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Review of "Bell labs: Life in the Crown Jewel" by Narain Gehani, Silicon Press

Ubiquity, Volume 2003 Issue February, February 1 - February 28, 2003 | BY Robert M. Siegmann 

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Competition in the telecommunications industry has come at a tremendous cost


Competition in the telecommunications industry has come at a tremendous cost

Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel, Narain Gehani, Silicon Press, ISBN 0-929306-27-9, 2003, 269 pages, Hardcover, $29.95 (US Dollars)

In his book, Dr. Narain Gehani has delivered an insider's chronology and commentary of the birth, life, radical transformation and downsizing of Bell Labs. This former world-class research organization has, over the years, made outstanding contributions to science.

From 1978 to 2001, Dr. Gehani worked at Bell Labs in several capacities, but mostly in software technology for the research arm of Bell Labs in Murray Hills, New Jersey. In this personally engaging and often informative story he gives an account of the culture and accomplishments of this pure research organization. He first traces its glory days under the old AT&T, before the forced divestiture in 1984. He then details the many changes from 1984 to its current near-extinction status as a part of Lucent. As a researcher and then a research manager, he shares many interesting real-life insights, amusing stories and his view of the impact of corporate business dynamics. The book would be useful to anyone seeking an inside look and assessment of how one large, pure research, organization operated first in a monopolistic and then a competitive business environment.

Apparently in Dr. Gehani's effort to organize his material in a more entertaining and engaging way, he felt it necessary to repeat many of his main themes and points over and over again. For example, one of these themes is the dilemma that a pure researcher faces when confronted with the reality of working for a company that has moved from a monopolistic to a competitive business environment. He details how a typical researcher's old work psyche of being in charge of everything he does is dramatically changed after his company enters a highly competitive business market. Nevertheless, the author is quite creative in the way he repeats his themes, but the "déjà vu" feeling is always present as one progresses through the book. In the description of those projects in which he was personally involved as a researcher or a manager, the author elaborates on his role in and contribution to each project.

My favorite chapter was "The Crown Jewel" (Chapter 2), in which the author describes how the old Bell Labs (before the 1984 divestiture), was justifiably the ultimate place for a pure researcher to work. "Life In Murray Hill" (Chapter 3) was a good follow-up to Chapter 2 in that he gave many personal observations, anecdotes and illustrations of what life was like in this ideal research environment. In subsequent chapters he describes the impact that AT&T's trivestiture in 1996 had on the Bell Labs researchers' esprit de corps. The intervening material, from Chapter 4 to the last chapter, was informative, but mostly provided a setting for the author to exercise creative ways of restating his underlying themes introduced in the first few chapters. This additional material does, however, provide the reader with a glimpse of a number of successful projects and Bell Labs triumphs. Alas, also recorded were a litany of potentially viable projects that got bogged down in the morass of corporate politics, organizational change and management indecision.

In the last chapter entitled "Most Fantastic Place!" the author once again reiterates the essence of the organizational elements of his story as follows:

"Bell Labs became the greatest research lab of the twentieth century because AT&T was able to pump large amounts of money into it, which allowed Bell Labs to hire the best researchers, buy them the latest equipment and let them do research unencumbered by business restraints. After 1984, AT&T's revenues were not guaranteed, but they were still substantial enough for AT&T to let Bell Labs operate as before. However, this scenario could not continue for long because AT&T did not fare well in a competitive environment. Revenues did not grow as AT&T had hoped and, in addition, AT&T was losing market share to its competitors.

Bell Labs needed to change since its parent AT&T had undergone radical surgery . . ."

In 1996 AT&T split into three separate companies. One of the new companies, Lucent, was chosen to host most of the groups that were part of the old Bell Labs research organization. Dr. Gehani continues:

"Lucent is a much smaller company than the old AT&T that has been forced to shrink dramatically after its birth in tandem with the fall in its revenues. The Bell Labs budget that Lucent can now fund is much smaller because Lucent is operating in an extremely competitive and a very difficult telecommunication market."

I believe the book has historical merit since it records some of the history of the magnificent Bell Labs as an effective pure research "experiment". As mentioned earlier, the book is also useful for those who want to look inside the covers at how a large research organization operates. Dr. Gehani's book can be viewed as a tribute to the hundreds of dedicated scientists and their incredible contribution to science and mankind. As an author, he is gifted with a smooth writing style and an ability to arrange the material in a way that keeps the reader interested. Above all, he is able to punctuate the dryness of facts with interesting human foibles, conflicts and stories.

And the point of it all? I think when we net it all out: Competition in the telecommunications industry has come at a tremendous cost -- our country has lost its crown jewel.

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