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Everyone Else Must Fail: The Unvarnished Truth About Oracle and Larry Ellison by Karen Southwick


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)


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A little more varnish would have made Karen Southwick’s new offering, Everyone Else Must Fail, a better book. When I noticed repetitiion within a few pages, and lots of unnecessary phrases, I concluded that neither editor nor author read this entire book through in sequence. Some readers may choose to take a pass or give up for that reason along. A better choice for the subject is Matt SymondsSoftwar, which we reviewed recently. Southwick had less access than Symonds, and it shows. Many of the stories here are the same ones Symonds presents, but readers learn more perspectives from Symonds. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 2 (pp. 34-38):


In his personal life, Ellison, who boasts that he's never been ill as an adult, is a risk taker on all fronts, not just business, having once broken his neck, his collarbone, a few ribs, and punctured a lung in a 1991 bodysurfing accident off the Big Island in Hawaii. "This enormous wave showed up, and I was in the perfect position to catch it," he says. "For the first half second, it was very exciting; after that, it was terrifying. . . . The wave took me down to the reef and buried me in the reef." He adds, "There was something in me that wanted to ride that wave," no matter what the consequences.

When you listen to people like Ray Lane who, generally with cause, fiercely dislike Ellison, it's easy enough to dismiss him as a "Darth Vader" who has gone over to the dark side of Silicon Valley's testosterone-fueled culture in his obsession with making money and building the biggest company in the world. (Not that Ellison is the only one possessed by this goal, but he is one of the longest-surviving and most notorious.) But then you hear him rhapsodize over the sunrise that followed the dangerous 1998 Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race that could have killed him, and you realize that Ellison is an extraordinarily complex individual. He runs the emotional gamut from poet to driven genius, from frat boy to insightful visionary, from aging athlete to thoughtful philanthropist. At Oracle's big trade show in late 2001, amid all the exhibition booths pushing software and computers, sits a large model of the boat that Oracle Racing will sponsor in the America's Cup challenge the following year. It is actually a one-third replica, according to the brochure, built exactly like the real thing. Ellison stands next to it as he lays out his vision, and his passion, for yet another arcane subject: maxi-yacht racing. Ellison has most members of the racing team assembled for the press conference. He tells the audience that they've had to build four life-size boats like this one, gesturing at the model, in order to do all the requisite training. "Not a single dime from Oracle Corporation has been spent on this," he says. "It has all come out of my pocket, personally.  The amount is breathtaking: $85 million. (And alas, the effort falls just short, as Oracle's boat loses in the semifinals. Ellison promptly challenges the eventual winner.)

He first began racing when he moved to the Bay Area, sailing fourteen-foot sailboats. "That's all I could afford.'" As he was getting Oracle started, he almost wound up living on a thirty-four-footer to conserve cash. Finally, after he made his fortune, a friend asked him, "Why aren't you sailing anymore?" So he took it up again, purchasing a maxi-yacht called Sayonara, which would prove to be almost prophetically named, in 1995. "I enjoy it so much in terms of racing and meeting people," he says. "If you're the owner of the New York Yankees, you don't get to play baseball. I actually get to sail with these guys."

Sailing with the guys resulted in a life-and-death experience that Ellison relishes recalling. "I'll never forget the race down to Hobart when I had the wheel. I couldn't handle it. There were no stars, you couldn't even see the sails, I didn't know what to steer by. I had to turn the wheel over [to someone else]. You discover your own limits." He chokes up, in a manner that doesn't seem fake, when he talks about it. Six sailors on other boats and several yachts were lost when hurricane-force winds battered the participants in the December 1998 race from Sydney, Austraha, to Hobart, Tasmania. After the hurricane, as the Ellison team's boat limped into the river that leads to Hobart, "everybody on board was completely quiet," Ellison remembers. "We had been through a terrible hurricane, with one hundred-mile-per-hour winds sweeping the deck." The hull of their boat, Sayonara, had begun delaminating, which meant it could break up into pieces. Somehow, though, it held together. "We got to the end of the race, and . . . it had gone from a terrible hurricane to a glorious sunrise of amber and rose and Prussian blue," he says. "I was just filled with wonder at the beauty and glory of life . . . and how short and fragile it is. We knew sailors had died, and here was this perfect sunrise and everyone was just glad to be alive. These sailors were tough guys, but when we got to the dock, they were so moved, there wasn't a dry eye on the boat." He sums up, "Life is the only miracle."



