THE BIGGER THEY GET …

Like everyone I know, I screwed up from time to time as a teenager, and my mother’s response was usually an evil eye, accompanied by the phrase “the bigger you get, the worse you get.”  I like to think it was her way of encouraging my personal development.

I was reminded of my mother’s early training by none other than Oracle’s chief exec Larry Ellison, one of the IT world’s behemoths and a man of reasonable means (his net worth is estimated at $33 billion), following some very public spats he’s had with two, as yet less successful IT executives in as many weeks.

The first was with Mike Lynch, CEO of Autonomy, a British software business acquired by Hewlett Packard for over $11 billion, a transaction that will net Dr Lynch, a co-founder of the business, $900 million – not a bad return for a working class boy who was born in Ireland and brought up in Essex by his fireman father and nursing mother.

The second was with Marc Benioff, the flamboyant CEO at Salesforce.com, the original poster child for cloud computing, a former Ellison lieutenant at Oracle and no stranger to the art of self-publicity.  Benioff has amassed a personal fortune of $1.8 billion from his much talked about business that has yet to turn a meaningful profit.

Oracle and HP, the new owners of Autonomy, compete directly following Ellison’s acquisition of Sun Microsystems in January 2010.  The acquisition also brought Oracle into competition with salesforce in the rapidly growing cloud services market.  All is fair in love, war and open market competition, right?  Does it validate personal attacks among grown ups?

The gory details are the least interesting aspects but need summarizing.

Ellison publicly described Lynch as either forgetful or a liar and published on Oracle’s website what look like private documents to prove a point.  The documents had been earlier presented to Oracle’s corporate officers by an investment firm detailing Automony’s valuation in a clear attempt to tease Oracle into a bid.  This followed Lynch’s denial of an initial Ellison allegation that Automony had been ‘shopped to Oracle’ before HP opened its well-upholstered chequebook.

Then, with the Autonomy story still keeping the tech press entertained and busy, Ellison struck again, just as the world’s developers were making their way to San Francisco for the annual Oracle Openworld Conference.

According to Benioff, Ellison cancelled (the official line is that it was rescheduling) Benioff’s keynote at the get together, admittedly after Benioff had posted somewhat churlish and disparaging comments on Facebook about Ellison’s under par performance at the gathering’s opening address.

Accomplished, hugely successful businessmen should never feel the need to slag each other off in a personal and public way. It’s gratuitous and serves no purpose other than to inflate the already overblown egos of those rich enough  never to be questioned.

Maybe Larry was simply letting Lynch and Benioff know that he is still ‘the Data Daddy’ and the resulting press coverage no doubt oiled tittle-tattle among the industry at Oracle’s annual soiree. But none of this differentiates Oracle’s businesses in a changing, competitive market.  It will do not a jot to help Oracle’s customers understand better what cloud services are or help their sales teams to drive sales.  It is little more than three over-paid Tech Titans who, while they have earned unquestioned personal and professional success, haven’t yet learned to shed the schoolyard bullyboy tactics.  It’s putting personal egos before customers.

Were their respective communications departments engaged in the decisions to mount these campaigns or to react publicly to the personal attacks, or were they just given JFDI orders?  Did they agree with the attack dog strategy, or simply go along with their bosses’ personal agendas?  I suppose we’ll never know.

OK, the spats generated column inches among reporters usually weary of the black box magic these businesses perform, but this does raise questions about the personalities leading these businesses.  Each is engaged in the data management business. Core to this market is trust, the knowledge that a customer’s data is safe with whomever is charged with managing it, storing it, protecting it.  Ellison’s personal attacks and the participants’ responses don’t send out the right message.

Time will tell whether HP overpaid for Autonomy. This is what Ellison was really trying to say and in any event is an issue between HP’s Board of Directors and it’s shareholders, the same question that will eventually be answered over the $7.4 billion of shareholders’ cash that Ellison forked out for Sun eighteen months earlier.

Contrast this with the behaviour of Steve Jobs, who lost his battle with pancreatic cancer this week.

Jobs was no shrinking violet.  He was a fierce and driven competitor capable of Olympic displays of petulance and rage, but who never, in my memory, publicly or gratuitously denigrated an industry peer.  A number of his paid staff will have intimate knowledge of what it means to annoy the boss, but externally, Jobs never made it personal.

Yes, he had several goes at Microsoft, but only ever spoke respectfully in public about Bill Gates.  He came out strongly against Google and Andriod, but never took a direct shot at Larry Page, Sergey Brin or Eric Schmidt, the former non-executive at Apple.

Job’s corporate verdicts, usually delivered with humour and style, were designed to show his products’ or his strategy’s superiority over those of his competitors.  His frequent outbursts were about making Apple successful in the market, about differentiating his products and gaining market share.

“Some people have money and some people are rich,” said Thomas Dorsey, the father of black gospel music.

Steve Jobs was both.  Despite his many flaws, he shared his true wealth with the hundreds of millions of people that hold a little bit of him in their hands over day, and they feel connected to it.  That, in part, is why the public have mourned the death of a businessman they didn’t know and never met as they would the untimely death of a President or a Prince.

Wouldn’t it round off Jobs’ legacy nicely if the others, those who knew him, befriended him, emulated him and considered themselves to be like him, could learn that from him too?

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