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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
"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:
value to your employer."
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
our time by working twice as hard, weekends and nights, for a 24×7
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."
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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