I worked at Oracle Consulting for eight and a half years, from January 1990 until July 1998, starting as a senior consultant and finishing as a technical manager. In the summer of 1998, I was experiencing a dual crisis in my career, directionally and ethically.
From the directional perspective, Oracle Consulting was sending very clear signals that the way Gary Dodge and I were doing business in the Denver consulting practice was not aligned with corporate goals. The corporation wanted vertical “centers of expertise” with global and national scope. In Denver, Gary and I managed about a dozen generalists, with experience ranging from very junior to very senior, who effectively covered all types of technology. Our goal was to let each person work locally on the type of work they enjoyed, occasionally coercing some to try something different. Many of us had families, and all of us lived in Colorado for a reason.
Attempting to adhere to corporate direction, when we received a request from a local customer, we began to first contact the relevant national or global “center of expertise”. Most often, we would be told that nobody was available within the next few weeks (or months) and that, when they did become available, the rates charged would reflect a very senior person coupled with travel expenses. We would feed that response back to the customer, who understandably became concerned or irate, and asked for one of our local generalists, whom they had probably used previously, which would have been our first response anyway. In almost each case, we would end up staffing one of our local folks in the engagement, who completed the engagement often before the national or global group’s person became available. As this continued, the pressure from corporate became more direct, complaining about a “black hole in the Rockies”. So, looking ahead into the future at Oracle, I saw a model of business with which I wasn’t comfortable: our local people getting on planes to work elsewhere, while out-of-town personnel were flying into Colorado to work here. Perhaps it looked good from a higher level, but from our street-level view, it was absurd.
However, I also had a more serious ethical problem. I had been sent to Los Angeles to work an engagement involving my primary expertise at the time: Oracle Parallel Server on IBM RS6000/SP clusters. The customer was a start-up website job board. Both IBM and Oracle were determined to sell some massive hardware and software in there, and were working together toward common purpose with rare cooperation.
Except the customer wasn’t cooperating.
Instead, they had come up with a far less-expensive scheme involving dozens of commodity servers, where the one server contained a master database to which new job postings were added and changes were made, which was then replicated to dozens of read-only database servers using backup/restore, with a connection load-balancer directing traffic. This allowed their read-mostly website to scale as needed by off-loading the reads from the master database and segregating writes from the read-only databases. It was fast, cheap, and easy — a rare occasion when it wasn’t necessary to choose only two. It was novel for the time, I was impressed, and said so. Nowadays, such a thing is called a reader farm and can easily be implemented using Active Data Guard.
However, the IBM and Oracle teams were adamantly opposed – fast, cheap, and easy would ruin the lucrative deal they had planned for themselves. So I was directly ordered by the regional vice-president in charge of the deal to reject as unworkable the customer’s plans and instead extol the virtues of Oracle Parallel Server and IBM RS6000/SP clustered servers one way or the other, and recommend it strongly in conclusion.
What to do?
I certainly did not enjoy being ordered to lie. Not asked, but ordered. On the other hand, I worked for Oracle and I had a boss and that boss stated very clearly what to do, as he had every right to do. After all, no blood would be spilled, no babies would be killed.
So my solution to the ethical dilemma was:
- Complete the engagement as directed
- Prevent it from happening again
I am not smart enough to avoid making mistakes, but I believe in making mistakes only once. I did what I was told to do, enduring the astonished looks from the good folks who couldn’t believe I was spouting such nonsense. I subsequently resigned from Oracle, to avoid ever having to make that mistake again. But having resigned from one well-regarded corporation, the question became: are there any corporations, anywhere in the world, where I would not be asked to do something like that again?
The answer was simple and, in August 1998, Evergreen Database Technologies, Inc opened for business.
The first person I told of my decision to resign was Gary Dodge. He wasn’t my supervisor, but we were peers. I entered his office and closed the door, and he looked up and commented, “Oh, that’s not a good sign.” I sat down and told him, and he nodded and said, “Well, good thing you closed the door, because I’m leaving also.” He didn’t leave Oracle, but he left consulting, for the same directional reasons as I. So, we didn’t inform our management together, but we informed them at the same time.
EvDBT hasn’t been open continuously over the past 15 years; I have far too much to learn. I spent a few years attempting to start another consulting-services company with some colleagues, and that ended unsuccessfully. Any deal that starts with handshakes inevitably ends with lawyers, so my lesson is to always start with lawyers so that it ends with handshakes.
At one point, I hired in with Compaq Professional Services because they offered an intriguing opportunity. However, my timing was bad, as Compaq was absorbed by HP a few months after I started, and knowing that I would not enjoy the noise and mess of the mating of the elephants, I moved on.
Thank you all for the past 15 years, and I look forward to the next 15 years.
Update on Friday 18-Oct 2013: I’ve received some criticism and questions for my perceived criticism of Oracle in this article, particularly with the ethical dilemma described above. I didn’t write this to criticize Oracle as a company, the situation simply happened while I was working there. It is a large company like many others. Corporations are comprised of people who respond in varying ways to the incentives given them. I’m personally aware of many people with similar roles at Oracle who have not and never will react to their incentives in that particular way. Likewise, I know of a few who would have reacted far worse. It’s all part of the grand pageant of human behavior.
The person who ordered me to do my job was not himself facing an ethical dilemma. He had brought me onto the engagement to expedite the deal, and he never imagined that I would balk; it just wasn’t professional.
He had a task to do, and I began to jeopardize the success of that task. I would hope to be as decisive and effective as he.