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This is the third in the series of articles by my friend, Dr.Art Chen , of his MIT ph.d. saga. It contains interesting history of the US corporate giants, such as IBM, RCA, and GE, of the second half of the 20thcentury as well as lessons of company hubris well worth knowing and remembering.
Lucky Decision, My First Job After Ph.D.
Mid 1960's was the golden age of corporate research when I received my Ph.D. from MIT. I had many opportunities with all major researchlabs (Bell Labs, IBM, DuPont, etc.) and came down to deciding between RCA Labs at Princeton, NJ or GE at Schenectady, NY. RCA was my first choice, Princeton was nice, near New York City and Schenectady was old, cold and 3-4 hours from any metropolitan area or Chinatown. I did, however, assessed that my manager to be at GE to be a nicer person to work for. The key factor in my decision was that my thesis advisor had some patent dispute with RCA. As I had already had problem in defending my Ph.D. thesis, there was no need to ask for more trouble so I decided on GE. I told my wife we will be there just for two years for me to get established.
So luckily joined GE turned out to be a great decision. The scope of the businesses was very wide providing me with many technical opportunities. And it was staffed with fewer engineers so there was lesscompetition. The management was supportive and informal, which fitted my personality.
After about 20 years, GE bought RCA in 1986. We visited RCA Labs after the acquisition to discuss possible integration plan and I was shocked at what I saw. Due to poor corporate management, RCA Labs was a shadow of its former self. The equipment was old and they were struggling to find a role within a changed RCA. GE finally donated RCA Labs to SRI to take it off its hand.
My fate would certainly have been different if I joined RCA instead of GE.
The two power corporate R&D labs, Bell Labs and IBM suffered similar but not as dramatic fall. AT&T lost its monopoly position.With the development of Internet, etc, Bell Labs could not keep up and it now a shadow of it’s former self.
IBM and its labs went thru the PC shock in the late 1980’s,where it had to change itself. I was invited to IBM lab at Armonk for an informal discussion on culture change in a corporate lab. Before I went to GE,it just went thru a change to orient its mission to work closer with GE’s businesses. IBM labs, being a part of a natural monopoly in the 1970’s, on the other hand set out to be top in science and win a Nobel Prize. It did win a Prize (GE won one in the 1930’s and in 1970’s), but in my opinion, it failed to help the future of IBM businesses. The primary one is in PC, where IBM had to source the microprocessor from Intel and the simple operating system from Microsoft. IBM lab had to go thru a rapid transformation. My schoolmate, whowas the head of the physics research, told me that he had to outplace half of his 600 staff to other IBM positions or to academia in less than six months.
Are there lessons to learned from this story? Luck in decision is important but also how you make the opportunity made available toyou.
As to future employer, it is difficult to determine a priori.One suggestion is aim at an employer, which is very competitive and do not suffer the complaisance of being a monopoly. But nothing is certain. I had a great 28 years career at GE and retired early over 20 years ago. Recent development in GE shows that no company is immune to poor corporate management.
Note added by Blogger Y.C.Ho on 11/14/2017:
GE stock lost 7.2% in one day trading yesterday because GE annouced dividend pay cut on her stock. You may also be interest to related articles of mine on CEO being the last dictator in a democracy. http://blog.sciencenet.cn/blog-1565-1068242.html , http://blog.sciencenet.cn/blog-1565-530569.html