KaThunk

When I left day-to-day contributing at Finisar in early 2006, I wondered if it was not possible to teach others some of what we learned in those early years. So began my journey working with small companies somewhere between being an angel investor and a venture capitalist. Probably the best and worst aspect of this has been that I have done it without having a VC firm surrounding me.

The advantage of working inside a VC firm is that I could learn from their collective wisdom – what to avoid in terms of standard and well-known pitfalls. Right away it was clear that the Finisar experience was not sufficient to be able to help well. The disadvantage, I suspect, is that I would not see deals that are so raw and entrepreneurs that are so green.

All that I do today I collect under the name Small World Group. While this activity can range from engineering to investing to venture philanthropy and non-profits, I almost always stick to the lean way that Finisar was able to grow using our own money.

Keeping with the Finisar model, all of the companies (where I am an investor, board member) have sales. This was critical part of Finisar’s success, to have sales from a very early stage and it is a tipping point for my participation. The benefit for small companies to have sales early and steadily is not only that revenues help their cash flow. Sales and customers serve as a constant reminder to the small team that their goal is to create a business, not a technology. And the most important element of a business is to attract new customers and to hold onto existing ones. Customers keep the small venture entrepreneurial and not just creative for its own sake.

Today I have helped fund and established 3 companies where portions of the Finisar model are functioning, specifically all of these have sales. And I am actively engaged with another 3 that have ongoing operations that have consistent profits.

Additionally, there are 6+ more groups that are not yet full start up businesses where the engagement level is pre-seed. These groups need help in defining directions, thinking through funding levels, identifying early customers or government grants whereby they could get started as a business.
With these groups, typically there are periodic meetings where we don’t just sit and talk. Generally we try to work together to find some low cost and early way to engage with customers. Can we partner with someone to get funding for a prototype? What steps should they take in order to get to a valuation of their business that they like and that will be acceptable to a traditional VC?

Outcomes of these meetings typically have tasks for both the group and me to perform. I am to find a place where they could test a prototype, to find a development partner, to identify some IP that could improve their efforts quickly. For the group, the tasks are to write a plan, build elements of a prototype, produce some data, take some risk out of a design.

On the garage.com website there are shown the top 10 lies of VC and one of these is “We like early stage investing.”  Traditional VC firms no longer like to engage in company building at this very small level. The reasons for this are legion but most significant is that today’s funds are so large in terms of funds to invest that to work with a group to place $500K or even $2M would mean that the firm might have to have 100s of separate investments.

But for me, working with small groups who are trying to get started is exactly where I like to be and what I like to do. I like the chaos and uncertainty. The problem is how to do this efficiently and to choose the groups where some engagement will make a real difference. And to realize that there are no magic meetings where all things get settled, that even here there is process and that it takes substantial time.

Mark Farley (Finisar’s long time SVP of engineering) and I used to have a development model that we liked when the chaos surrounding an idea was particularly great. We would say that early development was the act of getting more and more potentially good ideas out on the table. And as this happens teams start to think of how it all can work together. But we would realize that the moment of truth was coming.

We called it the KaThunk. As people contributed to a new and somewhat undefined goal, there would be a large ball of ideas on the table. It was growing at a fast rate. All the ideas that were a part of this ball looked important as they were added. But ultimately some are not. Many are not. The KaThunk is when the ball of ideas somehow rapidly shrinks due to a rearranging of the really good ideas and the tossing out, at least for now, of the ideas that don’t really fit. Visualize a ball of 1-2 meters in diameter somehow miraculously shrinking down to 10 cm  and there is some loud noise that sounds like KaThunk!  And from that point on the team looks at the ball and all there can see how the project can be done faster and with much less risk. All there see how they can make an important contribution. And, in the best of situations, all agree that the ideas tossed don’t need to be argued about until the KaThunk project and goals are achieved.

When it happens well, KaThunk is visceral.

To enter my version of the formative stage you will need to-

  • Articulate big vision
  • Exhibit humbleness about expectations, this is key to KaThunk
  • Have a short term plan where product and customer targets are clear
  • Have some early revenue scheme that keeps you customer centric
  • Demonstrated a strong willingness to be tight with money

Small World Group Scope
All of the activities I engage in today go under the banner of Small World Group. I tell folks that I called it a group just so I would not feel lonely. But today, there are 3-4 of us, so I guess we are a small group.

The activities discussed in this essay go under the title of Small World Capital. In this arm of our work we engage with companies through teaching, investing and partnering with others.
SWG has a philanthropic side, Small World Group Institute, where we work in a relatively under served part of the non-profit sector. Philosophically speaking philanthropy has historically been classified into 2 broad categories –

  1. “give a man a fish” so that he does not starve today
  2. “teach a man to fish” so that he can feed himself more steadily in the future

But I like to think there can be another element to this.  That is worded as follows –

  1. “create teaching universities” where art of fishing can taught, researched and expanded.

SWG Institute works with folks that want to create fishing universities. Sometimes this means we work directly with existing universities, sometimes with research institutes. But in the future we hope to find a uniquely entrepreneurial way to do this 3rd category for decades to come. Stay tuned.

And yes, KaThunk applies on this side of things as well.

Small World Engineering engages directly in projects, sometimes in collaboration with the companies or non-profit groups where we are otherwise engaged. This can take the form of writing software, building circuit boards, filing patents or working with customers to understand a need better.

Posted in Essays, Investing, StartUp Ideas

Human Metrics – How We Differ

(This essay was published originally in April, 2002)

Many of you read this column to learn more about events and people at Finisar, and it is my goal to accommodate your wishes for this information. So today, I report to you on a recent management meeting at Finisar that produced some interesting results for the company, and fascinating personal insights for me individually.

In order to put this into the proper perspective, please click here to read some background material on what we were trying to accomplish when we gathered together about 30 people from Finisar’s leadership for a team building exercise. The tool we used was a personality test based on the work of Swiss psychologist and philosopher Carl Gustav Jung, a colleague of pioneering Austro-Hungarian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

It may be more illuminating for you if you take this test yourself before reading further. This will enable you to compare yourself to some of the people here at Finisar. If you’d like to do that, please click here, then press the button that says “Do It”. This should take less than ten minutes of your time.

After you get the results, I encourage you to click on the additional links provided below to read more about your predicted personality type.

If you’re intrigued by this analysis, there is an opportunity on the same Web site to take additional tests about your suitability as an entrepreneur as well as your compatibility with a marriage partner. (Note – The first test is free, but the last two tests require a small fee charged by the people who run the site. No portion of the fee goes to Finisar or to me; moreover, I am not certain at all of the overall validity of these tests.)

To visit one additional site that provides even more details more about the Jung/Myers-Briggs personality types and relationships, please click here.

Success Takes All Kinds
The first time I completed the personality test, my score indicated that I was an ENTP. One day later, I took a similar test and it analyzed me as an INFP. So, I went from a thinking extravert to a feeling introvert in just 24 hours. From what I have read, it is not unusual to get a different type rating on successive tests. Answering just one question differently can swing your score the other way. Perhaps you’ll have the same experience if you take the test more than once.

