Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel
... fascinating and highly recommended ...
As an author, [Gehani] is gifted with a smooth writing style and an ability to arrange the material in a way that keeps the reader interested.
This is a fascinating book describing technology and people in change and under stress. ... Gehani captures a short magical moment in time and an environment that can probably never occur again.
If you're in Information Technology, it's a must read.
It's an important work, congratulations!
Midwest Book Review
Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel by web technologies, software and database expert Narain Gehani showcases the history and modern-day workings of one of the most successful research labs of the twentieth century. Narain Gehani draws upon his experience as a former employee who worked faithfully at Bell labs for 23 years. A fascinating and highly recommended account, Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel offers unique and informative insights into the daily life and workints of this nationally famous research institution, complete with accounts of corporate jostlings, research excellence, office politics, and much more.
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Robert M. Siegmann
ACM Ubiquity Magazine
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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Stephen G. Eick, CEO & CoFounder, Visintuit, LLC
In many people's opinion, Bell Labs has been the premier research institution for much of the last half century. Bell Labs Research, funded initially by the Bell System and subsequently by AT&T and then Lucent, has yielded Nobel prizes, significant advances in science, and breakthrough technologies. The institution thrived during the stable period preceding the massive disruptions caused by deregulation in the telecommunications industry, the Internet boom and its subsequent crash. Starting with divestiture, when AT&T separated from the regional Bell Operating companies, covering trivestiture, when AT&T spun out Lucent and NCR, through the bubble years, and ending with Lucent divestures, Gehani chronicles day-to-day activities in an organization going through a huge cultural shift and mission change.
This is a fascinating book describing technology and people in change and under stress. Bell Labs hired superb scientists and engineers who were individual superstars and gave them an environment that encouraged free collaboration. Gehani does a wonderful job in capturing the day-to-day tensions and forces. Pre-divesture, academic excellence was the paramount research goal. Post-divesture, the goal subtly shifted toward technology development and business impact. Bell Labs researchers created technologies that competed with the best that Silicon Valley had to offer. Although there are some notable successes, Gehani describes many research projects that are scientific breakthroughs and engineering marvels that just didn't quite match the sales channels though existing business units. Similarly, the business units did not understand how to leverage the preeminent scientists and engineers working at Bell Labs. The resulting frustration and organizational responses including creating internal venturing opportunities are accurately portrayed.
Although Gehani covers the value system, compensation, performance review, distributed management, and other ingredients of research life, he is a superb technologist who, like many of his colleagues at Bell Labs, is interested in making a difference. His insights into the exciting and circuitous paths that many projects, some of which were massively successful, took from conception to completion are particularly insightful. He details his own experience building and commercializing a car navigational system that eventually became the "Map On Us" internet route planning service that is used by tens of thousands of people daily. Although Lucent unfortunately dropped this service, Gehani's competitor was sold to AOL for $1.1 Billion!
As a former Bell Labs Researcher who worked at research locations in Murray Hill (New Jersey), and Indian Hill (Naperville, Illinois), I have first hand experience with many of the incidents that Gehani describes. I left Bell Labs in 1999 with one of the Lucent spinouts to commercialize the research technology that we developed, and thus missed the worst of the telecommunications collapse but caught the dot-com collapse head on. I appreciate this book because Gehani captures a short magical moment in time and an environment that can probably never occur again.
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