world, maybe the fastest racing sailboat in history. Sayonara has raced 26 times; we have 24 firsts and two seconds. I'm discovering all sorts of things about myself as I race that boat. I discover all sorts of things about myself every day as Oracle competes with Microsoft for supremacy in the software world.

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There's a wonderful saying that's dead wrong. "Why did you climb the mountain?" "I climbed the mountain because it was there." That is utter nonsense. It's ludicrous and absurd. You climbed the mountain because you were there, and you were curious if you could do it. You wondered what it would be like. You wondered what the view was from the top. That's how we explore the thing that we're most interested in. We explore our own limits, and our relationship with others. We're much more interested in each other, and in ourselves, than we are in everything else.

You seem to thrive on a certain kind of balance between work and play.

Larry Ellison: I think there are two things that are important in life, and that's self-discovery, and your relationship with others. I spend my entire life in those two areas. What is play? What is work? Is work something you get paid for and play something you don't? I put a lot of work into my flying, and a lot of work into my sailing. I used to play tournament chess, I put a lot of work into that. They were all forms of exploration. I put a lot of work into my job, where I get paid. They're all in pursuit of the same thing: self-discovery, the discovery of my own limits.

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The best thing about my life is the people I get to meet these days. If there's any advantage to celebrity, it's getting to meet absolutely wonderful and fascinating people. Walter Cronkite and I went out sailing on Sayonara. We went from being casual acquaintances, to doing business, to being friends. He's an extraordinary man, he's lived an extraordinary life. I could sit for hours just listening to him and his wife tell stories.

Michael Milken is actually singled out as the symbol of evil and greed in the 1980s, but he's one of the most humane and gifted men I've ever met. Michael has raised more money for cancer research than any other human being on earth. He's been dedicated to education for 20 years, but because of someone's political advantage, they decided to put him in jail for crimes that no one else has done time for before or since. It's not terribly fashionable to be a supporter of Michael Milken, but I'm honored to have him as my friend. I think he has made incredible contributions to humankind already, with a lot more coming up.

There's a long list of wonderful people that I've met, and wonderful relationships that have enriched my life. There's the balance between self-exploration and building relationships with others. Those are the important things in life. Winston Churchill said, "You don't make a living by what you get, you make a living by what you give."

If we live intelligently, we devise a strategy to pursue happiness intelligently. There should be a guide book to the intelligent pursuit of happiness. There isn't such a book, but there should be. More than anything else, that's what all of us need: a guide to how to pursue happiness intelligently. Jefferson guaranteed our right to do it, but he didn't give us a map.

I think we should think of altruism -- giving -- as a strategy for happiness. Forget the morality of it all. "It's the right thing to do." Instead, think of it as something totally in your self-interest. If you can help others, you will feel great. The more you can help, the more intelligently you can help, the bigger lever you can get on the world to make it better, the better you will feel about yourself. The more joy you will experience. That is the road to bliss. That is the intelligent pursuit of happiness. That is what we should do. That is my argument for giving, not simply that it's the right and moral thing to do. It happens to also be that, but I don't find that as persuasive as that it is the road to happiness.

What are you like as an employer?

Larry Ellison: The corporation's primary goal is to defeat the competition in the marketplace. My primary function is to make Oracle successful, to make it a good and interesting place to work, because we don't want people to leave.

This is America, people can change jobs, and people like to work with other intelligent and interesting people. They like to do interesting things. We have fantastic salary scales; I think we're the highest paying company in Silicon Valley. We have wonderful benefits, all of these things, but again, don't mistake any of that for altruism. That is in our interest, to retain our employees. Their job, my job, is to build better products than the competition, sell those products in the marketplace, and eventually supplant Microsoft and move from being number two to number one. That is our reason for being.

Oracle is the number one software company in the world for providing technology to manage information. But we're only the number two software company overall. Microsoft is the number one software company. But right now we're living at the dawn of the information age, not the dawn of the PC age. So we're wonderfully positioned to pass Microsoft and become number one. That's my job. The personal computer was designed as a stand-alone device. There was no Internet around in 1981 when the PC was invented. There weren't a lot of local area networks in schools and government agencies back in 1981, but the world has changed.

There are networks everywhere: around the world, in offices, in schools, in major government institutions. So why not have computer networks that are similar to television networks or telephone networks? A television network is enormously complicated. It has got satellites and relay stations and cable head-ins and recording studios. You have this huge, professionally managed network, accessed by a very low-cost and simple appliance, the television. Anyone can learn how to use a television. Ninety-seven percent of American households have televisions. Ninety-four percent of American households have telephones. The telephone: again, a very simple appliance attached to an enormously complex, professionally-managed network. Why shouldn't the computer network be just the same?

How did you become involved with relational database programming?

