The Legacy of Bellcore
Bell Labs, renamed from the original Volta Laboratory founded by Alexander Graham Bell, has been credited with many amazing advancements in the fields of computer science and telecommunication like the invention of the C Programming language and the operating system Unix. It has a great and complicated history as a subsidiary of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. When an anti-trust supreme court case broke up AT&T in 1982, Bell Labs was retained by AT&T while the local operations of AT&T were split up into the Regional Bell Operating Companies.
This separation meant that a whole sector of what was previously the AT&T company had no central organization for research and development – it was cut off from Bell Labs. The Regional Bell Operating Companies needed a place to centralize software, research, training, and settings. That’s why Bell Communications Research, Inc or Bellcore was created.
Bellcore was never a part of the official “Bell Labs” but it certainly is connected in that the administrative work that was previously being done in the historical Bell Labs now was being done in Bellcore. In fact, much of the staff and corporate culture of Bellcore was carried over from Bell Labs. Bellcore is better known as Telcordia- the later name given to this operation. The practical running and work culture of Bellcore has historically been and to some extent still is a mystery.
To gain more clarity about what Bellcore might have been working on in the years following the company’s break-up, I spoke to Nilesh Shah who was an employee at Bellcore in the 1980s. Nilesh Shah is now the CEO and founder of Nichetech, a consulting and software development company based in India.
Graduating from Stevens in 1984, he started working in Piscataway, New Jersey in 1986- the headquarters of Telcordia. As a masters student in computer science, he worked for 10 years at Bellcore as a programmer, senior programmer, consultant, senior consultant, and account executive for the company and was there for some interesting changes. For one he was there as the company transitioned away from Bell Labs and he went as far as saying “when I was at Bellcore, it was actually an extension of Bell Labs.”
Primarily, the role of Bellcore was the test out software and methods to make telecommunications (broadly information technology) more efficient. At the time that Nilesh worked in Piscataway, the primary form of communication was through landline phones. This technology was based on physical copper wires (trunks) which were laid out to connect one location to another. This technology was created by Bell Labs but had to be implemented in the seven different regional “Baby Bells” which provided telecommunication services to their respective regions. The software to do this was centralized at Bellcore.
Although 1986 might not seem so long ago, the computer technology of that time was vastly different from what we have now. For an archetypal example, Nilesh describes computers without external mouse technology. Sometime around 1987, the mouse input was introduced to the lab and everyone including the company’s phone operators had to be taught how to use it because it wasn’t something that people took for granted like we do now.
Nilesh’s first project at the company was called “JOBS” – he worked on the module called the Trunk Forecasting Service (TFS). This project entailed coding a software which would predict how much and where copper wire should be laid out for effective telephone communication. This seems like a simple code that even a COS126er might be able to implement. However, this project did not just involve creating code- it involved modifying the code that already existed in archaic computer languages like Cobol and taking the pre-existing copper lay out into consideration. This project was meant to be distributed to all of the Bell companies.
“There was a software legacy system [at Bellcore] which we had to continue. Since a lot of the programming was already in Cobol (a primitive computer language), we had to maintain it. At the same time we had to come up with a new technology to get a cutting-edge advantage. On one side I had to update Cobol to make sure it worked okay and on the other side I worked with new technology like a mouse based system.” Nilesh describes the complexities of working in an industry that is always changing but is still based on old infrastructure.
Another problem at the time, also rooted in past decisions made by programmers, was a lack of number portability. Therefore, while Nilesh was there, Bellcore was working on a project aimed to make phone numbers accessible throughout the country regardless of area code. The tricky part about this is the fact that each of the seven regional companies supplying service to different geographical regions were entirely separate. They only had Bellcore in common.
Enabling number portability was Nilesh’s last project at Bellcore and he was responsible for both implementing and overseeing the roll out of the software which allowed people with different area codes to use their numbers in any region. “I was the database administrator and the system had to go live one day. I was handling nineteen environments. I had to work thirty-six hours straight to make sure that all my systems were live on the designated day.” Nilesh describes that this was quite an important software update and involves much maintenance of databases containing the different phone numbers.
When asked about what the culture of Bellcore was like, Nilesh replied “Working culture was very open. However, at that time there was something of a glass ceiling for Indians in the company. Indians were not incorporated into management for a long time. But during my tenure, our last VP was an Indian man.” Nilesh himself received the President’s award (a high honor) while he was with the company and he managed to take up various management positions as well.
The skills that Nilesh learned in Bellcore have carried him far enough that now he has his own company. Nichetech is a company attempting to bring cutting-edge software and technology to India, still a couple of steps behind in terms of software infrastructure. Furthermore, the company also has clients in both the United States and in Canada. Nilesh travels often from Ahmedabad, Gujarat where he lives in India to New Jersey were he still has a residence. He hasn’t been involved in Bellcore for years now so all of the anecdotes he relayed might really give us a very small glimpse of what Bellcore might look like now but they are still valuable because Bellcore is a company worth contemplating in the context of history.
Bellcore has been bought and renamed over and over again. Perhaps, with each renaming, the company has changed a little bit. First it was given the name Telcordia, then it was subsumed by SIAC, and finally, it was taken over by Ericsson which still has this facility in Piscataway. It still has some loose connection to the legendary Bell Labs but apart from that, it has its own legacy as a research and development company.