Monday, March 22, 2004
Bjarne Stroustrup on AT&T/Bell Labs
I asked Dr. Stroustrup to elaborate on what he said in this article (see previous post) about some advantages AT&T Bell Labs had over universities, and he replied:
"I don't really want to be dragged into a debate, but think of this: AT&T Bell labs had 1,000 hand-picked PhDs concentrated in a few interrelated areas supported by development organizations consisting of many thousand good engineers (all with masters degrees). A good university department has maybe 30 to 60 PhDs, many closely focussed on getting tenure. It's a world of difference, except that the AT&T Bell Labs I describe no longer exists."
I also asked what specific reward mechanisms AT&T Bell Labs had that universities don't, and he replied:
"The reward mechanisms were just one thing, but compared to universities, there were a significantly higher emphasis (read money, status, job security) on doing something radically different, clean, but practical. The chance to see your work on a world scale was a huge motivator. The absence of "publish or perish" was a huge factor in being able to keep your eyes on the ball for years, rather than having to follow the raise and fall of fads and fashions. A very open community where you could always find someone really smart and experienced to discuss new ideas with was in itself a reward and a motivator. There's simply nothing like it. if you haven't seen it, you probably wont understand or believe it. And then you didn't have to struggle for promotion: staying technical was a real option.
I use the past tense thinking about AT&T Bell labs (and before that Bell telephone Labs, Inc.) at one of its heights - trying to stay out of the debates about the present at AT&T Labs and Lucent bell Labs."
(Thanks to Dr. Stroustrup for the prompt and thorough reply)