Part 3

4 Dec

Chapter 3: 1975-1977: The DRP years

In the period from 1973 to 1975, Bell Labs began to phase down its involvement in military contracts, including the SOSUS project. I participated in a few system studies on how to improve and automate the information processing operations in SOSUS, with many trips to Washington to present recommendations to the Admiral in charge. Unfortunately, they wanted us to propose grandiose plans that would enhance their status, rather than the more modest, technically feasible plans we offered. I could understand the decision byBell Labs to phase down our participation — after all, we got involved in the first place because the Navy needed us, not because we needed them.

This phase-down brought about a staff reduction program in the Whippany laboratory with the rather euphemistic title: Special Personnel Adjustment Program (SPAP). The members of technical management, which included me, were instructed to rank-order our people in terms of technical performance. Then the bottom 10% in each department were “SPAP-ed”, i.e., they were given three months to find a job within Bell Labs, or look for a job elsewhere. No one in my group was in that bottom 10% of our department, but it didn’t have a good effect on our morale in terms of job security there. In fact, shortly later, two departments were suddenly transferred out of Whippany to a Bell Labs location in Illinois that was developing electronic switching systems to replace the old relay and cross-bar switching systems in the Bell System. Since there didn’t appear to be any control systems work at other Bell Labs locations in New Jersey, I contacted a group at Western Electric’s Electronic Research Lab in Princeton that was investigating techniques for automating some of the assembly processes in their manufacturing plants, and after some meetings with them, I proposed a joint project between my group and theirs. They were very interested, and so I discussed this with my department head and director, who were also in favor. We prepared a proposal for the joint Bell Labs/Western Electric research project and presented it to our executive director. His name was Robert Fletcher, and we knew him outside ofLabs work because he was the bishop at the Mormon church in Short Hills that Mary Jean and I had attended back when were still active in the church, and also because  he was the son of Harvey Fletcher (with whom I worked as a Research Asst. at Columbia). After I discribed the factory automation work and the expertise my control systems group would bring to it, he simply dismissed us with the remark, “I want you to bring me solutions, not problems” We tried to explain that we were bringing him a solution, but he wouldn’t listen.

My director and department head were as puzzled as I was by his reaction, since the work would be partly funded by Western Electric, which was, after all, a co-owner of Bell Labs. As I thought more and more about it, I recalled another puzzling event that occurred about a month earlier. After the success of my group in the SOSUS project, I had received several hints that I would soon be promoted to Department Head in our division at Whippany, and yet it never happened. I finally came to the conclusion that Robert Fletcher held a personal grudge against me for leaving the Mormon church. It was hard to believe that he would let that affect his management decisions; nevertheless, I felt it was necessary for me to get out from under his authority. — In retrospect, I feel he unknowingly did me a favor, because if I had been promoted to Department Head in the Whippany Lab, I seriously doubt that I would have been able to make the progress back into research at Bell Labs that is described later.

After some searching and interviewing at other Bell Labs locations, I accepted an offer as supervisor of a group at the Business Information Systems (BIS) laboratory in Piscataway(PY), NJ, and started work there on April 1, 1975. Although it was part of Bell Labs, the BIS laboratory was quite another world from that I had known in my first 15 years there. That place was created to develop and install computer software systems that would help the Bell System companies modernize and standardize the procedures for the division of long-distance revenues.

Each month the billions of dollars in Bell System long-distance revenue was divided between AT&T’s Long Lines division and the local telephone companies. A long-distance telephone call involved transmission from the sender’s telephone to a nearby central telephone office, then through the long-distance network of AT&T Long Lines to the central office of the telephone company at the destination, and then over its local lines to the receiver’s telephone. Although almost all of  telephone companies handling the domestic calls were part of the Bell System, it also included the few small independent phone companies, and all needed to get their share. The complicated procedure by which this billion-dollar pie was sliced up each month was called the Division of Revenues Process, or DRP.

Interstate revenues are divided among the companies in proportion to their contribution — including plant facilities and personnel — to the interstate telephone service. Here I quote from an article about DRP that appeared in the Bell Labs News on the occasion of our first installion of the DRP software at the Mountain Bell Telephone Computer Center in Denver:  “ ‘The difficulty,’ according to Winston Nelson, supervisor, Division of  Revenues Project, PY, ‘lies in the separation of just what is – and what isn’t – interstate investment and expense. Each customer’s telephone is used for both interstate and intrastate service.’ ” (To paraphrase Yogi Berra, I’m not sure I actually said everything they said I said.)

