Mark Hurd Interview: Oracle Leading Or Following?

Oracle President Mark Hurd talks strategy with InformationWeek's Fritz Nelson and some CIO customers. Watch the interview and read our analysis.
Oracle is undergoing a transformation right before our very eyes. Where once it was a database company, it’s now an application company, a cloud company, a hardware company. At its most recent customer conference, Oracle Open World, the company made several announcements that showed it’s serious about wanting to own the entire technology stack, from the hardware to the database to the middleware to the applications.

I had a chance to sit down with Oracle President Mark Hurd and a handful of Oracle customers, including Dan Drawbaugh, CIO of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which is spending $100 million on medical analytics and hopes to further the use of genomic data to deliver on the promise of precision medicine.

We put all of this analysis into a documentary video of sorts (play it directly below). I've also embedded the full interview further below (at the end of this article), along with a similar video interview I conducted in September with SAP co-CEO Jim Hagemann-Snabe, whom I also wrote about earlier. run-of-site player, used to publish article embedded videos via DCT. The same ads will be served on this player regardless of embed location.

First, a few quick explanations and observations:

-- I asked Hurd to give Oracle grades in a few areas. These are the same areas I asked Hagemann-Snabe to grade SAP on. Hagemann-Snabe is much harder on his company than Hurd is on Oracle. Surprised?

-- I also wondered, given that many people still think of Oracle as a database company, what business Oracle considers itself in today. Hurd responded with the standard conference pitch, but I do think his answer is telling: Oracle plans to own every part of the technology stack, including the parts of the stack that run in the cloud. Does that ring true?

-- No matter how many ways I pressed Hurd, he gave his competitors very little credit. I even quibbled with his characterization of as just a salesforce automation company, and he reiterated it, and then noted that Oracle is coming after Salesforce. Is Hurd just a fiercely competitive executive trying to fire up the company, just like his boss, CEO Larry Ellison, or is he sincere (and too dismissive) of Oracle’s competitors?

-- Oracle has turned Sun into the centerpiece of its engineered systems strategy. In essence, Oracle’s “Exa” line of products consists of a series of appliances that include compute, memory and storage to process enterprise-level application workloads, from analytics to transactions. This is still new territory for Oracle. I talked with Hurd about the Exa-systems in-memory architecture, and about whether this is just faster machinery or something truly transformational.

While Hurd spoke with precision about transformational cost savings and the technology shifts that make it possible (and they do sound impressive), he didn't talk about business transformation. Oracle isn’t alone in this regard; most technology companies still fail to relate their wares to strategic business outcomes. They become enamored of their technology because it does impressive things and can be fun to talk about. But CIOs have to speak a different language -- the language of customers and business results. I wrote about this disconnect at length in a piece that was meant as a memo to Oracle and SAP, exhorting them to listen to the language of Procter & Gamble CIO Filippo Passerini. I wrote:

Passerini doesn't talk about DRAM or flash memory. Sure, he thinks about competitors, but instead of relying on partial truths, he simply looks at the data. Passerini set off on a mission a few years . . . The plan: to digitize, visualize, and simulate--to distill down the company's massive data to what matters, to provide a single version of the truth to 60,000 employees in an effort he calls "information democratization," to help the company speed products to market (but more cost effectively). "We didn't need to run faster," Passerini said, "we needed to change the way we ran."

You can also hear similar language from UPMC's Drawbaugh (an enormously successful CIO who also happens to be on InformationWeek's Editorial Advisory Board) in the video above: "We'll measure success not from the technology perspective, but from the care provided to the patient," Drawbaugh says. The results, he adds, will be measured by clinicians and ultimately by the patients. The goal: medical breakthroughs.

-- I pressed Hurd about the company's new direction, some of its competitive rhetoric, and even whether Oracle is in a position of leadership and innovation or just playing catchup and finding itself in the role of follower. For instance, during the past year or so Ellison has been dismissive of the cloud, in-memory computing (which he once called "whacky") and multitenancy, which he bashed (at's expense) last year only to clarify his statement this year (it's OK in the database, but not so much at the application layer). Now Oracle's all-in on each. Crafty or disingenuous?

Here's the full interview with Hurd. run-of-site player, used to publish article embedded videos via DCT. The same ads will be served on this player regardless of embed location.

Here is my interview with SAP's Hagemann-Snabe. run-of-site player, used to publish article embedded videos via DCT. The same ads will be served on this player regardless of embed location.

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