Working at Bellcore
By John Vollaro February 2007
The complicated breakup of AT&T in the early 1980's divided
AT&T into a number of smaller corporations that were required to
compete with one another. Bell Labs remained part of AT&T but
could no longer provide research services to the newly formed telephone
companies. The new company that was formed for this purpose was called
Bell Communications Research (Bellcore for short). A large
majority of Bellcore employees were transferred directly from Bell Labs
and as a result, the corporate culture was in many ways similar to Bell
Labs. In addition the agreement allowed former Bell Labs employees to
keep their pension, vacation, and other benefits in the new company.
I began working for Bellcore in 1983 as a charter member of the
technical staff. In January 1984, the company was formally in business
and I began to survey the research possibilities. I was on my own now
and expected to make independent research proposals. I did not have a
PHD in any particular field and felt somewhat inadequately prepared for
When I looked back on my experience at Bell Labs I realized that my
strongest asset was the ability to create a working prototype that
demonstrated a novel concept. Many scientists whose work produced
theoretical results lacked this ability. It often made the difference
between a concept that was published and forgotten, and one that made
an impact in the real world. Recognizing this caused me to look for a
partnership that would exploit my ability to enable the transition from
concept to reality. I found such a partnership with Bhaskarpillai
Gopinath who went by the nick name of Gopi. He was noted for being
extremely creative but reluctant to be confined by the details of
Gopi conceived a scalable parallel processing architecture that was
truly unique. I liked the idea and saw a way to build a computer that
demonstrated the major aspects of the concept. I received a patent on
the design of my prototype which fostered the credibility of the
concept. The project grew and attracted talented people from several
other areas of expertise. A parallel processing language and compiler
now being developed to to write programs for the prototype computer. A
second patent was issued jointly to Gopi, David Cohen, and
myself for a compiler to work in conjunction with the prototype
Often when a project grows in size and complexity, its rate of progress
slows. This was the case with the project whose code name was now IC*.
Gopi became frustrated with the slower pace and blamed the beurocracy
at Bellcore. He decided to form an independent start up company to
solve this problem. Bellcore was willing to fund the new company but
Gopi was not happy with the restrictions it required. He looked
elsewhere for venture capital and negotiated a deal with Samsung.
Bellcore held the patents for the project but was willing to license
the technology to the new company. The license agreement was completed
but Gopi was not happy with the terms of the agreement with Samsung and
began to look elsewhere for funding.
While this was going on Gopi offered me a prominent position in the
new company that was officially named Information Machines. It would
mean trading my secure position at Bellcore for the opportunity and
adventure of a start up company. I thought long and hard about it but
finally declined. It would have required a risk tolerance far greater
than mine at the time.
As it turns out, Information Machines struggled to get started for
about a year but never quite made it. Gopi never returned to Bellcore.
Instead he became a professor at Rutgers. In 1999, about ten years
after leaving Bellcore, he founded Lotus Interworks, a communications
consortium which he currently heads.
I remained at Bellcore for seven years after Gopi
left. During that time I worked on several projects of my own. My final
project before retiring involved gathering information from the
telephone network that was used in a number of ways to improve service.
It was also used to detect fraudulent use of the telephone system.
In the early 1990's there was a good deal of
interest in analyzing the traffic flow and congestion in digital
networks. Most of the work used simulated data but there was little
real data to support the simulated results. Because of this I began
looking for a way to monitor and record data from the telephone
network. I noticed that all telephone switching equipment included a
test connector. Technicians plugged a set of earphones into the
connector and listened for a tone to determine if the line was active.
When I looked at the circuitry I discovered that the earphone jack was
connected directly to the digital data stream. This discovery made it
possible to connect a digital recorder to the network without altering
the equipment in any way. The fear of disrupting service in order to
connect monitoring equipment was a major deterrent to data collection
in the past. With this concern eliminated, I proceeded to build the
equipment required monitor and record the data.
After demonstrating the ability to collect real data
from a local telephone network in New Jersey, I took the equipment to
strategic points around the country. The data was used to verify
theoretical results and in one case uncovered a major fraudulent use of
In hindsight I can see where my career suffered from
a lack of formal education. On the positive side, the ability to
demonstrate complex concepts through a working prototype was a valuable
asset. It allowed me to work alongside some of the giants in the
communications industry, and to bring their theoretical work to
practical use. I consider myself fortunate to have had these
opportunities through the years, and to have enjoyed working on them so