Thr BIS Piscataway facility was about 20 miles south of my home in Morristown, NJ, and was normally a 40-minute drive on I-287, traffic conditions permitting. After a while I was able to put together a car-pool of four other employees from the Morristown area, so I normally had to be the driver only once a week.

Luckily for me, my small DRP group consisted of nine very qualified programmers and one experienced DRP man (Lee Bauer, on loan from the Southwestern Bell Telephone Audit group) and we accomplished what none of the other BIS groups with many more programmers were able to do —  to go from the start of a complex software project to a successful installation in about eighteen months. What makes it even more remarkable is that through the entire 18-month period the above-quoted supervisor actually understood neither the DRP process nor the installed software program! I had simply concentrated on all of the nitty-gritty management details and, with Lee Bauer’s help, getting the agreement of the AT&T Audit group in New York City on the DRP system requirements. I had delegated the management of the system design and programming to my two sub-group leaders, Renee Mashey and Lee Bauer. My only technical contribution was the design of  a statistical algorithm that was used for filling short gaps in the data from the minutes-of-use recorders on the interstate calls. I also took some pride in my clever design of the DRP icon, which shows a gold dollar-sign pie sliced into four parts, with the pieces of the sliced-up dollar-sign showing the lower-case letters “d”, “r”, and “p”, when viewed from above or below:

 

 

 

(From the cover of our final report on the Divisions of Revenues Project)

         Soon after the Mountain Bell installation Adrian Vendenberg, who was the department head in charge of my DRP group and three other software development groups, told me he was retiring, and had recommended me to be his replacement. I was flattered, but also alarmed. If I accepted, I was afraid I would be stuck in the BIS management ranks for the rest of my Bell Labs career. “Purgatory in Piscataway” came to mind. …I thought, has there been a day here that I have not thought ‘What am I doing here?’ And the answer was ‘No’. I realized that I really had to get back into research work, even if it meant leaving Bell Labs. When I told Adrian this, he was sympathetic – I think he was glad to be leaving and understood my reluctance to be taking on his job. He said I should talk to our executive director, Victor Vyssotsky. He said Vic was very pleased with my group’s success and wanted me to accept the promotion, but since he was originally from Research Area 11 at Murray Hill, he would probably understand why I didn’t want to accept.

My meeting with Vyssotsky went as Adrian had predicted. He did indeed understand and sympathise with my reasons for declining the promotion. He asked his secretary to get me a copy of the Area 11 ‘Blue Book’, a loose-leaf notebook that listed currently planned projects in each department of  the research area. He said I should read through it and select three or four projects I felt qualified and interested in pursuing. When I had decided, I could discuss them with him, and he would talk with the department heads involved to see if they were interested in interviewing me.

The three projects I chose were all in departments of Division 113, the Communication Sciences Research division at Murray Hill. Vyssotsky knew the three department heads well, and after talking with them, he set up dates for me to visit each of them. If it turned out they were not interested in taking me on, I agreed I would leave Bell Labs and look for a job elsewhere. He asked me if I could propose someone to replace me there, and without hesitation I recommended Renee Massey. She had done an excellent job in organizing the programming work on DRP and I had no doubt she would love to continue doing it for DRP and the other department projects as well.

And, so it came to pass that after interviews with the three department heads (James Flanagan, Peter Denes, and Osamu Fujimora) and their director, Max Mathews, they all agreed that I could come to work on one of their projects on a one-year internship basis, with a permanent appointment conditional on my performance.

I accepted, chose the project on the mechanics of speech production project proposed by

Osamu Fujimura, and on April 1, 1977, exactly two years after I entered the DRP project at Piscataway, I transferred to his department at Murray Hill. I later learned that as I transferred to Murray Hill, a person was transferred from Murray Hill to Piscataway. The picture it evoked was of a prisoner exchange across a bridge connecting two different countries, as Bell Labs Piscataway and Bell Labs Murray Hill indeed were!.

 

 

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