Eighteen people in our management group at Finisar scored as ESTJ. According to the literature, this means they are extroverts, view the world through their senses (realists), like to use data and facts to reach conclusions and are inclined to judge. Eight people in our group were ENTx and one person (our HR manager) was an ENFP. So now you have some insight into some of the leaders here at Finisar.

As it turns out, it is common for successful high-tech companies to have many people with ESTJ personalities. This type of thinking pattern is required to accomplish difficult technical projects, on time and with all of the goals met. So you see, we have a boatload of people at Finisar with the right stuff.

Interestingly enough, technology companies also need some ENTx behavior types because these folks are more likely to be successful entrepreneurs. You have to be careful about having too many ENTx types, however, or chaos can result and nothing will get done. These people are less schedule-oriented and more likely to postpone decisions. They often make leaps of faith based on sparse amounts of information. But sometimes this is what it takes to get a business started.

Every company needs people who understand how things work in social communities: someone who understands people’s feelings and how relationships work. The head of HR at Finisar fits this description perfectly, thank goodness.

Behavior classifications provide a way to look at other people and understand how they are different. At some level, I believe that everyone is egocentric and this leads us to perceive that everyone thinks and behaves like we do. But this is nothing more than a convenient mental illusion. We are different and this is what makes our world so interesting.

If you have the time to get together with a few friends, family members or colleagues and take the tests referenced above, you can prove that people are very different. Unresolved personality differences can cause arguments and misunderstandings, and as you come to understand this, you can better understand the relationships in your private life as well as those within your company. You can also gain important insights into the richness and value of the cultural and behavioral tapestry that makes up our world.

Applying These Theories at Home
In addition to corporate team building, there are deeply personal ways to benefit from these analytical tests. Here are a few books on personality types, relationships and self-awareness that might interest you (once again, none of the proceeds go to Finisar or to me and it is quite possible that they may lull you into a deep sleep!).

Personality tests may be an accurate measure of past behavior, but they certainly are not to be the final word on how we act and interact going forward.

Does your present behavior conform to the way you want to live and present yourself to the world? Are there decisions you make or things you do repeatedly that you would like to change?

I am convinced that one reason my score moved from ENTP on the first day to INFP on the second day was that I spent some time thinking about how I was living my life. Many times it is likely that our current behavior may be less than desirable for those close to us, like our families. Behavior is something we can change. For me this began with some mental adjustments and those were reflected in answers on the second test.

Jung believed that everyone is part extravert and part introvert. However, most people in modern society (roughly 75 percent) are more inclined towards extraversion than introversion.

Extraverts gain energy from spending time with groups of people. In my case, I can be extravert, but there are also times when it is important to be alone to reflect and re-energize. Since 1999, when Finisar went public, there have been increasingly fewer of these moments.

Each time i have moved to a new home. I have looked carefully at the design and features the perspective home includes. One desirable feature that came up repeatedly was a generous quiet space. When the home is designed from scratch, I took extra care in the design of the first floor and especially our study. The result was a quiet room with computers and comfortable reading chairs, good lighting and warmth. We moved the only television to its own place and then insulated that room for sound isolation so that our main living space now has no TV to make noise or dominate the interactions of our family. These space changes have made it easier for us to relax and for us to recharge our mental batteries.

Thinking about the different test scores of the two different test scores, it seems possible that the manner in which we spend our time has a lot to say about our behavior and the way our personality is perceived by others. We hope our new quiet space will effect such a change.

Fair Warning and Disclaimer
I am not trained in psychology, and I’m far from being an expert on the Jung/Myers-Briggs personality tests described above, so please consider the opinions expressed in this column as those of an optical networking scientist, not a psychologist. At the same time, please explore a few of the links provided so that you might be able to learn something new about yourself and perhaps have some fun with your family and co-workers.

Posted in Personal Stories

My Brush with Big Time Rock & Roll

(original essay published in January 2002)

One of my favorite stories about Finisar is how we got started in the optical module business. Today, this is our largest market segment, but it was not exactly what we planned when we started out.

It’s important to note that Finisar wasn’t started with a grand plan in mind. I was stuck in a dead end job without a future. So, I quit my job, convinced my former employer to hire me back as a consultant, and rented some space in a corrugated tin-covered Quonset hut in Menlo Park, California. Today that same building complex is the largest privately owned solar powered industrial space in California with an installed capacity of 400 KW!

Along with a few colleagues, I did consulting work for Raynet, Bellcore and then Tekna (a scuba diving company). Then in August 1990, a fellow called us up with an interesting proposition. He was the engineering director of what was essentially an intellectual property and marketing shell. The company had a clever name, Explore Technology, and that described precisely what they were doing.

Explore Technology had been awarded a patent for their ability to “burst” data from an audio or video server to a client at faster than real time rates. (Ultimately this group was able to license this technology to Microsoft and other large companies) They wanted to contract with us to do the engineering while they focused on marketing the idea. The first step was to deliver a demonstration prototype for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 1991.

We were hungry for business so we agreed.

Creating our Technology Edge
We designed a solid-state disk drive, SCSI based, 128 MB of DRAM, which at the time cost $30,000 to build – just for the parts. The memory was dual-ported. The first port was standard SCSI and the second was a Gb/s serial data port that would drain the entire memory from the box in a couple of seconds or less. For its day, it was pretty cool.

Finisar also developed, at its own expense, a transceiver to connect the video-on-demand server to the client. This transceiver was based on CD laser technology, HotRod Gb/s chips from Gazelle (later a part of Triquint) and other chips we acquired wherever we could find them.

We were pleased that somehow it all worked.

We finished assembling the boxes over the Christmas holidays, loaded two sets of them into a rented van and drove to Las Vegas for the 1991 CES. We set them up on the show floor just across from a booth blasting music from 500-watt car stereo boom boxes. Despite the competition, our demo worked for the duration of the show. Whew!

After successfully reaching our first milestone, we continued to add functionality and features to the system for perhaps another year or so. Explore Technology changed its name to Instant Video Corp and later to Burst.com. Today, Richard Lang is still the CEO of the venture. He is also the inventor of the dual deck VCR sold by Go Video. He and his wife are interesting, creative people.

The Rock and Roll Connection
During the course of the Explore Technology project, we found out that the company was funded in part by the Irish rock band U2. That meant that Finisar was financially connected to famous Rock Stars! We laughed about this late one night while we worked feverishly to get ready for CES, but we never thought much about it until a few months later when U2 came to the Oakland Coliseum for the Zoo 2 tour. They were performing with Public Enemy and someone else very forgettable. We got a call and were told that the “lads” wanted to see our technology first hand. We were jazzed.

We invited U2 to visit us in Menlo Park, but the response came back quickly, “No thanks, no time for that, we will get you backstage passes and you can demo the system to the band before the concert.” I haggled to get some additional passes for our two older children and shortly thereafter we were off for Oakland.

I’ve been backstage at only one rock concert in my entire life. The Zoo 2 tour was a bit overwhelming. There were 20 acres of synthetic paradise brought to Oakland aboard 88 semi trucks. It became a small city set up with luxurious eating tents, massage rooms, quiet rooms, phone banks and more. We collected our “laminate” (as the passes are called) and drove our stuff into the core of this artificial village.

