Clinton New Jersey

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 this challenge.

    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 reality.

    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 systems concept. The project grew and attracted talented people from several other areas of expertise. A parallel processing language and compiler were 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 computer.

    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 the system.

    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 much,

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