Larry Ellison: Relational database technology was invented by a guy by the name of Ted Codd at IBM. It's based on relational algebra and relational calculus. It is a very mathematically rigorous form of data management that we can prove mathematically to be functionally complete. This work was done in the early seventies by an IBM fellow by the name of Ted Codd. He published his papers, and really, based on those publications, Oracle decided to see if we (we were four guys) couldn't beat IBM to market with this technology, based on the published IBM research papers. And in fact we did.

What is the biggest obstacle you've ever had to face in your professional life? Was there a time that you thought you actually might fail?

Larry Ellison: There were lots of times, especially in the early days, that were very, very difficult. I think the most difficult experience I had was in 1990 when Oracle had its only loss quarter in history. We've been in business for 20 years, and after 20 years we lost money one quarter. We had a very difficult time. We had virtually doubled our sales every year for ten years. Nine out of ten years, ten out of eleven years. It was really quite an amazing run. We were the fastest growing company in history, and still are the fasting growing company in history over a long period of time.

Suddenly we hit a wall. We reached a billion dollars in revenue, and we were having serious management problems all over the place. The people who were running the company, the billion dollar company, were the same people that had run the company when we were a 15 million dollar company, one twentieth the size. I had an incredible sense of loyalty to those people who had worked with me to build Oracle. It was a very painful realization in 1990 that I was going to have to change the management team. The company had outgrown the management. People who are good at running a 15 million dollar company don't use the same skills. They're just different, not one is better or worse, just an entirely different skill set in running a 15 million dollar company than a billion dollar company. Both skill sets are rare and precious. But we needed a different group of managers, and virtually the entire management team had to be replaced. That means I had to ask people who I had worked with for a decade to leave. I had to fire people. That was the most difficult thing I had to do in business, asking a bunch of people to leave Oracle.

What kept you going through that time?

Larry Ellison: That I had no choice. I had to ask them to leave Oracle, or everyone had to leave Oracle, because there wouldn't be any Oracle left. In that sense, it was a simple choice. Thousands of people worked for Oracle. They deserved the best leadership you could find. My primary responsibility was to the company and to all of the staff, all of our shareholders, and all of our customers. Therefore, I had to choose. And if I couldn't make that decision, then I had to go.

Have you ever been deeply afraid?

Larry Ellison: Deeply afraid? Yes, only once.

The most deeply afraid I can ever remember being was once my mother came -- I might have been six -- and I went to school, and my mother came home very late from work. It was six o'clock, so no one was home. I was very worried that my mother wouldn't come home, and I was deeply afraid. That's the only time I can remember being deeply afraid. I was also making deals with God, if he would return her to me.

With all of the risk that you take in your professional and your personal life, how do you deal with the fear factor?

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Larry Ellison: There's a mild degree of fear; a sociobiologist would tell you that fear is the prevalent human emotion. I certainly feel a little stress, if I just bought a jet fighter and I'm flying it for the very first time, and doing aerobatics very low to the ground. I wouldn't call it fear, but it's a little bit of a rush. That gets the adrenaline going, and I thrive on it. I don't really call that fear. That's a somewhat pleasant experience for me. Extreme fear is awful, but out-on-the-edge a little bit, where you have a mild sensation of apprehension and concern, is something I actually enjoy.

You had so many questions about your parents' values, do you think that independence you had as a child had something to do with developing your self-confidence?

Larry Ellison: No doubt. We're constantly testing ourselves. We're trying to understand our own level of competency; our ability to control our own world; our ability to put ourselves at risk, and then save our own lives. There's always an element of risk. You're risking your ego when you play in a chess match; you're risking your ego, and sometimes your life, when you're doing certain kinds of flying. But I really don't do things that endanger my life when I fly.

We were in a very nasty boat race, from Sidney to Hobart, where we were in a storm for 14 hours. But I really never felt like I was going to die. Sometimes I felt like I wanted to die, because literally everyone on board got pretty sick. They're all professional sailors. It was a horrible storm; we had a lot professional sailors who were puking. But I never really felt the same kind of deep fear that I felt as a child.

What about fear of failure?

Larry Ellison: Oh, absolutely. I think most over achievers are driven, not so much by the pursuit of success, but by the fear of failure. Unless failure gets very close and very nearby that fear doesn't reach profound levels, but it drives us. It drives me to work very hard. It drives me to make sure that my life is orderly, that I'm in control of my company, or in control of the airplane or boat or what-have-you, so that I'm not at risk of failure. Whenever I feel even remotely close to being at risk of failure, I can't stop working.

Your showmanship and your public image are attributes that have received a lot of comment, both negative and positive. How do you deal with critics, both professionally and personally?

Larry Ellison: There are an enormous number of people in the world who really want standard answers. They want everyone to wear their hair the same way, everyone to conduct business the same way, everyone to dress the same way, everyone to go to the same church. And if you wander out of these norms, people are highly critical, because this is threatening to them. They're living their life one way, and they believe that's the proper way to live their life. If you live your life a different way, and you answer questions differently, that makes them feel very uncomfortable. They say, "Well this person's different from what I am." Then they seem to go a little further, and they say, "This person's different and wrong, and I'm different and right." So people have been very, very critical, and people will be critical of you if you do things a little bit differently. It takes a certain amount of strength not to succumb to fashion.