We were assigned a room in U2’s private area. Every once in a while someone would show up and use the private phones. We were not sure who was who. Pretty soon, we were informed “they are coming.” A few moments later, in walked Bono with Wynona Ryder, Edge and the rest of the group. Richard Lang was leading them and they talked energetically among themselves. The silky quality of each of their voices was astounding. It’s a wonder that everyone with an Irish accent is not a professional singer, it seems like a natural talent for them.

The Finisar people involved with this project included Mark Farley and Mike Santullo today partners with me at Clean Tech Circle and Greta Light (now a system engineering manager at Finisar).

At one point one of the U2 members nodded towards us and asked our escorts, “Who are the white coat fellows?” This was their term for engineers. After brief introductions, we proceeded to demonstrate the equipment and had a great time talking and laughing with them. After the demo, we ate at the meal tent and then moved out front to enjoy the concert.

The concert venue was equipped with so much more technology than our little boxes contained that we were later thankful we did our demo before the show. This way, we were able to keep our bravado high and feel good about what we had created, even in the shadow of a coliseum full of state-of-the-art gear.

The Mother of All Finisar Transceivers

Over the course of the next two years as we continued to work for Explore Technology, I would estimate that they paid Finisar more than $1 million for engineering services. We used the profits from that work to jump-start the company, pay our bills, purchase equipment and design some pretty neat technology.

The original laser module inside the video server that we built for Explore is the progenitor of most of the optical devices sold by the present-day Finisar, representing a nearly $400 million/year business.

So, if you get a chance to read this, Bono, please know that the “lads” here at Finisar are really glad we met you. And we’re very appreciative that you’ve seen fit to invest some of your resources in high technology ideas.

Posted in Personal Stories, StartUp Ideas

Radical Entrepreneurs of Social Change

(This essay was originally published in November, 2001)

I’ve been slow to write about the events that changed the world on September 11, 2001, primarily because it was hard to find words to describe my shock and dismay. Yet, I have been reading and thinking about the words of other observers, and especially two interesting pieces published in Forbes Magazine.

One was written by a man historically recognized as having relevant opinions in the area of national defense, Casper Weinberger, Secretary of Defense during the Reagan administration. The other was written by Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes.

In my opinion, Weinberger’s column was stale and lacked some of the critical insight needed to move forward. On the other hand, Karlgaard’s was one of the few brilliant pieces on the horrific terrorist events, suggesting that we view Osama Bin Laden as a venture capitalist of mass murder and global terror. I recommend that you read Karlgaard’s article.

How Fundamentalism Seeks to Slow Progress
Although no trial has yet taken place, the evidence in the media shows that the September acts of terror were committed by radical religious fundamentalists. My observations about this are:

  • Fundamentalism, in its broadest sense, is a negative reaction to changes, both perceived and real
  • Fundamentalism is grounded in the belief that things were simpler, holier, and somehow better in previous times
  • Fundamentalism strengthens its hold on its adherents in times of social inequity
  • Fundamentalism should not be associated solely with any one religious community. Each of the world’s great religions have experienced periods of terrific technical innovation along with a natural resistance to the accompanying changes
  • Reducing fundamentalism in one part of the world will not stop terrorism in other places. Religion is a fertile ground where a longing for the past and a desire for less change are easy to preach.

The terror attacks of September were precipitated by a fanatical resistance to the natural tides of scientific change. These are the same tides responsible for all human progress and social evolution, and thus the long-term prospects for the terrorists’ efforts would seem to be quite futile.

One more article to read here is by Dinesh D’Souza, who concludes (and he speaks for all of us in technology), “We are under assault because of the kind of people we are…”. You can read this article in the December 2001 issue of Red Herring Magazine. It is not published on the Web currently. Innovation creates enemies even as it solves problems in the world. D’Souza’s book The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence is worth reading.

A Brief History of Scientific Innovation
Here is a brief, personal 2,000-year historical view of scientific revolutions and technological change.

The first well-documented scientific revolution occurred a little over 2,000 years ago. It began about 500 BC with the golden age of Greece, and ended with the fall of the Roman Empire around 300 AD, lasting about 800 years. Change took longer in the days before newspapers, post offices, radio, television and email. Many men contributed to the knowledge of this time but some of the giants were Aristotle, Plato, Ptolemy, Euclid and Archimedes. As in every scientific revolution, the science came first and the engineering followed. The advances were most prominent in architecture (arch based structures), weapons of war (steel), and hygiene (wider access to pure water for bathing).

The next revolution occurred between 1450 and 1650 AD. The contributors were Copernicus, Tycho, Descarte, Galileo and above them all, Newton. This time, it took only 200 years to fill in the major details. For the first time, a scientific view of the world and the strict interplay of theory and observation-verified evidence were demonstrated. This revolution was driven by “experimental scientists,” those who made careful measurements and published their findings. Mathematics, physics, astronomy, optics and chemistry were subjected to major changes in their structures during this time. Substantial engineering marvels flowed from these times and thus we call this the Industrial Revolution. The ultimate fruits of this science also included automobiles, steam ships and airplanes. Engineering results always lag behind scientific advancements so that new ideas have time to be understood and made practical.

The next scientific revolution occurred during a 50-year period between 1880 and 1930. The contributors were Einstein, Planck, Bohr, Heisenberg, Curie, Schrodinger, Hilbert, Hubble and Godel. Astronomy, mathematics, physics, quantum mechanics and relativity received new foundations. The engineering improvements that came from this period included nuclear reactors and atomic bombs, television and fiber optics, silicon chips and computers, vaccines and antibiotics. You can read further about any of the names above by using Wikipedia.

As we begin the year 2002, we are nearing the end of yet another scientific revolution. Its roots are less associated with famous names and more with technologies and advancements that have yet to be fully absorbed. Because we are so close to these unfolding developments, it is difficult for us to see this revolution from a broad perspective. The elements of this revolution include microbiology and the mapping of the human genome, the scale and wide pervasiveness of computing and advanced broadband networking. This period is centered around 1995 and I believe will have a total duration of 12 years or so.

The Rhythm of Scientific Innovation
Let’s look at a macro view of the four periods of scientific revolutions that I’ve discussed above. The following graph plots these four scientific periods in terms of their position in time, their overall length and the magnitude of their impact on an average human life.

Pace of Scientific Change

 

 

You can see that the frequency of these events accelerates. The time gaps between them grow smaller and smaller. This shows how our scientific and technical infrastructure is accelerating at an exponential rate. The first two scientific revolutions are separated by 1,600 years. The next ones come in 400 years and then 100 years. The time period between revolutions is shortened by four times with each new cycle.

Also note that the length of the each period of innovative change is shorter than its predecessor by a factor of four. The Greco/Roman event is 800 years long, the science of the Renaissance spans 200 years, quantum mechanics and relativity evolve over 50 years, and the current period unfolds over a mere 12-15 years.

Notably, the impact on individual human lives grows with each new revolution.

The importance of Euclid’s geometry and the Copernican view of the solar system were not directly important to average men and women of that time. The relevance of the science of nuclear physics took only a few decades to impact many more individuals, and the impact of computing and networking has taken only a few years to enable you to instantly access and read this column via the Internet.

