Safra Catz, Oracle CEO. Image source: Oracle.

Safra Catz is currently co-CEO of Oracle (NYSE:ORCL), sharing the software giant's top executive suite with former Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) head Mark Hurd. But if you have followed Oracle over the last decade and a half, Hurd's co-CEO title almost looks like an honorary degree. Isn't Safra Catz really running the show at Oracle -- kind of like she's already done for several years?

The Hurd factor
Don't get me wrong. Mark Hurd is a solid executive with a strong skill set. At Hewlett-Packard, his heavy-handed cost cuts lifted the embattled systems builder's operating margins from 4% to more than 9%. At the same time share prices more than doubled. So if you're looking for strong cost controls, Mark Hurd is the man for the job.

But Hurd didn't build a business structure for the ages at HP. Cost-cutting helps the bottom line look good in the short term, but doesn't exactly drive stronger innovation and execution.

Under Hurd's watch, HP's R&D budgets got a 19% haircut. This happened between 2008 and 2010, at the start of the smartphone and tablet booms that reshaped the technology sector. I can't come up with a worse time to step on the innovation brakes.

Oracle founder and then-CEO Larry Ellison welcomed Hurd to his new digs with open arms. Immediately installed as co-COO and president with Safra Catz, Hurd quickly became a public face for the company. Hurd's official profile gives him oversight of Oracle's global field operations, including both strategy and day-to-day operations.

The woman behind the curtain
I don't think that's what's actually going on at Oracle. Peel back the corporate veils, and I think you'll find Safra Catz pulling far more strings than Mark Hurd.

Larry Ellison has been grooming her for the CEO role since time immemorial. "If I dropped dead tomorrow, Safra Catz would be the CEO of Oracle," Ellison proclaimed in 2005. That tight connection was always clear to other insiders, too. "There's no difference between Safra and Larry," said senior Oracle executive Mark Barrenechea in 2006. "One's just at the microphone and the other is behind the curtain."

The twin-CEO situation is an illusion that lets Catz focus on the real work of leading the company. Hurd is a charismatic smokescreen, and a helper for the nitty-gritty detail work. In everything but title and compensation, I'd call him a chief operating officer that answers to Catz in matters of true strategy.

The current setup lets Catz continue her behind-the-scenes role, giving Mark Hurd the microphone for the glitzy public relations stuff. Meanwhile, Ellison himself remains a large presence at Oracle, serving as chief technology officer and executive chairman. He was always close friends with Hurd, but nothing like the "business twins separated at birth" relationship he has with Catz. So this is also a great way for Larry to keep his finger very directly on the company's everyday pulse.

Safra Catz and Mark Hurd, as shown on Oracle's investor relations pages. Image source: Oracle.

The role division also shows up in Oracle's public communications. Take Safra Catz's official profile, for example: at 103 words, it's a study in minimalism. You get all her salient facts -- titles, career highlights -- but nothing more.

By contrast, Hurd's profile includes a job description, several personal quotes, and you almost expect a picture of the family dog. It's an entirely different kind of presentation, and it makes Hurd much more of a public figure than Catz. And I think that's exactly the way everyone involved wants it.

The situation
So Mark Hurd may look like the face of Oracle to the uninitiated, but I'd propose that it's actually a huge smokescreen. Larry Ellison still sets the strategic direction from his chairman's seat, and Safra Catz executes that vision to perfection -- as always. If Ellison disappeared tomorrow, Catz's vision wouldn't be much different. And she appears perfectly fine with making Hurd the corporate spokesman and official go-getter.

It lets her get on with the real work, you know.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.