For Ellison, life could have been very short indeed. Born August 17, 1944, to an unwed teenager in New York City, he contracted pneumonia and nearly died when he was nine months old. "I'm sure it was very traumatic," he says, especially for his mother and grandmother, who were taking care of him. At that point, they turned him over to be raised by relatives in Chicago: his grandmother's sister and her husband, Lillian and Louis Ellison. Louis Ellison, a Russian Jew who emigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, was by all accounts a rather remote and disapproving father who gave his adopted son little emotional nourishment. While Ellison describes Lillian as loving and committed, he found Louis scornful and authoritative. He told his adopted son that he would never amount to anything. "That was his form of greeting, as opposed to, 'Hi' or, 'good morning,' " Ellison says.

Ellison didn't learn he was adopted until he was around twelve years old. Once, he recalls, his parents took him on a trip to New York and introduced him to a relative of theirs named Florence. No one told the boy that this was his biological mother. It wasn't until he was an adult, after he'd founded Oracle, that Ellison managed to track her down and talk for the first time to the woman who bore him. He didn't do it until both Lillian and Louis had passed away. In speaking to Florence, "the result was surprising to me, because I really found out who my family was, and it was the people who raised me, not the people who I was biologically related to.

Ellison is prone to exaggerate the toughness of the South Side Chicago neighborhood where he grew up. After all, "rags to riches" makes for a better story than merely lower middle class to riches. He laughingly admits, "The richer I am now, the poorer we were as kids." Then he acknowledges that his neighborhood, although filled with struggling immigrants like his parents, wasn't really crime-ridden nor poor. "It wasn't rough by today's standards. It was a series of ghettos, an Hispanic ghetto, a black ghetto, a Jewish ghetto. . . . 'Ghetto' in those days was a pretty nice place to live, compared to today, when it's absolutely scary.”

Ellison attended South Shore High School, where his grades, he says, were "checkered." He also didn't take kindly to authority. "I remember correcting a math teacher and getting into a big argument," he says. "I had a very difficult time with people who said, 'Do what I say—I'm the adult. You're the kid.’” At age fifteen, he had a girlfriend, Karen Rutzky. They were together for five years, attended proms, and wore matching shirts. Lillian gave Ellison money so he could take Karen out, but her parents didn't hke him and she turned down his marriage proposal while he was still a teenager. Washington Post reporter Mark Leibovich, who culled these details on Ellison's early life from interviews with him, Rutzky, and others, writes that "no subject animates Ellison more than Rutzky. For all his success, her rejection—and her parents' dislike—seems a lingering embodiment of all that made him feel unworthy." Ellison bragged to Leibovich about how he made the list of Playboy's top ten best-dressed people. "I think my journey from those stupid matching shirts with Karen Rutzky to Playboy's best-dressed list is a more heroic journey than going from the South Side of Chicago to running Oracle."

After he graduated from high school in 1962, Ellison was admitted to the University of Illinois, where he planned to major in physics. His real interest was biology, but as he said in a speech to a group of biotechnology researchers, "unfortunately when I was going to college, biology was more like home economics than the understanding of molecular science that it is today, so I ended up in physics." At the end of his sophomore year, his adoptive mother, Lillian, died of cancer (a disease that would also claim his biological mother), and he left school. Although later he enrolled briefly at the University of Chicago, Ellison, like Bill Gates, never obtained a college degree. It must seem to Ellison as if he's been chasing Gates most of his life, ever since they founded their respective companies, Oracle and Microsoft, in the same time period of the late 1970s. Oracle became a stunning success, but Microsoft surpassed it, as Gates also surpassed Ellison in some ways—including personal wealth.

If you hate Ellison and Oracle, choose Everyone Else Must Fail. If you’re open to a more complete portrayal , albeit with some varnish, select Softwar.

Steve Hopkins, January 22, 2004


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the February 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Else Must Fail.htm


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