Please take a closer look at the graph and count the periods of scientific revolution once again. Note that there are five spikes on the chart, including two spaced very close together on the right side. This is because I believe the next event is coming in less than 20 years from now. It will last only five years and its impact will be exponentially greater than before, perhaps led by advancements in biological science rather than physics or mathematics.

The Relationships Between Science, Technology and Fear
Let’s get back to religious fundamentalism and the September 2001 attack on America.

Rapid changes in science and technological advances scare the daylights out of those who do not participate. Ironically, on September 11, the radical fundamentalists who opposed global change employed the very technology it produces to express their objections. The Internet, cell phones, world financial networks and aerospace simulation technologies were among the tools the terrorists used to make a statement our generation will never forget.

The march of science and technology cannot be halted. Its dispersal throughout the world is too broad. If you attempt to limit it here or elsewhere, it will drive on. So we had better try to make its benefits understood by as many people around the earth.

When revolutionary ideas from the previous cycle of scientific advancements produce new technologies and they become widely dispersed, those who are skilled in their use gain a substantial advantage. This is how the 911 terrorists were able to use flight simulators and jetliners as weapons, and it’s how the west uses its technical resources to dominate the world’s agenda.

We in the west can extrapolate, compute, simulate, consume, build, transport and expand economically much faster than those portions of the world where new technologies are not as widely available. The result of this is fear among those who possess fewer resources. It’s a fear that grows out of a misunderstanding of how scientific advances are possible, and a fear that something truly unfair may be happening.

Gates to Economic Prosperity
I have worked in the field of communications science and engineering for about 20 years. During this time, the communications capacity on an optical fiber has increased from about 10 Mb/s (million bits per second) to nearly 10 Tb/s (trillions bits per second). This is an increase in capability of about 1,000,000 times.

It’s possible that Finisar sold more communications bandwidth in four weeks during December 2000 than all of the communications bandwidth that the planet possessed just 10 years ago. For the record, Finisar sold about 150 Terabits (Tb/s) or 0.15 Pb/s per second of transceiver-based bandwidth in that month. Pb/s stands for Petabits (1,000,000,000,000,000 bits) per second — a word that will one day become a common part of the business world’s vocabulary.

Just 10 Mb/s of bandwidth may equal the communications capacity of the entire country of Afghanistan. How can we not expect people to fear change when the technology gap widens by such a massive amount over a short period of time?

Dynamic changes drive and underpin our lives more than in any previous generation. Change is integral not only to our culture, but also to the world economy. It used to be that economies rose and fell from fundamental fiscal causes such an excess of supply or demand. This is still true, but today the excess is measured not in goods and services, but in terms of ideas and the pace at which we embrace them. Technology drives the economy because it provides significant competitive advantages. In a larger sense, it is possible that the rate of adoption of technology gates economic prosperity.

It doesn’t matter whether those who impede the adoption of new technology do so by governmental regulation, stubborn clinging to an existing technology base in an old-line industry or through religious fundamentalism. To the extent that any of these elements limits us in ways that society would not choose, then we all suffer.

How Technology Enables Determined Individuals
Millennia ago most humans lived and worked as slaves or serfs. Lives were short and dominated by backbreaking work. The first scientific revolution came about and things changed a bit, but not very much for most people. Those closest to the changes experienced better health and longer lives.

Next came the science and eventually the technology that we call the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. This really improved the quality of life for most humans in western culture. Everyone could now have some of the niceties that were previously reserved for royalty. Mass production meant that everyone could have underwear, flatware, personal transportation, books and newspapers, warm homes and the ability to change jobs as desired.

The revolution that came with quantum mechanics and relativity made possible the manipulation of matter at the atomic level. The result of this was that communications and transportation could be global in every sense. Cultures that have been closed for millennia must now become open or risk being relegated to third world status. Elements in Japan and China are still wrestling with this harsh fact.

Human beings have always been biological thinking machines, able to work abstractly. The computing and communications revolution now coming to an end has provided us with tools so powerful that a single human being or a small group can do the work of legions.

For example, a decade ago only government entities and their contractors owned computers that could perform billions of calculations per second, and there were regulations that limited their sale. Today these powerful systems are plentiful, widely available and low in cost (and considering how they are used to empower our intellect, perhaps we should call them human mind amplifiers). Global networks now bring much of the knowledge of mankind to anyone who is appropriately subscribed. The impact of these changes has been more than spectacular in the past five years.

The combination of super-fast programmable mind amplifiers with unlimited Internet access to all of the collected knowledge of the ages used by beings dwelling in the realm of ideas is manifesting the most radical revolution the planet has ever experienced.

This revolution makes it possible for a company like Finisar to create new technologies and disseminate them profitably to our customers at a previously unimaginable rate. Unfortunately, it also allows small cells of terrorists to learn to fly Boeing 767s on simulators, access the structure of large buildings and city maps online, and use PC-based CAD programs to simulate the structural strengths and weaknesses of buildings, bridges, dams and tunnels.

Fifty years ago the world contemplated whether atomic energy was a blessing or a curse. Leaders pondered whether splitting the atom would bring plentiful new energy sources and medical wonders, or would just help us blow ourselves up.

A large-scale effort involving thousands of people with immense resources was required to manipulate this technology. This meant that participation was limited to government states that could raise the needed sums of money and support large teams of people over long periods of time. Private individuals could not individually participate in the atomic revolution.

In the current scientific revolution, individual entrepreneurs are the driving force and small teams can be highly effective. This helps enable the success of commercial ventures, but it also means that innovation can be wielded destructively by small teams with relatively limited capital.

For example, it has been estimated that Osama bin Laden funded the activities of the September 11 terrorists with just $500,000. This horrible, immoral venture has resulted in more than $50 billion in total damages to the USA and the world at large. At an ROI of approximately 100,000 times, this makes bin Laden one of the most successful investors in history, as evil and despicable as his acts have been.

We cannot build fortresses or defensive structures that are strong or agile enough to make us safe at all times. The inventiveness and nimbleness of determined, destructive offensive forces are far greater than can be countered by any reasonable and practical defensive effort.

I hope and pray that people throughout the world will use the technology we have developed to reach out to each other and build a future based on understanding, mutual respect and fairness. Without this, the radical entrepreneurs of social change will continue to find it easy to pursue their business plans. And this will be grievously unpleasant for the rest of us.

Posted in Essays, Investing, Spiritual Threads, StartUp Ideas

Our Abstract World

We live in a world that is increasingly different from the one in which our ancestors received their genetic programming. Today, our minds constantly use abstractions to negotiate our way through the world.

An example of this is the process we use to steer an automobile.

(A fun fact to know is that when automobiles were first introduced, there was great debate on how to steer them. Some early cars had reins similar to horses, others had a tiller like small sailing boats, and still others used a wheel like those found on larger ships.)

Fun facts aside, when you drive a car today with a steering wheel, you are using a solid object to perform an abstraction, all within the blink of an eye. When you turn the steering wheel, you are not only turning the wheel, you are turning the wheels of the car and guiding the car in the direction you wish to go. The small movements you make are amplified and strengthened through a power steering mechanism and then onto some rack and pinion structure to move the wheels that contact the road and keep the vehicle on the right track.