How do you persevere through it?

Larry Ellison: I try to think things through. I try to always ask two questions about my personal policies in life. Are they fair, are they morally correct? And do they work? I try to reason things back to first principles. I try to think about things, and come to conclusions and make my own decisions. If someone has a logical criticism and can explain to me why what I'm doing is wrong, and they can convince me, I'll change. If they have good reasons, I'll just alter my behavior. I love it when people point out when I'm wrong, and explain to me why I'm wrong, then change. That's great. I don't want to be wrong. I would love to be right. If I am wrong, I love it when people stop me.

But sometimes people just throw labels at you and throw criticisms around that are not rational, and they call you names. You can't change behavior that you think is right, just because someone is calling you names, and it's not the conventional way of behavior.

Does it make you feel defensive, or do you just let it go?

Larry Ellison: It depends on what they say. Most of the time I let it go. Sometimes people say things that are so hurtful and so offensive -- or say things that are just patently untrue -- that I feel like I have to defend myself. If someone says something that is factually an error, then I'll defend myself. If it's just calling me a random name, then I forget it.

How important do you think academic success is to one's career?

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Larry Ellison: Generally, for most people it's important. I think academic success is an advantage, but it by no means assures success in business. If you're an outstanding student you'll probably be reasonably successful in business, but you might not be among the most successful in business, or even in science. The straight-A students certainly have talent, but maybe it would have been better if they'd flunked a sociology course where the professor was just awful, or got a C in a course when it didn't make sense to put in the effort. When we're hiring, we look for people with a strong aptitude in mathematics and physics and music (which is very highly correlated to mathematics), but who can also make judgments as to where they're going to invest their time.

I have a wonderful story about a young man who was near the top of his class at Carnegie-Mellon, and quit the week before he was going to graduate. It was that judgment that he made that set him apart from a lot of the other very top grads that we had hired. He makes his own decisions, and that's a very useful thing. I think corporations need a combination of people; hopefully all are talented. Some are people that really want to please and are easy to manage; others are driven by a drummer only they can hear. They will constantly question my wisdom, and won't be the least bit shy about challenging me, and I hope they'll keep me from making mistakes.

What advice would you give to a kid who said, "I really see myself on the cutting edge of this type of technology, how can I prepare?" Is there anything that you would consider mandatory, in education?

Larry Ellison: I think learning how to program is a wonderful discipline. Computers are unforgivingly logical, and they'll do exactly what you tell them. It's a wonderful training to learn how to program a computer. I would encourage people to take this up.

It's much more important than handwriting.

Is there a book you've read that particularly affected you?

Larry Ellison: Lots of books. I just finished Vincent Cronin's book on Napoleon, a man who definitely needed better PR. Napoleon codified the laws for the first time in Europe. He was constantly limiting kings and other tyrants. He opened the ghettos and stopped religious discrimination. He was an extraordinary man who wrote a lot of laws himself. He was incredibly polite, generous almost to a fault, a remarkable person who was vilified. By who? The kings that he deposed -- the kings of England, and the old king of France, and the kings of Prussia, and the Tsar of Russia -- were all threatened by this man who was bringing democracy.

I think it's interesting to read this book and look at Napoleon and see how history has treated him. Even the expression "Napoleon complex," Napoleon was average height for a French person. The idea is just preposterous, treating maybe the most gifted man of the 19th century as some kind of despot. He was a liberator, a law-giver, and a man of incredible gifts. He never considered himself a soldier, he considered himself a politician, though he was probably the greatest general in all history.

It's interesting to read about him for a couple of reasons: to see what one man of modest birth can do with his life, and to see how history can distort the truth entirely. The job of historians is often just that, to distort history, because history is based on fashion. So we're changing American history all the time, whatever's politically fashionable. The school districts decide they want to emphasize this person in history, and de-emphasize that person. It's illuminating to understand that even history is based on fashion. Even morality -- popular morality -- is based on fashion. Real morality is based on reason, and never make the mistake between the two.

What does the American Dream mean to you?

Larry Ellison: Let me start by saying that this is a great country.

The opportunity in this country is astounding. Everyone who works hard and a maybe little cleverly has the opportunity to make almost anything possible. That's the American Dream, that anything here is possible. We are not held back. Immigrants come here, and in a single generation do extraordinary things. This country is not perfect, but compare it with every other country in the world, and it's absolutely fabulous. There's unlimited opportunity. It requires hard work, it requires a little bit of luck. But still, in America, anything is possible.

Thank you so much for talking with us.

This page last revised on Oct 20, 2010 15:38 EDT