(FORTUNE Magazine) – Michael Fields never really clicked with Larry Ellison. He spent three years working for Oracle's notoriously unpredictable founder and CEO, rising to become president of the $5 billion software company's U.S. operations. But the mild-mannered Fields didn't quite fit into Ellison's rough-and-tumble culture. That's because the two men are about as different as people can get. Fields is the consummate nice guy who listens to what people have to say; Ellison is the corporate maverick who runs Oracle through the sheer force of his considerable will. Eager to stay on top in a highly competitive field, Ellison wanted to spur growth by pushing sales of new products that weren't yet on the market. Forever loyal to his customers, Fields refused to promise something he knew couldn't be delivered. There's also personal yin and yang. Ellison's been married three times; Fields and his wife, Sandra, just celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary.

When the inevitable falling-out between the two men occurred in 1992, Fields cashed in his Oracle stock options (worth more than $1 million) and walked out the door before Ellison could get around to firing him. "Larry and I never had a close personal relationship," says Fields. "We had different feelings about things, and I was never shy about vocalizing mine."

Fields left Oracle as one of the most powerful African Americans in the computer industry--a status that, sadly, wasn't all that difficult to achieve considering the dearth of blacks in the field. Just about everyone in Silicon Valley, in fact, will tell you that the industry has about as much soul as a Shriners parade. The Department of Labor reports that African Americans make up fewer than 10% of all computer systems analysts, scientists, equipment operators, and programmers.

To Fields, though, the technology sector is still too new to have the barriers to success that minorities and women often confront elsewhere. "The high-tech industry represents the best opportunity for minorities because there's no old-boy network," says Fields. "The people who are at the top got there because of working hard, being smart, and having lots of energy, and they're attracted to people just like them. They don't really care about anything else."

Even while battling Ellison, Fields had a notion that, while big companies like Oracle were busy pushing database software for the growing market of workstations and servers, no one was creating solutions for such unglamorous housekeeping functions as storage backup and security. The folks at Warburg Pincus, the well-known venture capital firm, believed Fields was on to something--and, in 1992, committed an initial $25 million (then the largest startup investment ever from a single source) to his brainchild, Open Vision Technologies. "We definitely thought there was going to be a big new market in distributed systems management," says Warburg managing director William Janeway.

To build Open Vision quickly, Fields decided to grow through acquisitions. He studied more than 150 companies before eventually settling on 14, which he purchased for about $40 million.

Like many startups, Open Vision didn't go exactly as planned. By 1994 it became apparent that the 14 companies weren't jelling. Moreover, Fields' vision may have been ahead of its time; the market was not yet ready to embrace the broad portfolio of products Open Vision was trying to sell. Bottom line: Operations needed to be consolidated and the roster of products trimmed.

Here is where Mr. Nice Guy knew he was in trouble. "I think Mike had a tough time wielding a knife at Open Vision when it was needed," says Jim Mendelson, an analyst at Soundview Financial Group.

Fields found a deft knife-wielder in Geoffrey Squire, Oracle's head of distribution, who was having his own clash with Ellison. Fields offered Squire an escape hatch--as Open Vision's chief operating officer. "The most important thing is the ship, and the ship needed someone at the helm who knew better about the operational aspects of getting a business to grow than me," says Fields with typical pudency.

Looking to take more of a strategic than operational role, Fields named Squire to replace him as CEO in July 1995, while remaining chairman of the board. Open Vision went public the following year, raising $36 million, then 11 months later merged with Veritas Software, a $40 million storage management company. Squire became executive vice president and co-chairman of the new company.

Fields, despite having founded Open Vision only five years earlier, opted not to take a seat on the board. "Since I didn't have an operational role, I didn't want to create even the illusion that there would be someone taking sides," he explains.

But then again, as people who know Fields understand, launching Open Vision was never about feeding his ego. It was about creating a successful venture and serving a market. The company quickly benefited from Squire's tough love and turned a profit before the end of 1996. Analysts now project that the new Veritas should boost earnings and revenues by 50% annually for at least the next three years.

In just four years Fields, who hails from a working-class family in Amityville, N.Y., deftly moved from corporate dropout (albeit a wealthy one) to successful entrepreneur, ascending into the rarefied world of stock options and second homes. (Fields' Veritas shares are worth about $9.5 million, and he has a retreat in St. Croix). What he chose to do next was share some of the bounty of his 27 years in the business with a growing group of African Americans who aspire to similar levels of success in technology and new media.

Two of this rising crowd were so struck by the rarity of a distinguished black executive in Silicon Valley that they contacted Fields out of the blue after reading news articles about him. David Ellington called Fields in 1995 when he was trying to launch NetNoir, now a two-year-old online company specializing in African-American content. Stephan Adams, CEO and founder of Adamation, a digital multimedia company that started in 1985, also picked up the phone that year. "I thought, 'This guy's going to be my mentor,'" says Adams. Adds Ellington: "Operating a small company, I didn't have any black mentors and I needed that. I desperately needed that."

Fields has become something of a fairy godfather to the two men. He has introduced them to potential sources of capital, and he has made six-digit investments on his own account in their companies. The only return Fields hopes for is that Adams and Ellington will become models of success for other black entrepreneurs in the high-technology field. "Those of us who are African American in this field and have achieved certain levels of success bear a responsibility to reach back and encourage that success in others," he explains.

People who know Fields aren't surprised by his munificence, but they doubt that his ambition will allow him to remain out of the corporate game for long. Besides, given his talent for managing people and inspiring loyalty, Fields will undoubtedly be a hot high-tech property again. "I don't think that people who are real players can sit out the game, and Michael is a real player," says Nancy Albertini, president of Taylor Winfield, an executive-recruitment firm. Fields admits he's gotten "a number of phone calls" about offers but says he isn't interested yet. Unless, he adds facetiously, it's Larry Ellison on the other end of the line.