Nevertheless, your mind translates all of this for you so that you can turn the wheel in various motions and you don’t really have to think about the concrete business of guiding the car. Your mind abstracts the motion of the steering wheel into the motion of the car.

Now you might be asking yourself: “Where are we going with all this? What does this have to do with Finisar primary focus in designing, manufacturing and marketing the best possible optical subsystems?”

It is true that Finisar designs, manufactures and markets optical subsystems, and we do that by working in abstractions. Abstractions are really just constructs of our minds, despite the fact that we often accept them as reality and don’t question them sufficiently.

Let me describe how we at Finisar use abstractions as tools, and present some arguments on why we should test and validate common abstracts more carefully.

How One Abstraction Begets Another

Finisar’s optical subsystems include optical transmitters/receivers (or transceivers) that either transform electrical signals into optical signals (transmitters) or optical signals into electrical currents (receivers). These devices are usually digital in nature and operate at speeds above one billion bits per second or one Gigabit per second (Gb/s).

We observe these optical or electrical signals using a device called an oscilloscope. An oscilloscope produces an image on a screen that looks like this:

The picture above is what we call an “eye diagram,” which is simply a picture of the bits that are sent on the fiber optic glass strand. In this picture, you see the results of many different bits each overlaid on top of one another.

How this picture is interpreted and how we use it represents the crux of what Finisar does and why Finisar’s products are known to produce some of the very best eye diagrams in the world.

Measuring the Eye

The figure below shows how we create the eye pattern. Imagine an idealized string of bits comprised in a 1 – 0 – 1 pattern (the first diagram in the figure).

In an optical fiber, a laser emits a bright light to represent a ‘1′ and sends no light (the fiber is dark) for a ‘0.’ Within the fiber the light turns on and off to form the sequence of 1, 0, 1, and so on. The laser cannot turn on and off instantaneously, so there are some instants in time where the light is growing brighter or fainter as it goes on or off. This is the transition point between a 0 to a 1 or from a 1 to a 0.

If we use the oscilloscope with a careful “trigger,” we can see what these bits look like, which is shown in the third diagram in the figure above. Here we see the oscilloscope trying to “trace” out the bit to measure the light as it emerges from the fiber.

If we use the oscilloscope to look at the light emerging from the fiber over many bits and if the bits are coming out are random, we sometimes will overlay 1s on top of 0s and vice-versa. When this happens we get an eye pattern, shown in the fourth diagram of the figure above. Notice that this diagram is just like the one above it with the pattern sometimes inverted.

Look again at the LCD oscilloscope eye pattern (below) and you will see how this really looks to us as we measure a Finisar transceiver.

Abstractions As Building Blocks

Here’s a step by step description of how we link abstractions together to create the eye patterns in an oscilloscope:

  1. The end of the fiber is connected to a photodiode that converts the light to a current of electricity.
  2. This current is transformed to a voltage by means of a transimpedance amplifier.
  3. The amplifier provides gain whereby the signal level is increased typically by more than a factor of 1,000.
  4. The output of the amplifier is presented to the oscilloscope which “samples” the voltage periodically. The voltage is turned into a number by means of an analog to digital converter.
  5. An internal clock in the oscilloscope determines how often the voltage is sampled.
  6. As the samples are digitized, the output is fed into computer memory for storage.
  7. A computer takes the data out of memory and displays it on the LCD display screen.
  8. Data taken at different times and voltages is painted across the screen one dot at a time. Thousands of dots are required to make an eye pattern.
  9. Data is typically taken from one point every few hundred bits. This means that the actual data on the eye pattern represents single dots per bit taken every few hundred bits. Thus, the data is taken over millions and billion of bits.

This is pretty confusing, but the point here is every step must be precisely correct. The eye pattern will be severely distorted if any of the following problems occur:

  1. The end of the fiber is not well connected to the photodiode so that some of the light is lost by not hitting the photodiode.
  2. The photodiode transforms the light from the fiber into a current but does not do this linearly so the light represented by the current is inaccurate.
  3. The amplifier gain varies over time, temperature or something else or is not linear so that the gain of 1000 is sometimes 900 or 1500.
  4. The analog to digital converter is inaccurate.
  5. The clock in the oscilloscope is inaccurate.
  6. The samples are not stored properly in the computer memory.
  7. The software in the computer is not programmed correctly.

The changing of the light from faint to bright or the reverse takes about 100 trillionths of a second. It’s extremely fast. No ‘blinks of an eye’ or other analogies will work here. It is just plain fast, faster than anyone can possibly imagine.

You get the idea. Every abstraction we make introduces a potential source of error. If any one of these is wrong it is difficult to determine which one it is.

More Fun with Abstractions

So now you say, “How does this affect me”? I don’t create eye patterns on my job and driving a car doesn’t seem so abstract when I’m actually in the car.

There are other abstractions everywhere. Here are some fun historical ones for you to think about:

  • Around 1500 it was determined by Copernicus, Galileo and Columbus that the earth was a sphere and that it orbited about the sun (though there was some discomfort on this for most involved). Did you know that it took another 400 years for us to guess that our sun was NOT at the center of the universe? (This happened in the early 1900s when we observed certain globular star clusters and found that they orbited some 50,000 light years distant from us in the center of our Milky Way Galaxy.) We could not easily break free from our abstraction that mankind was the center of creation.
  • In both the old and new testaments of the Bible it is written that human generation occurs when a man plants his seed in a woman. Putting in modern terms, the ancients thought that men were entirely responsible for generation, and women were the “dirt” into which the seed was sown. Perhaps this explains why men were dominant in many cultures for thousands of years (Even today we still speak of men sowing their wild oats). We were stuck in an abstraction that affected much of how men and women related to each other. Today we know that men and women both contribute genetic material to create new little human beings. This corrected abstraction undoubtedly helps us have a more equal partnership between men and women.
  • During the energy crisis of the 1970s, we abstracted our energy supply such that many were convinced that we would “run out” very soon. That did not happen, and within a few years the world was again awash in oil. Now we are trying to understand global warming and greenhouse gases. There are abundant abstractions in this area, and we do not understand them very well at all.
  • For a long time, computers, memories, disks and such were sized for their expected usages. To overbuild a computer was really expensive. Over time, components like memory have dropped vastly in cost, but it took time for us to understand that the potential uses for memory were virtually unlimited. Early PCs could only support 640K of memory. Such hardware limitations were specifically designed into even the Microsoft software architecture, and we allowed this abstraction to limit us for several years.

Using Abstractions to Foster Innovation and Success

Sometimes we embellish our view of the world by creating abstractions that have a worth that is not real. Other times, unimaginative abstractions limit our ability to invent or progress as a society.

Abstractions are everywhere because they are the tools that humans use to form mental images of their changing and evolving world. They are products of our minds, whether we are driving a car, trying to understand human conception or trying to measure the transmission of light as it travels down an optical fiber.

Today, because of the complexity of our world, most abstractions come in layers, and the failure of any one layer can alter your view of what really is there. Be aware of the abstractions you accept. When something seems not to fit or work, look where you have abstracted the world from what reality is there physically. Then go look at each abstraction between what is wrong and what is reality. It is such investigation and questioning the moves us forward.

