The hair is hard to overlook. It’s short, stylish, and artfully done, but distinctly purple. Except among skateboarders and in dance clubs, purple hair is pretty uncommon. In a respectable corporate setting where people spend time talking about benchmarks, annual-performance objectives, and 360-degree feedback, purple hair is truly scarce. When you cross that corporate setting with an advanced scientific-research institution — where people wear lab coats, talk about quantum dots, and browse chemical catalogs looking for interesting molecules — people with purple hair are as hard to find as neutrinos.
Throw in the fact that Lina Echeverr?a, 50, is guardian of one of the great scientific traditions of America — she is director of glass and glass ceramics at the storied glass-research lab at Corning Inc. — and the purple hair is truly striking. How does a woman who is a scientist, a colleague, and a pivotal corporate manager maintain credibility with purple hair — no matter how stylishly it’s done?
“Usually it’s more eggplant,” says Echeverr?a. “Aubergine. A.J., my hairdresser, I give him all the freedom. It’s fun, no?”
Echeverr?a is an unlikely occupant of her office — an energetic, elfin, Colombian woman who started her career tramping through the jungles of South America studying ancient lavas. And she brings an unlikely management style to Corning, a company (1999 revenues: $4.7 billion) whose history spans three centuries and whose early customers included Thomas Edison. Echeverr?a heads an unruly group of 45 researchers — 25 PhD scientists and another 20 technicians and support personnel — who make up the glass and glass-ceramics research group. The group works to understand existing glass, invent new kinds of glass, and improve the performance of pulled glass — Corning’s modern signature product, optical fiber. To say that Echeverr?a is those people’s boss, which is how the company would explain it, is laughable.
One of her group’s top scientists, Nick Borrelli, 63, is also one of Corning’s most senior researchers. “I don’t really report to anybody,” he says. “I don’t care who my boss is. I can’t be managed. I can just be suppressed and frustrated.”
Adam Ellison, 39, a senior research scientist who also works in the glass-research group, has been at Corning for only four years. Not long after arriving, he stumbled onto a new kind of glass that he thought might be valuable in Corning’s booming fiber-optics business. “I proposed the idea,” says Ellison, “and it was shot down. They said, ‘Don’t work on that. We want you to focus on this.’
“I ignored them, and it led to that.” Ellison points to a spool of finished antimony-silicate optical fiber, a developmental product now sending ripples of excitement through Corning’s research and business divisions. “We need cowboys, and I’m a cowboy.”
Echeverr?a was part of the glass-research group at Corning for seven years before becoming a manager. “I have the group that is regarded as the hardest to manage,” she says. “These scientists speak their minds. Their job is to be skeptical and to challenge the system. How can we pay them to do that, then not expect them to do the same with the human system that they are a part of? They don’t have much use for people like me — not me in particular, but this job. And often, they are right.”
Listening to Echeverr?a talk through the two jobs that she is asked to perform is dizzying, because they flatly contradict each other.
Job one: Keep the scientists happy. “Scientists, like any other human beings, perform best when they are driven by inspiration,” says Echeverr?a. “It’s the same in an artist or a scientist. We depend on their creativity. I tell my guys, If you think something is really important, follow your heart. It energizes you, and you give your best performance. That’s how you get scientists on a roll — what for athletes is called ‘being in the zone.’ “
Job two: Keep Corning happy. After all, the company spends $2 million a day on R&D, and it holds Echeverr?a accountable for her piece of that — Corning crumbles if there is not ultimately a payoff many times that investment. “People do have a lot of freedom, but that doesn’t mean you can get away with murder,” Echeverr?a explains. “This is not just a green field where you can run in whatever direction you want. As a group, our performance is evaluated first and foremost on results.”
It’s hard to imagine a more pointed expression of the central conundrum facing companies, leaders, and rank-and-file workers. In an economy built on ideas, the way to outcompete your rivals is to outcreate your rivals. Creativity is the central force behind growth and success — it is the source of new products, new ways of working, satisfied employees, and constant renewal, not to mention profits and a soaring stock price. But how do you create creativity?
Corning is a revealing example of the promise of ideas — and the power of creativity. The company’s 1,200 researchers are divided into 10 core-technology groups (glass is one), and together, those people are responsible for inventing the future that keeps Corning’s 33,000 workers employed. Corning doesn’t just celebrate its 149-year history of invention — it embraces it. Its research furnaces still churn out 100 kinds of experimental glass a day.
