Bell Labs goes looking for lost mojo

27 December 2013 by Steve Blum
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First we’ll invent Unix, then we’ll figure out what to do with it.

When Silicon Valley was just pear orchards and a junior university, and a google was an obscure bit of math trivia, the wellspring of geek creativity was a continent away. Bell Labs sprawled across several campuses in northern New Jersey, filled with scientists and engineers who were paid to come up with interesting ideas and novel technology. Not necessarily marketable products, although it was correctly assumed that profits would follow somehow. Partly because the Bell System was a monopoly with profits more or less determined by regulators on a cost-plus basis, but mostly because Bell Labs delivered: the transistor, Unix, C, fiber optics, CDMA, TDMA and the list goes on.

The break up of AT&T thirty years ago brought an end to that cloistered world. Even as it was collecting Nobel prizes for past glories, Bell Labs was bouncing from one corporate parent to another, continually shedding talent and narrowing its scope, and finally ending up as a vestigal stump in an R&D backwater of Alcatel-Lucent.

It seems, though, that Alcatel-Lucent has woken up to the fact that the smart boys and girls are not just hanging out at the Jersey shore these days. Corporate CTO Marcus Weldon was also named president of Bell Labs in November and, according to LightReading, he’s going to try to lure them back…

Weldon will be looking to add some people to the Bell Labs team, though some will also be lost as part of [previously announced] layoffs. The R&D operation lost people to the web giants in Silicon Valley a decade ago. “We need to hire some people who would otherwise work there. We’ll be hiring some talent in that area.”

Weldon is promising to give Bell Labs interesting and important problems to solve. If he and his bosses have the wisdom and patience to let the answers fall naturally from those problems and not be driven by predetermined corporate roadmaps, some of the mojo might return.

I had a summer job at Bell Labs’ Piscataway campus in the 70s, but all I figured out was how to use this odd interconnecting network to log onto the system back in Berkeley and play Star Trek.