(Original essay published in September, 2001 when at Finisar)

Posted in Optical Technology, Spiritual Threads

A Tale of Lambs, Preschoolers and Silicon Valley

Despite its contribution to the world economy, the technical community here in Silicon Valley is actually much smaller than most people believe. People end up making connections in strange ways and often these ties last for many years.

My wife and I went to dinner at the Flea Street Café in Menlo Park recently with a small group to hear a presentation on saving endangered species of domesticated animals such as the Cotswold Lamb.

You can find out more about these animals on the Web page of the Kelmscott Rare Breeds Foundation.

This farm and the organization that supports it was started by Robyn Shotwell Metcalfe. Though the organization has changed over time from non-profit to for-profit and no longer has public visitors on a regular basis.

Robyn’s husband is Bob Metcalfe, one of the two inventors of Ethernet. Bob and Dave Boggs invented Ethernet when they were scientists at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the 1970s. Ethernet is the fundamental technology that allows messages like this one to be sent, and it generally underpins Local Area Networks and most of the Internet as well.

Ethernet is also a huge factor in Finisar’s past successes, as well as our future growth prospects.

Bob went on to be the founder of 3Com, then to work as an insightful and articulate columnist for InfoWorld magazine. He recently became a venture capitalist with Polaris Ventures. Bob is witty, engaging, way smart, funny and an especially good writer. He is a technologist’s techie.

Dave Boggs (the other Ethernet inventor) was also at the Flea Street Café dinner with us. Currently, Dave is working on optical extensions for networks in the metropolitan area. He has steeped himself in the technology of networking since the 1970s.

Another dinner guest was Ron Crane. Ron was a key technical contributor for 3Com from the beginning of Ethernet. All of today’s Ethernet adapter cards installed in the tens of millions of PCs throughout the world are related to the first adapter cards built and tested by Ron, who is still very well connected in the networking industry.

You might think that I was invited to attend this dinner because Finisar is a major participant in the Ethernet industry through its Gigabit Ethernet transceivers and other Ethernet modules and because of a professional association I have with Bob.

But that’s not the reason we were there.

We were invited to this dinner because my cat loving daughter Alana attended preschool in the late 1980s with Julia Metcalfe, daughter of Robyn and Bob. My wife and Robyn also became friends. At the time our daughters first met, Bob was already an industry icon and I had to use my wife’s and daughter’s friendships to wedge my way in with the Silicon Valley geniuses behind Ethernet.

Bob and Robyn really liked my wife and Alana (and eventually me, too!), so our family would often be invited to their social occasions. During those times I would listen carefully for pearls of wisdom on how Finisar could grow and make its mark on the world.

One time years ago, Bob and I talked about Finisar’s early product line and he pointed out that since we were not supporting established standards, our appeal to the industry was being limited. Over the next few years Finisar changed our direction in line with Bob’s counsel and this was a major factor in our growth during the second half of the 1990s.

As Paul Harvey would say, now you know the rest of the story!

(originally published in November, 2001. Updated April, 2008)

Posted in Personal Stories

Optical Networks and Earth Limits

George Gilder is a widely published columnist and pundit. His thoughts about man’s technological future are widely respected. Lately, he has been evangelizing a vision of an all-optical Internet, plentiful bandwidth and the demise of many traditional Internet technologies like Cisco routers. Some of this vision is underpinned with assumptions that are not applicable and as clarity in assumptions is critical for any future vision, I’d like to use this forum to work through these.

First of all let me quote Gilder directly so that my jumble of opinions do not dilute his message:

“… the Internet is a computer on a planet. Like a computer on a motherboard, it faces sever problems of memory access. The Internet communications depend on ingenious hierarchical memory management, analogous to a computer’s registers, buffers and latches, its three tiers of speculative caches, its bulk troves of archives, its garbage management systems to filter and weed out redundant or dated data, and it direct-memory access controllers to bypass congested nodes.

In a world of bandwidth abundance, an ever-increasing share of roundtrip delay for a message is attributable to speed of light latency. No matter how capacious the transmission pipes, how large in numbers of bits per second the data stream, the first bit in the message cannot move from source to terminal any faster than light speed allows, plus the time waiting in queues and buffers at all the switches or other nodes along the way.”

He then makes the case for strong caching and dispersed assets … here are some of the supporting assertions:

“Even with no hops or other delays, the light-speed limit alone means that Internet users outside the North American continent are at lest 200 milliseconds away from the vast majority of websites.” (80% of web hosts are in continental USA)

“To fetch a web object using the Internet protocol – whether a frame, image, logo, or banner – takes two to seven round trips between the end user and the Web server. With each page comprising as many as twenty-five objects, those round-trip-speed-of-light milliseconds keep adding up even for entirely static material.”

Perhaps a little table will help us keep track of what physics foundation Gilder is operating from.

Description value units

speed of light 300000 km/sec

diameter of earth 12500 kilometers
circumference of earth 40000 kilometers

max intercontinent hop 30000 kilometers
round trip time 200 milliseconds

typ intercontinent hop 12000 kilometers
round trip time 80 milliseconds

typical US only hop 2500 kilometers
round trip time 17 milliseconds

So, his assertion of 200 ms for the worst case hop just based on speed of light arguments is well justified. The figure hinges on the following underlying assumptions worst-case distance is:

  • 50% of earth’s circumference
  • 50% longer than even this due to routing inefficiencies
  • really 2x this because a web page fetch involves a request and an answer so the distance is traversed twice.

This worst case figure is really exaggerated for the point of his article … a more typical intercontinental distance is likely to be 12000 km and then the time drops to 80 ms. And for normal intra-continental distances of 3000 km this is then 17 ms. Actually most traffic will be of this latter category since each citizen/user will most of the time be fetching information localized for their country.

But then his assertion that this is the root of all our problems does not wash. He assumes that web pages will always be transmitted as individually requested objects on a page. This assumption is weak … a much simpler solution is for HTTP and its cousins to migrate towards a single transmission request for all information and for the sender to gather together the information and send it just one time as a single group or stream. No doubt this is better for the server and the Internet infrastructure to see a larger single flow instead of so many little (25) pieces. Again, it is the multiplication of so many separate requests to assemble a single web page that causes the problem.

In a sense, such progress assumes that Internet protocols will continue to evolve … sounds reasonable. Moreover, once the streaming has started the end user will not notice the effects of distance provided there is sufficient bandwidth between the sites and buffer at the receive end to smooth out any potholes in the transmission

Which is the better approach?

Reasonably local/short distance widely dispersed caching or more aggregated page serving?

Let’s use Gilder’s assumption of 25 objects per web page for our starting place. We shall assume the cache resides at an effective distance of 250 km for a round trip time of 1.7 ms and therefore 25 objects will take 43 ms. This is substantially slower than the direct sending of the page over typical intra-continental distances of 2500 km but sent as a single object (17 ms).

The point of this is that direct bundled sending is substantially better than local caching of pages like Akamai or Inktomi can provide.

As our agents and web servers get smarter, we will find that their ability to coordinate the information flow to us so as to minimize our waits and keep their responses more in line with our normal cadence of work will remain acceptable.