In 1998, 57% of the company’s sales were from products less than four years old. In 1999, 78% of sales were from products less than four years old, and Corning predicts that 78% of this year’s sales will also come from products less than four years old. Corning chairman and CEO Roger Ackerman, 61, speaks without hesitation of his company, which generated less than $5 billion in sales last year, generating $20 billion a year by 2004 or 2005. That would require about 30% annual growth — all, as it happens, from products that don’t exist yet. But Wall Street is betting on Corning’s creativity. The company’s stock, which was trading for less than $25 per share in 1998, was trading at more than $300 per share earlier this year. And Corning planned a three-for-one stock split for this October.
Still, there’s no room for coasting. Optical transmission and networking is an area crowded with high-talent players: JDs Uniphase, Lucent, Nortel, and others. In that environment — creativity at the speed of light — Corning’s frontline R&D managers have to have spot-on scientific judgment, as well as the nerves of a craps player and the psychological insight of a therapist. The science and the stomach for taking a bet aren’t much good without an understanding of the scientists who will invent the company’s future, and an understanding of what motivates and frustrates them.
The process of creativity also reveals the perfect paradox of modern business: Truly creative people can’t be managed, at least not in the conventional, cubicle sense. Yet if creative people are not managed well — even brilliantly — the result is disaster: The creative people are unproductive, or grumpy, or, worse still, gone. Ideas dry up, competitors close in, and a company can end up shriveling. The folks at Apple and Intel understand that. The folks at AT&T, Lucent, Mattel, and Procter & Gamble are still grappling with it.
At Corning, sustained creativity is as much a part of the culture as glass itself (the company’s NYSE symbol is GLW — “glassworks”). Corning glassblowers made the first successful lightbulbs for Thomas Edison, and the company went on to invent the machine that mass-produced lightbulbs, making electric light available to ordinary people. But Corning no longer makes lightbulbs.
Corning invented the technology to mass-produce color-TV tubes out of glass, and it owned the market so thoroughly that the company had to negotiate a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department in the 1950s. But Corning doesn’t make many conventional color-TV tubes these days.
Corning used to make almost all of the thermometer glass in the country — including the glass for medical thermometers — and it invented the technology that allows dishes to go from freezer to oven to table (and invented the process for applying those floral patterns too). But Corning no longer makes thermometer glass or dishes.
In a breathless e-world where plenty of companies — Cisco, Lucent, and Sprint, for starters — lay claim to building, powering, or running the Internet, Corning invented the one piece of technology without which there would be no Internet: optical fiber.
Corning invents something, Corning invents a way of producing that invention, and eventually other companies copy Corning and run it out of that business. Then Corning reinvents itself.
“That culture,” says Ackerman, “has been passed down in the company from generation to generation. It’s a style, creating the atmosphere that says, ‘We really want you to innovate.’ ” Ackerman doesn’t just want people to innovate; he needs them to.
As with lightbulbs and TV tubes, optical fiber is transforming human society — and transforming Corning. As lightbulbs and TV tubes once did, optical fiber dominates the company’s revenue, and its profits. Fiber is tomorrow. But everyone at Corning knows that fiber is not forever. Something “up on the hill” — at Corning’s vast Sullivan Park R&D campus in Erwin, New York — is the real future.
Corning has had an R&D lab since 1908, and the company has had plenty of time to study and routinize the process of innovation. In fact, Corning’s success at managing that process is the only reason the company is still around. Indeed, successfully managing creativity is as much the “core technology” of Corning as Pyrex, Corning Ware, or LEAF optical fiber.
How does Corning do it?
Corning has an R&D process that combines freedom and discipline. Scientists and their managers have ample room to exercise their curiosity and judgment, but they are accountable for their time every month. Just because there’s flexibility doesn’t mean there isn’t rigor. Corning is constantly balancing the demand for short-term development of existing products against the need for long-term projects. Everyone at the company knows that it took two decades for optical fiber to become an important product. Everyone also knows that it currently supports the entire enterprise.
Once an idea shows promise, a formal five-step innovation process — a process that everyone knows and understands — ensures that good ideas get the attention and resources that they need to become products, and to progress briskly. The process also ensures that people eventually stop working on ideas that aren’t panning out.
Corning believes that in R&D, people are as important as science. And in some ways, because technical competence at Sullivan Park is assumed, human relations in the lab are even more important than science. People play specific roles in projects — including the role of “champion” for an idea — and people play specific roles at Sullivan Park, roles that they often discover themselves.
Corning’s scientific creativity connects to Corning’s businesses in a very simple way: talk. Not only is there no wall between R&D and the business units, there is a constant tidal flow of unmanaged communication about problems and opportunities. This communication takes place between factories and researchers, and between individual scientists and individual business managers. Necessity is, in fact, often the mother of invention.
