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This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the April 16, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

The Decline of a Research Jewel

Everybody knows someone who works at — or was perhaps

downsized from — AT&T, Bell Labs, Lucent, Bellcore, or any of

the spinoffs from these telecom companies. In "Bell Labs: Life

in the Crown Jewel" (Silicon Press, $29.95), an insider tells

what really happened over the last 20 years as Ma Bell and her famous

research laboratories were dismembered, piece by piece.

Until recently, for a programmer or research engineer, Bell Labs was

the place to work. "Bell Labs had the most fantastic collection

of famous people making an impact on the world, so you wanted to be

there," says author Narain Gehani, citing the lab’s six

Nobel Prize winners plus the winner of a Turing award for computing.

(Daniel C. Tsui, now a professor at Princeton University, won the

1989 Nobel Prize for work on new particles with fractional charges

that he did at Bell Labs along with two other Nobel Laureates in 1982.)

Gehani discusses his new book on Wednesday, April 23, at 7:30 p.m.

at Barnes & Noble in North Brunswick. Call 732-545-7966.

"You could go to Murray Hill any time of the day and find someone

there. There was no other place that was comparable," says Gehani.

"You were not hired to fit into AT&T’s business agenda but to

become famous and make AT&T more famous, and you were free to pursue

your passion. If it so happened that your work helped AT&T, that was

gravy for AT&T."

The son of a bureaucrat, Gehani is a graduate of the Indian Institute

of Technology in Delhi, and has a graduate degree from Cornell. Gehani’s

book was published by his wife, Indu, who has a small press and has

published 25 books (www.silicon-press.com). Her company’s output

includes the most recent fiction work by Roberta Clipper Sethi (U.S.

1, January 8, 2003). Sethi heads the English department at Rider University

and edited Gehani’s Bell Labs book.

Unlike the "dotcom dotgone" sagas that are popular now, Gehani’s

book tells about the decline of a revered, venerable institution.

It’s a must read if someone you know worked there or if you are curious

about what goes on in big organizations in various stages of duress.

Gehani clearly describes the various technologies that

engineers never seem to have time to explain to lay people. You can

bypass these sections but — as when you visit a science museum

— if you stop and read the labels you can educate yourself.

This book does not have the drama of the best "fly on the wall"

studies of corporate maneuvering, written in the third person by a

non-participant. Rather it is more like the viewpoint of an ant in

a tunnel — a high ranking ant, to be sure — who tells what

happens around him. What makes this complicated story palatable to

an IT outsider are Gehani’s experiences and opinions. You feel like

you’ve been there with him, and you know what he was thinking at every

turn.

"Until the late 1980s," Gehani writes, "Bell Labs cared

only about academic research excellence. AT&T was content to let Bell

Labs Research operate like a university because it did not cost AT&T

anything. The money came from the telephone users in the form of slightly

higher rates. As a regulated monopoly, AT&T was guaranteed a minimum

profit. The regulatory agencies allowed AT&T to set rates that would

take into account the expense of running Bell Labs. Thus, AT&T charged

its customers higher rates with the full blessing of the U.S. government,

which was happy with the scientific advances emanating from Bell Labs

and the perception that Bell Labs was a national treasure."

"However, when AT&T shed its monopoly status, the rules of the

game changed, which meant that AT&T would have to fund Bell Labs from

its revenues, thus reducing its profits. Consequently, AT&T expected

Bell Labs to help it compete by developing technologies that would

lead to new products and services."

"With the 1984 divestiture, AT&T went from being a mega giant

monopoly to an `ordinary’ telecommunications giant that had to compete

for business. AT&T spun off seven Baby Bells. Bell Labs, which used

to be a separate company, became a division of AT&T (AT&T Bell Labs),"

writes Gehani. Bellcore, to be the research lab for the Baby Bells,

would be acquired by SAIC and become Telcordia.

A voluntary breakup in 1996, which Gehani says was the largest in

the history of corporate USA, separated AT&T Bell Labs into AT&T Labs

and Lucent Bell Labs. Lucent was to be a systems and equipment company

that could sell products to AT&T’s competitors. After hitting its

peak Lucent’s stock dropped in March, 2000, so it spun off an enterprise

business (Avaya) and a microelectronics business (Agere). By early

2002 Lucent had been reorganized into two business units, InterNetworking

Systems (INS) for wireline service products and Mobility Solutions

for wireless products.

"With each split or sale of business," Gehani writes, "the

business activities of Bell Labs’ parent narrowed, which in turn reduced

the research areas of potential interest to the parent. This was compounded

by the fact that the telecommunications market first exploded and

then shrank quickly. Lucent’s difficulties led to the downsizing of

Bell Labs and a shift of focus away from basic research towards working

with the business units. "

In each chapter Gehani offers variations on his theme,

that (to quote Oscar Hammerstein) the cowboys and the farmhands could

not be friends, that the business side of the company hated working

with the researchers and vice versa.

"The business units viewed the researchers as prima donnas who

were hard to manage. The researchers did not want to work on projects

and topics that addressed business unit needs. Instead, they simply

wanted to peddle their pet research projects," Gehani writes.

"If the product manager disagreed with the researchers, then all

hell would break loose because the researcher’s view of the disagreement

would quickly reach his business unit leadership. Researchers had

direct connections to the top research leaders while the product manager,

because the business units were hierarchical, had to go through several

levels of management. For the product manager, it was just simpler

to not deal with research."

Also embedded in this account of a venerable institution is a story

of a ’90s dotcom. Gehani founded his own dotcom within Bell Labs Research.

Called Maps On Us, it was a GPS mapping company, similar to but considered

better than MapQuest. He made some predictable mistakes, including

hiring the wrong salesperson, and found himself being second-guessed

by a CEO that his parent company had installed over his protests.

The company was sold (perhaps too hastily, he says in retrospect)

and MapQuest now dominates the market.

In an interview, pressed for career advice, Gehani says to stay out

of big companies in a shaky economy. "But when I was there, it

was not shaky." His advice:

Have a skill. "Make sure what you do is adding significant

value to your employer."

Learn about more than one part of the business. "As

a researcher I had never met a customer. We had a low opinion

about sales, but that is the toughest part of the business." In

his climb up the ladder he learned how to deal with unpopular moves

such as being required to rank employees and fire those who ranked

lowest.

Work hard and with passion. "For Maps on Us we invested

our time by working twice as hard, weekends and nights, for a 24×7

service business."

Take action on your own. "We were supposed to have

an equity position in Maps on Us but it got muddled up before we could

spin it out. There were many players who had no investment in what

we had done but made decisions that somebody who had invested in the

building of the company would not have made. It is very hard to spin

out a company from a big company. But if you really believe in it,

follow it with a great deal of vigor and perhaps on your own."

Where would he tell his older son, just entering Princeton University,

to seek employment? "If I wanted to do research, universities

would be attractive. If you were a computer scientist and had a practical

bent, Microsoft and IBM would be good. But unfettered research, where

you do what you feel a passion for, is for the very few. Each of these

places can give only a few people that freedom."

Gehani quotes Alexander Graham Bell : "Leave the beaten track

occasionally and dive into the woods. You will be certain to find

something you have never seen before."

— Barbara Fox

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