So where is the problem of Internet scaling? It is primarily in the core of the network where the global computer must continue to scale to packet per second forwarding levels measured in terms of 1012 and then 1015 packet per second over the next few years. Today the biggest, baddest layer 3 switches or routers have ability to do about 108 packets per second. Collections of these cannot do any better than this because they are ultimately placed into chains and the chain is only as good as its weakest link.

The problem with Internet scaling is not with typical web pages or the migration of television or even telephones to the web; it is with distributed computing. As we seek to create larger clusters of computing, especially as clusters are formed and broken down dynamically as their user bases require this distance and light travel time strongly affect the ability to do cluster computing.

Interestingly enough the problem in trying to create a world wide computer system (like that envisioned in the movie, The Matrix) is that the messages will only propagate at the speed of light and the network in between cannot beat this limitation. Responses that require inputs or outputs from disparate points in the system will not respond in computer time but in earth time … milliseconds not nanoseconds.

(this essay was originally written in March, 2000. fortunately the physics has not changed!)

Posted in Optical Technology

Writing Software for The Matrix?

The wife and I watched The Matrix with Keanu Reeves last night. Great SciFi action, but it will cost me a couple of ChickFlix over the next month.

Anyway, in the movie, Reeves goes through a rigorous training program to increase his reflexes and physical abilities. As his training level matures, he enters the matrix and begins dodging bullets, jumping between buildings, etc. We find ourselves in a high tech action flick and lay back for the ride. But about 1.5 hours into it, we meet a spiritual black woman who runs what appears to be a school for the ESP and mental telekinesis-enhanced children of the matrix. Let’s skip over the how of this motley crew and just ask one question … what is she teaching and what are they learning? … they show us blocks floating up in the air as they “play” with them. Keanu is quite taken by what he sees and leaves to continue his mission.

Later, as he assimilates this new learning, he is able not only to dodge the bullets, but to first slow them down, then stop them in mid-air, and finally to have them fall to the ground.

How did he do that????

Now, I know just what you are thinking. Hey! It’s only a movie, chill out.

But that is not the point. If we are following the basic premise of this movie, the world is now trashed, people live out their physical lives in nutrient pods, and we exist as programs in some pan-computing matrix cluster of processors and memory.

So the way Keanu was able to slow, stop, and drop the bullets was by “on the fly” coding of new software to be executed by the computing matrix to alter the flow of information surrounding him as the bullets were approaching! No superman gig, just a very good programmer. So, should we be issuing capes to our computer science graduates instead of caps and gowns? Maybe.

What happens today?

Today there are many different times when our computers take action on our behalf or that we “write” programs that try to do things to protect us. Some of this is very simplistic compared to dropping bullets, but still, perhaps, directly related.

One example is anti-virus software. In this case, if you have it installed, the software constantly looks for incoming virus (bullets) that it is trained to recognize and it stops and drops them into the bit bucket trashcan. This software is configurable, and to the extent we give it enough connectivity, it can keep itself current and examine all of the I/O to our local computing space. Some of the newest algorithms even look for “virus-like” activity and flag that. In the future, perhaps the software will shunt aside that file (quarantine) and then communicate with a virus-tracking center to see if its internal list is out of date, whether this “suspicious” file can be identified as a problem.

The point is that even today our software is enhancing itself.

And the impact on Gb/s data networks?
Ã¥
As we evolve, our intelligent networks and our increasingly man/machine interdependent society, we are now finding that data communications (i.e. communications that are generated and received by computers) is now dominate over the early leader – voice. Moreover, data is in an early phase of its exponential growth while voice traffic growth is linear and only slowly growing.

Interestingly enough, voice traffic may find itself assimilated into the data at some very near point since the data network will have so much capacity that voice will only occupy a negligible fraction of that systems bandwidth within 10 years (here comes voice over IP, VOIP services).

But from all we have just seen, the growth in data communications may be just beginning. If computers begin communicating between themselves for internally generated purposes it is possible that this traffic will do to current data traffic what it is doing today to voice traffic. Today nearly all computer data communications results from the direct action of a human operator – request a web page, copy a file, send an email, etc.

So, the networks we are building today, even in their grandest vision, typically have their plans based on extrapolations of today’s types of applications and the requests/messages that they generate. The next wave of computer generated and received and acted upon messages will likely require new thinking again.

And it won’t be just today’s case for more bandwidth. Gb/s will be mandatory, WDM too, fully switched. But we may find that the protocol of the network must change as well to allow the communications to occur in ways that are native for the sender and receiver. Computers don’t really operate in terms of IP packets, fibre channel frames, etc. They deal in terms of various organization of memory – cache lines, virtual memory pages.

The next generation of networks will likely be dominated not only by bandwidth but also by communications originated by computers, received and acted upon by computers as a part of their normal operation. The information will be sent and received in ways that are native to that population and therefore in ways that are most optimal for that intelligent entity.

(This essay was originally published in September, 2000)

Posted in Essays, Investing, Personal Stories, Spiritual Threads

How Finisar Got Its Name

I have been asked many times about the origin of the name Finisar. Well as with many corporate names ultimately it came because it passed the test of time and was found not to mean anything bad in any known language on Earth.

So just how much truth can you stand? Remember, from this point on, reading is at your own peril.

One of the problems with large companies today is they learned early on that engineers are best when contributing in there area of expertise. Thus when a project is defined, it is quickly broken down into the smallest pieces possible and experts are assigned to each piece. This results in a number of bad side effects, but here are a few

  • System problems often have solutions that end up overly specified towards the primary discipline of the system designer
  • In other cases, thoroughbred horses are specified and camels are delivered as pieces are well designed but the fitting into an excellent system falters.
  • Engineers do not keep current or are not allowed to follow problems far enough to learn their fields more broadly.
  • System trade offs between among the pieces of engineering are not done and simplification is not achieved.

So, the truth is that since starting my engineering career in fiber optics at Bell Labs in 1980, I was never allowed to finish things. Consequently, Finisar was named after my desire to see projects from start to finish.

Ah, but what about the -ar portion of the name? Now, before 1980 I was in graduate school for a PhD in Astronomy. And at that time pulsars and quasars were the rage so the -ar was taken from these exotic astronomy objects and the root of finish was taken for the base name.

There was a competing name – Refinet. For refined networking. But after having a few people try to pronounce it, a distinctly French interpretation emerged. (ref – in – nea) Sounded like a cheap wine with aspirations to have come from the Napa valley but actually grew up in Pittsburgh.

So, do we let engineers finish project here at Finisar? You bet. There are times when our engineers think that their project may never end but overall we relish the idea of doing even complex projects with distinctly small teams. Where the message to the team is – this is your project, others can be called into help but you have the responsibility, you have the freedom. And you must finish it!

Finisar has NO engineering budgets. Engineers who have worked for other larger companies come here and always ask – what is my budget? To which we answer, we want to discuss the time and complexity of the project you are doing. Then either we approve the schedule and functional specification or not. If it is approved, there is no budget, just be on time.

In this context, we encourage our engineers to:

  • Purchase the best equipment, do not scrimp
  • Tell us how to staff the project; what other skills are required for success?
  • Find ways to move the project faster
  • Always do rapid board or IC turns, fast prototyping, etc.