Corning assumes that creativity and a scientist’s sense of well-being are intimately linked — and that well-being goes far beyond compensation and a refrigerator filled with free sodas. At Corning, well-being involves things like the ability to get equipment and lab space — a clear validation of scientific judgment.
Corning scientists transmit and reinterpret their own culture by constantly telling each other stories of their successes and failures. People at Corning know the legendary story of the company’s first dramatic innovation, which involved railroad signal lanterns, a primitive form of communication using glass and light that foreshadowed fiber optics. Donald Keck, one of the three inventors of optical fiber, is now a senior manager and research fellow at Sullivan Park.
At the front lines, eggplant-headed Echeverr?a carries Corning’s flag with her own sense of style. Unlike most managers, she believes that it is her job to adapt her management to the individual personalities of her scientists, rather than the other way around. In that sense, every single person in her group has a different boss — ideally, exactly the best boss for that person at that moment.
And Echeverr?a is not afraid of the quirky, moody humanity of her scientists — she revels in it. “I believe in being in close touch with people as human beings,” she says. “I can tell you about the family situation of every one of the people who work for me. I know what kind of work environment suits them. I can see when someone is not motivated.”
One of Echeverr?a’s distinctive tools is a simple, though uncommon, workplace question: “I am always walking into someone’s office and saying to that person, ‘How does it feel?’ How does it feel — in this project? In life? I have this conversation often with people, and not just people whose performance concerns me.”
She has learned not just to ask the question, but to listen to, and handle, the answers. “I don’t want to blind myself into thinking that my perspective is the only valid one. Those conversations keep me on my toes.”
Miracles of Glass (I)
Standard optical fiber, used in the lines that carry telephone conversations and email, is made of some of the purest material not just on Earth, but in the universe.
Consider ordinary window glass: If you stack up three feet of window panes, only a hazy aqua light seeps through. In contrast, the glass used for optical fiber is so clear that if the world’s oceans were replaced with optical-fiber glass, the bottom of even the deepest seas would be clearly visible to people at the surface.
Optical-fiber glass, says Corning senior research associate Dana Bookbinder, “is clearer than the air you are looking through.”
The Scientific Mission: Why Brilliant People Create
Adam Ellison’s desk is legendary. It’s not just that there are stacks of paper and glass samples on the desk. The stacks are really interlocking geologic layers cascading into each other, the material from 6 inches to 9 inches deep. The tops of the stacks are choppy, like a whitecapped sea, and some familiar objects bob into view: a radio, for playing classical music; a boxed 4-CD set of French language lessons; a can of soy-protein powder. The actual surface of the desk itself is invisible.
Ellison’s desk is so legendary that fellow scientist Dan Hawtof once played what he thought was a wonderful joke on Ellison. He took a newly hired scientist with him to Ellison’s office, and they hid a banana on the desk. (Hawtof’s own desk is so clean that it looks as if it was just uncrated.) A week later, amid much hilarity, they reclaimed the banana, considerably riper, but unmoved.
Ellison waves off the prank. “I don’t eat bananas,” he says. “I knew the banana was there. I figured someone left their banana in my office and would eventually come back and get it.” He squints in mock warning: “I know when anyone has touched my desk. I can always tell when someone has disturbed the force.”
Nestled atop a hill outside the city of Corning, New York proper, Sullivan Park is a campus of 1,200 people and seven buildings that is devoted exclusively to R&D for Corning. Wandering around, you often stumble into the stereotypes of scientists.
In truth, Americans don’t have much exposure to the daily work of scientists, certainly not compared to our exposure, through TV, to the work of detectives, doctors, and lawyers. Popular culture offers a handful of cartoon images: the addled, absentminded scientists of Disney comedies; the idealistic, if isolated, scientists of university labs; and the faintly evil, or at least greedy and corrupt, scientists who work for corporations, or for the villains in James Bond movies.
So scientists like Ellison are striking, in one sense, for the clarity of their motives in working for a big company. Most have rejected academia — which is a kind of false nirvana, despite the public perception — for a setting where they can actually accomplish something.
Ellison earned his PhD in geology from Brown when he was just 25, and he worked at Princeton and at Argonne National Laboratory before coming to Corning. “I decided consciously that I wanted to be in a corporation, not at a university,” says Ellison. “At a university or a national lab, you can piss away your whole career doing stuff — important stuff, brilliant stuff — that doesn’t matter. It’s just sitting in a journal somewhere, and no one even reads it. Here, someone always cares about what I’m doing.”
