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Diomidis Spinellis Publications

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Book Review: Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel

Diomidis Spinellis
Athens University of Economics and Business

Narain Gehani
Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel
Silicon Press, Summit, NJ, 2003
256 pp.

Bell Labs is an interesting and thought-provoking book. A few problems will distract the reader, so I’ll start with them to get them out of the way. First of all, the writing is often repetitive: key ideas and entire phrases are repeated dozens of times in the text. In addition, the book’s composition leaves a lot of room for improvement: text quotations are often set in the same style as subsection titles, while the title capitalization employed can best be described as idiosyncratic. Finally, the material is presented in a disorganized fashion, lacking a thread to keep ideas and the flow of time in line. These flaws surprised me, because Dr. Gehani’s earlier work [1] is exemplary edited, typeset, and organized. After reading “Bell Labs” one can not help but think that the first book benefited from being written in a work environment that no longer exists; the difference in quality between the two books could well symbolize the end of an era in corporate-funded world-class research institutions.

Which brings us to the book’s subject: a personal perspective of the decline of Bell Labs from a 18,000 person R&D organization in 1978 when Dr. Gehani joined AT&T to the 500 person research part of Lucent in 2002. The contributions of Bell Labs to science and engineering are phenomenal. Bell Labs researchers have won six Nobel Prizes and one Turing Award, filing in the process almost 30,000 patents. The transistor, the laser, the cellular telephone system, the Unix operating system, and the C and C++ programming languages were all invented or developed there. The description of the author’s long journey starting as a researcher and ending as a senior manager and entrepreneur through AT&T divesture, trivesture, the Lucent trivesture, and the Labs downsizing brings to the forefront a number of interesting points, and raises even more unsettling questions.

Anyone reading the book, and especially those responsible for the strategic planning and funding of research, would be interested to know, how Bell Labs achieved its remarkable scientific research prowess. The answers are straightforward, and are lucidly detailed in the book. Hiring the best people, letting them work on the research topics they chose, allowing them to set and work on a long term agenda, paying them salaries that could be 60% higher than the equivalent in academia, and keeping management interference to a minimum, where apparently key practices. An excellent working environment also helped. The author explains how, unlike university professors, researchers came to work for the whole day, and were not distracted by other chores; they could also hire a programmer to help them, and did not thus have to rely on inexperienced and transient student help. Travel grants, long distance calls, equipment, interactive computing facilities, and private copies of books were all liberally provided. The excellent library was staffed with reference librarians and research specialists. Simple things really, but apparently uncommon nowadays.

The questions readers will ask themselves while reading the book are even more interesting. At their prime Bell Labs were financed from the deep coffers of the AT&T monopoly. Could such a monopoly be a small price to pay for the scientific advances made by the Labs? If the answer is no, how can a democratic society fund and manage world class science in an accountable way? Dr. Gehani details how he joined Bell Labs in 1978 thinking he had a job for life as a researcher at a crown jewel institution. Later on he had to endure painful rounds of downsizing, difficult career choices, and the closure of a facility he was put in charge of. What do the career choices a researcher makes today really mean? The author also describes the repeated difficulties and frustration he and his colleagues faced trying to “sell” their research to the company’s business units. The problems of exploiting research results culminated with the formation of a startup venture to develop and market an advanced navigation system; this promising undertaking turned out to be a big disappointment for all involved. So how can a company extract value from bright pioneering research? Can research be managed without stifling innovation? If today’s companies are not willing to fund research in the manner and scale AT&T funded Bell Labs, where will the transistor’s successor be invented? We should all be thankful to Dr. Gehani for making us ask these questions.

[1] Narain Gehani. Document Formatting and Typesetting on the UNIX System. Silicon Press, Summit, NJ, second edition, 1987.