The point is that finishing projects is where real satisfaction occurs. If you only get to see a piece, or do only a part of the project, you never see the wider impact of your ideas. Finisar engineers usually talk to customers after products ship, are even involved in training so that they can directly get customer feedback.

It turns out that Finisar was the second company that I was able to name. The first company was called Netek. Obvious what was the focus for that company.

Netek was started with the help of Bruce Elmblad (a founder of Prime computer) and AMP back when they also started Lytel. Netek began with mucho bucks (for that day and time), many people, plenty of nice space …

… and only had problems. First of all it had an absolutely terrible CEO (me!) and then we tried to define projects from our own experience without customer feedback. And then we hired a CFO who thought he knew fiber optics and that was truly dangerous! All in all, the result was that the CEO of AMP flew into Morristown, NJ on Jan 31, 1985 and fired me. He then got back into his corporate plane and flew home.

I, on the other hand, got back into my well-worn Chevy station wagon and slugged it home through the largest snowstorm of that year to my wife who was pregnant with our third child. Talk about different perspectives.

It all turned out OK. We sued AMP, they realized that the CFO was the bad egg who had set me up and I was hired by Jerry Rawls (Finisar’s CEO) at the same salary that I had at Netek. Now the story is much more twisty turny and it has other elements that are part of Finisar but that is for another time.

In start contrast, at Finisar, we started out by renting a small Quonset hut, brought in a computer and furniture from our home, purchased a small copier and some very used test equipment. Then we began immediately enlisting customers and listening to their needs. We were able to start by doing contract-engineering work for these early customers from the day we opened our doors and so were immediately profitable and grew slowly as our means enabled us.

That is by far the best way to start a company. Take your time, use your own money and work for others from the beginning. As you do this, you develop a business culture that is always customer focused and always thinking about the top and bottom lines.

And best of all, you and all of the employees have a shot at owning so much more of the company. When I originally wrote this in 2000, Finisar was still majority owned by the people who work for us on a daily basis. But even today in 2008, I remain the largest individual shareholder in the company I started.

Posted in Personal Stories

Disruptive Technology and Unlearning

(Originally published in November, 2000)

As a philosophical bent, it has been my policy to share mainly personal thoughts in this column. But it is time for an exception. I am reading a really terrific book entitled The Weightless Society by Charles Leadbeater. And I want to start out this column with an extended quote from the book –

Learning will be useless unless we can match it with a capacity for unlearning. [my emphasis added]

 

People generally like to learn, if it is enjoyable and relevant to their ambitions and jobs. What holds people and companies back, for example when they are innovating, is their inability to unlearn. Learning is usually seen as an additive process, in which new learning builds on old. This is true most of the time when learning and innovation is incremental. But when the environment suddenly changes, new competitors and products come onto the scene. Then companies and individuals have to adopt new skills and outlooks very rapidly. The key is not to build on past learning but in this case to dispense with it because the old rules of thumb, practices, routines and assumptions which might have worked for the old economy will no longer work when you face new competitors, technologies, and demands from [customers].

 

But unlearning can be extremely painful; it is far, far harder than learning. People like acquiring new skills; they hate feeling that old skills, which a source of their self-confidence and identity, are no longer needed.  For years, I carried around with me all of my notes and essays from my university days. I could not bear the thought that all that learning and effort was redundant. But eventually, I threw them all out, and I have never missed them. Companies face even greater difficulties because for them unlearning means challenging people’s ingrained assumptions, job descriptions, roles, and sense of identity. As well as investing so heavily in learning, companies should set aside resources to invest in unlearning.

 

The process of unlearning inside of companies prepares them to engage in the development of disruptive technologies. And this is something that Finisar (and now Small World Group) keeps trying to do¦ and it is fun. So, the rest of this essay will talk about a couple of these times and what unlearning was required along the way.

The first time Finisar introduced disruptive technology was when we built Gb/s transmitters, receivers and transceivers using low cost 850 nm lasers. Our first products were used in equipment that demonstrated high bandwidth delivery of movies at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January of 1991. These modules were coupled to Gazelle Hot Rod chips and a high speed DRAM array. Later that same year we began selling the transceiver function for about $600 … competitive technology in the telecom space was selling for $5000, so we were well below that cost.

In that time frame, I actually received a call from an early potential customer. As we ended our discussion of the technical aspects of the product, he asked, how much? I replied $600 and he said – yes but how much for just one – and I had the pleasure of saying that was the unit price. If he wanted 1000s the price would be more like $200 for the devices.

Over the next couple of years we worked with two early system customers who designed these devices into back planes of SONET switches. One system used 128 modules per system! This type of use was clearly impossible given devices that cost 10-50x as much as our devices did in those volumes. So, our products caused an unlearning by system designers in these two companies. They decided to employ optical links between freestanding frames and even different shelves in the same frame of the systems.

Before this time, optical links were not thought to be competitive with parallel copper buses of the same total data capacity. A competing technology was the HIPPI standard that had a bulky set of twisted pairs in a quasi ribbon cable format. It could carry a Gb/s but at the price that was high and made worse when the weight, size and overall bulk of the cables were considered.

In contrast, Finisar offered the overall system at competitive cost and much higher convenience with the optical solution. So low cost, Gb/s, multimode optics found wide deployment inside these early SONET switches. And eventually became the workhorse link for Fibre Channel and gigabit Ethernet standards.

Another example where Finisar introduced disruptive technology is in the design of our early test equipment. When we built those first links, we received many complaints from early adopters that the links did not work. This was horrible …

But it turned out that the Gb/s chip sets behind our modules were generally the culprits. So for our own purposes we built some basic test boards with sockets for our modules and sockets for the Gb/s chip sets. We were able to show early systems adopters of this technology that our modules were working fine and that some of the chips sets were either weak or not functioning properly.

These boards could generate Gb/s traffic, perform bit error rate measurements on a link (BERT) and snoop the Gb/s traffic and capture it into buffers for examination and analysis. Simple but really helpful. So these customers asked us would we sell this aid to them.

Finisar entered the test equipment business!

At that time, Gb/s BERTs sold for between 50K and 100K. We offered our first systems for about $15K. It again proved revolutionary. The tool was critical to the development of each of the major Gb/s standards.

But it started another even more interesting trend. Today, when we introduce a new physical link technology … say 2.5 Gb/s or 10 Gb/s low cost links. We NEVER develop the link alone. We develop the test equipment to support this link simultaneously with the link. And we normally introduce both of these products into our markets at nearly the same time.

This happened about 6 months ago when we introduced the double rate Fibre Channel transceivers and our test equipment for the emerging double rate standard in about the same 1-month period.

And it should happen again early next year at 10 Gb/s! (and we expect to whack the 10 Gb/s test equipment standard costs which today cost upwards of $500K and have delivery times of more than 26 weeks … so stay tuned)

By operating this way, that is by introducing physical layer components and the supporting test equipment to BERT and snoop the links we are introducing, we support an emerging standard and so that its development can be timely, interoperability can be tested, system bottlenecks can be identified and overall, the design cycle can be significantly shortened.

We have learned that this overall approach allows us to more frequently introduce disruptive technology to our markets and to have them unlearn lessons that no longer apply.

And that is fun for us all.

Posted in Essays, StartUp Ideas