Division VP David Morse, Ellison’s boss one level above Echeverr?a, puts it even more directly: “I aspired to creating jobs — inventing stuff and creating jobs,” he says. Morse, 48, a widely regarded scientist and widely praised manager who has been at Corning for nearly 25 years, joined the company after earning his PhD in inorganic chemistry from MIT at age 23. “As a scientist inside a company, you have fantastic leverage. If you invent things, invent new materials, you can allow the life of a factory to go on — a place that employs all of those people. That was my motivation,” he says.
Two big projects bracket the time that Ellison has been with Corning. When he first arrived — he takes great amusement in his first day having been April Fools’ Day, in 1996 — he was immediately put on a SWAT team working to solve manufacturing problems with Corning’s flat-panel, LCD glass, used in color laptops, in PalmPilots, and, increasingly, in all sorts of wide-screen flat-panel displays. “I’m not sure I even sat down at my desk first,” he says.
That, in fact, is one way that Sullivan Park scientists get work: Someone tells them, or, more commonly, asks them, to solve a problem. The freedom that a scientist has to accept or reject such an assignment varies with seniority, the scarcity of the necessary talent, the urgency of the request, the urgency of other projects — and how much a scientist cares about the consequences of saying no.
The glass in your Apple G3 laptop screen is nothing like the glass in your sunglasses or in your car windshield. LCD glass, in fact, is a classic Corning product. Most consumers don’t realize that their color-laptop screen is probably made by Corning, which owns about 70% of the world market for high-end LCD glass.
And how did that cutting-edge glass get its start in life? When a Corning scientist in the mid-1960s let a trough of liquid glass overflow, the glass ran down both sides, rejoined at the bottom of the trough, then flowed down like a giant sheet, hardening into a piece of flawless glass. Neither of its outside surfaces had touched anything but air during its creation.
For two decades, Corning searched for a use for such a marvelous product. At first, it tried to sell it to carmakers for windshields and to eyeglass makers for lenses, but it was too expensive for either use. It was when the makers of computer screens started demanding high-performance glass that Corning’s “overflow glass” found its moment.
LCD glass is a premium product. Because it is designed to have layers of semiconductors and corresponding color filters applied to it, it must be absolutely flawless in composition and flawless in creation. And that presented a problem for Corning: Too many sheets of LCD glass had flaws in them. “If there was one inclusion that blocked a single pixel on a sheet of glass a meter wide,” Ellison explains, “the customer would reject the entire sheet and then call Corning to complain.”
Solving the problem — which was wasting lots of high-purity glass and lots of customer goodwill — meant more than sending a couple of people to the plant to figure out what was going on. Several dozen people struggled for months, doing fundamental glass analysis and process modeling, often coming up with solutions that were great lab ideas, but that wouldn’t work in a factory.
“We’d say, ‘We can solve the problem this way,’ ” says Ellison, “and the factory guys would say, ‘Yeah, when hell freezes over!’ ” Ultimately, the LCD team traced the defects, and the factory worked out a process to eliminate them.
Four years after that first assignment, Ellison has four major projects bubbling and another four simmering. But one project dominates his time: his discovery of a completely new kind of glass that uses the element antimony. Although the epiphany of the idea, and the first melting and pouring of the glass, happened more than 18 months ago, he talks about it with spontaneous delight.
“What kind of glass does antimony make? It’s a gorgeous glass! Brilliant, white glass. But it’s also very sensitive to contamination. Any contamination, and it turns a lurid yellow. It is something new under the sun,” he says. “It’s a very uncommon thing at this stage — after 100 years of glass research — to find a breakthrough glass. Antimony is in the backwaters of the periodic table. It’s really pretty weird.” (Although antimony has only a few commercial uses, a little-known one is of great value: Antimony imparts fire-resistance to children’s clothing.)
From Ellison’s perspective, his antimony glass was the direct result of the kind of independent, exploratory work he loves most, the kind of work he has acquired the credibility to pursue, the kind of work a setting like Corning makes possible — and the kind of work Corning is unusually positioned to exploit.
How does this kind of R&D work? “I wonder about something,” Ellison says. “I see someone who could use a material with a particular attribute, and I think, ‘Let me see if I can make a material with that attribute.’ Or I make something with interesting attributes — and then I wonder if someone could use it.”
Antimony-silicate glass falls into the first category — an invention aimed at a specific problem. Although fiber-optic cables are made of impossibly clear glass, the glass is not so completely transparent that light will travel through it indefinitely without dimming and fuzzing. Light flashed into the best optical fibers fades after about 80 miles and needs to be refreshed — brightened, sharpened, cleaned up, and zapped on its way again. Quite simply, the signals need to be amplified.
