Oracle's public image may be that of a sharp-elbowed sales competitor and insatiable eater of terrified companies. But during speeches kicking off the enterprise software vendor's annual OpenWorld conference in San Francisco Sunday night, the company showed a funnier, more humane side.

In a pair of keynotes by cofounder and CEO Larry Ellison and president and Chief Financial Officer Safra Catz that were collectively called "Sunday Night Live," the two, especially Ellison, waxed nostalgic about the now-30-year-old company's origins, especially its own Silicon Valley "start-up in a garage" days.

Ellison started Oracle's predecessor, Software Development Laboratories, in 1977 with $2,000 of his own money. Its first office was on the famed Sand Hill Road in California, near Stanford University.

Things back then were done by the seat of Ellison's (and everyone else's) pants. One early employee, Stuart Feigin, reminisced via video how when Bank of America, which Ellison was approaching for a start-up loan, demanded a balance sheet, neither he nor Ellison knew what one was.

"We had to go and study some annual reports to figure it out," he said.

Feigin, who worked at Oracle for 20 years and is now a venture capitalist, also recalled stuffing all of Oracle's early receipts into a shoe box.


Safra Catz was not chosen to be Oracle's first accountant because, unlike the other candidate, according to Ellison, "she didn't have a car."

At an early meeting with a firm bidding to become Oracle's European sales representative, Ellison recalled discovering "that they were trying to hide the fact that they were a four-person company, while we had been trying to hide the fact that we were a seven-person company."

Unlike Google, which is known for fetishising its employees' academic records to the point of asking middle-aged candidates what their college grades were, Ellison, himself a college dropout, touted Oracle's unconventionality."It was well-known that we were an MBA-free zone," he said. "I am only half-kidding."

The keynotes were interspersed with skits by former and current Saturday Night Live cast members, including Kevin Nealon, Victoria Jackson and Darrell Hammond.

One of the bigger surprises may have been the extent of the self-deprecation from Ellison, who was in a jovial mood.

He admitted that Version 6 of Oracle's database "had a problem: It didn't work very well." He attributed that in part to the introduction of the predecessor of one of Oracle's better-known features, Real Application Clusters (RAC).

"It was computer science as much as software development that we were doing," he said.

Ellison also took blame for Oracle's near-demise in 1991, when the company had its first-ever money-losing quarter and Ellison was told by his CFO that company teetered on bankruptcy.

"I drove the company into a brick wall at 150 miles per hour," he said.

Ellison has made comments in which he appeared to personalise defections by top lieutenants and target their subsequent companies with extra glee. Two companies that Oracle has acquired, Siebel Systems and PeopleSoft, were headed by former Oracle executives, Tom Siebel and Craig Conway, respectively.

None of that was in evidence Sunday night. He called the namesake customer relationship management firm that Siebel founded "a brilliant success." And he called former President Ray Lane "the best field guy in the United States" at the time he hired him and credited Lane with leading Oracle to $10bn (£4.8bn) a year in revenue by the late 1990s.

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