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

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