AppsLab FAQ: What Do You Do at Oracle?

Here’s another installment in my FAQ series.

I’ve always had trouble explaining what I do to non-technical people. It’s gotten better over the years, but it’s still a struggle to explain my job.

Usually, the conversation goes like this:

Q: What do you do for work?
A: I work for a big software company.
Q: Cool. What company?
A: Oracle.
Q: <Blank look>
A: Oracle sells software for businesses.
Q: <Relieved look>Oh. So you write code?
A: No, not anymore.

Or some variant of that. Depending on how much I feel like talking, I might say “I surf the Internet all day” just to bend the person’s mind a bit.

The answers get even tougher when I talk to people in tech. When you say Oracle to the average geek, the immediate assumption is database. After I explain that I work in Apps, it gets even harder to explain what I do here at the ‘Lab.

My answer when I don’t feel like explaining in this case is, “I blog”.

We here at the ‘Lab have very unique and cool jobs. If you’re new here or you’ve always wondered, here’s a brief synopsis of our charter.

We were formed back in April 2007 to explore innovation within Applications. I use the three E’s to remember our original charter:

We spent a lot of time early on explaining what 2.0 is (and is not) and why 2.0 matters. This is an activity of the past now, and everyone seems to agree that 2.0 is important. We probably had very little to do with raising the importance, but we can offer first-hand experience when people ask for further education, e.g. how do I start a blog, what if someone posts porn, how do I start a community, etc.

Again, this activity has changed since we started. Before it was about convincing people that 2.0 matters. Now, it’s more honing the message to what about 2.0 matters, e.g. you can’t always throw a blog or a wiki at a product and says it’s 2.0.

Of course, this is a subjective area where my opinion differs from others. We try to focus on the principles I list further down to keep ourselves grounded.

We always knew that talking would only get us so far. So, from the get-go, we knew we’d need to show people and let them kick the tires. We don’t have all the answers or the domain expertise to say confidently what will work for a particular group of users. Our goal was to provide a sandbox where product teams could get a feel for 2.0 and make that leap themselves.

The light goes on, and someone says, “this would be great for x problem our users face.”

This is why we built Connect. We operated initially as a skunkworks outfit, but those days are long gone.

Update: Dan’s comment points out that I did a poor job of explaining. So, I’ve added some meat to the bullets, expanding them into sections.

We’ve always followed two very simple principles.

  1. Web 2.0 is about people, not technology (chat, forums, search, blogs, wikis, RSS, tagging, social networks, etc.).
  2. Execution wins.

Following these principles, we built sites like Connect and Mix to execute on the first two E’s. An unexpected and happy side effect to our work is that people outside Apps used our stuff and got interested and involved in what we’re doing.

As the tide has risen for Web/Enterprise 2.0 over the past few months, we’ve done less innovative thinking and more maintenance and enhancement. So, what I do every day now is very different than a year or even six months ago.

Because I don’t code, which is a good thing for the team, I wear a lot of hats. In fact, my role reminds me a lot of my startup experiences from back in the Bubble.

So, lately, I’ve been saying I work in a startup within the giant behemoth that is Oracle, and in many ways, this is very true. Like a startup, we’re a very small team with many responsibilities. Also, we have to be nimble with our strategy and able to change direction depending on demand for our services.

We have very demanding jobs and work like we’re at a startup. I frequently see mail from Rich and Anthony in the wee hours. I’m actually suspicious SkyNet replaced them with cyborgs sent back through time, since they are rarely offline or not working.

Anyway, we might have the coolest jobs at Oracle, depending on whom you ask. I’ve been at Oracle for 10 years now, in several different capacities, and this is the most fun I’ve had yet, even if it’s the hardest to describe.

Which is why I tell people that I blog.




  1. Thanks for this post, but I still have no idea what you do. I don't really care either–just keep doing more of it. The more you can convince people that #1 in your list above is true, the more successful you (and as a result, many of those that depend on Oracle) will be. At least that's what I think. People rule (at least until the cyborgs come).

    Dan Norris
    Unofficial AppsLab Fan Club Chairperson/Cheerleader
    “Long Live the 'Lab!”

  2. Thanks dude. Point taken. I expanded a bit. As for me, I blog, remember?

    The post wasn't supposed to be all about me. I do all that is not code or public appearances, with some overlap. That means I do: business development, community management, product management, project management, administration and operations, any/everything the other dudes don't want to do.

    In the spirit of a startup, I'll do whatever needs to be done in order to help us succeed, and I guess depending on who you ask, I do stuff that hinders our success too 🙂

  3. I guess I do know some of the things you do, but I also know there's a lot going on that's not visible to us on the outside of the big O. I do think that the “Apps” part of your mission is a little muted IMHO. I'm the case in point–I have very little to do with Apps and I find the community building and awareness raising to be very valuable to my various roles and interactions. I think you could drop the Apps part of the name and still be true to your mission (as I see it). I suppose the dollars come from somewhere though, so maybe you couldn't change the name.

  4. True indeed. I can't blog 80% of what I do on a daily basis. Our role has evolved beyond our original charter, and our strategy and direction changes pretty frequently.

    That way we stay a moving target, harder to hit 😉

  5. Bob Slydell: You see, what we're actually trying to do here is, we're trying to get a feel for how people spend their day at work… so, if you would, would you walk us through a typical day, for you?
    Peter Gibbons: Yeah.
    Bob Slydell: Great.
    Peter Gibbons: Well, I generally come in at least fifteen minutes late, ah, I use the side door – that way Lumbergh can't see me, heh heh – and, uh, after that I just sorta space out for about an hour.
    Bob Porter: Da-uh? Space out?
    Peter Gibbons: Yeah, I just stare at my desk; but it looks like I'm working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch, too. I'd say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual, work.

  6. I tell people that my job combines probably the two most boring professions, computing and accounting. After that we usually change the subject 🙂

    There is a nightmare when you are at aparty and somebody say, oh you work for Oracle I'm a dba and we just started an upgrade to 11g I wonder if you can answer some questions…

    Or I have a friend who used to work at Oracle called John Smith, you know him?

  7. Too true, back when we both worked in Financials, I did the same thing. You think accounting is boring, try building software for accounting. Loads of laughs. Good way to deflect a conversation, unless you're talking to an accountant, which happened more frequently that I imagined it would.

    Well, you're from London, do you know Jon Smythe?

  8. I forget who said it (David Brin?) but it went something like this:

    If you can't explain to a 12 year old what you do in 6 sentences, you don't understand it.

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