Amplification is a necessary evil, and it used to be done by converting the light back to electronic signals, amplifying those, and converting the restored signals back to light to continue their journey. (Involved as it all sounds, amplification happens so quickly that phone conversations proceed without any hiccups.) These days, the job of amplification is done much more efficiently and cheaply using lasers and special “amplifier fibers.” Certain kinds of light, when pumped into certain kinds of glass fiber, actually amplify the signals in the fiber. Light, then, can be used to amplify and focus other light.
Amplifier fiber is used in tiny quantities compared to the millions of miles of fiber-optic cable laid across the country: Tiny loops of amplifier fiber, like very fine fishing wire, do the job. But amplifiers are vital, and they are a lucrative business.
And what kind of glass does an amazing job of refreshing fiber-optic signals? Adam Ellison’s new antimony-silicate fiber. “It blows away everything else in terms of performance. The bandwidth it will amplify exceeds anything known. It’s the best material we’ve found,” says Ellison.
Even when his bosses didn’t think it was worth pursuing, and even when antimony-silicate glass proved difficult to make into fiber, Ellison persevered. Corning’s culture encourages people to champion their ideas; at least formally, scientists are “required” to spend 10% of their time pursuing slightly crazy ideas. (Most Corning R&D employees chuckle at the thought of having half a day a week free for unhurried exploration.) There’s even a Corning phrase for the experiments such projects involve: “Friday afternoon experiments,” things done in the last couple of hours of the workweek.
One whole genomics-technology business is being built on an idea that at one point was killed by the head of research, but which was pursued nonetheless through Friday afternoon experiments. And antimony-silicate glass could prove vital in the frenzied world of optical networking. “Corning has had three inventions that totally changed the world,” says Ellison, who, like most of his colleagues, is acutely tuned to Corning’s history. “How many companies have done that?
“Here, people say, ‘We could revolutionize the world if we did this.’ They don’t say, ‘We could make $100 million if we did this.’ “
Equally important is the fact that Corning has 149 years of experience turning ideas into manufacturable products. “We know how to make it happen,” says Ellison.
Indeed, Corning’s manufacturing mastery is as vital to its success as its R&D is, and it inspires a certain awe and humility among the company’s scientists.
Nick Borrelli is a colleague of Ellison as well as a fellow in Echeverr?a’s group. Fellow is the highest scientific rank there is at Corning. Borrelli has a career of five-dozen patents and a record of inventions that has made the company tens of millions of dollars, and is himself pursuing such arcane notions as the ultimate optical fiber: one not with a glass core, but with a hollow core, so that light can streak along in a vacuum.
“We know how to handle glass at Corning like no one in history,” says Borrelli. “I’m not smart enough to have an idea that Corning is not smart enough to be able to make.”
Miracles of Glass (II)
A single piece of optical fiber — pulled glass — is about the size of a strand of hair. Information flows through the piece of glass thread in a simple way — as digital Morse code: flashes of light and no light.
The light is sent into the fiber with a tiny laser, whose important parts are each the size of a grain of rice. The laser pulses away, sending coded information into the fiber.
So far, this is not really any more difficult to envision than the old signal-corps sailors, standing on the deck of a Navy ship, flashing away in Morse code with a big light to another ship on the horizon. But here’s where it gets truly amazing.
One laser, flashing light into one fiber, can send 130,000 simultaneous phone conversations down the fiber. That single channel carries that amount of information — not just the words of all of those conversations, but also the tone, the volume, and the emotion, not to mention the phone number — by flashing on and off 10 billion times a second.
Through a marvelously ingenious effort at packaging, single strands of fiber now routinely carry not just one channel of light, but 40 channels. That is, one thin strand of optical fiber can receive and transmit light from 40 lasers at the same time. Each of those lasers emits a slightly different color light, so the fiber can carry them without confusing them. A single strand of fiber can carry more than 5 million simultaneous phone conversations (or emails, Web pages, or corporate-data streams).
When a fiber is carrying 40 channels of light, it is sending 400 billion distinct flashes of light — on! off on! off — a second. How many is 400 billion pulses? To live for 400 billion seconds, you’d have to live to be 12,684 years old.
Four-hundred billion flashes a second, through a single thread.
The Creative Mind-Set: The Yenta of Sullivan Park
Dana Bookbinder, who earned a PhD from MIT in 1982, has a personality that is equal parts Robin Williams and Barbra Streisand. He likes doing “chemistry magic” shows for kids, he is constantly playing whatever audience he has for a groaning laugh, and he routinely circles Sullivan Park dispensing impossibly rich chocolate truffles that he has risen at 5 AM to make. He can also tell you — chemically speaking — why chocolate is so appealing. “It’s caffeine without a methyl group attached.”
Like Ellison, Bookbinder is a hands-on bench chemist, a man who likes to “mix stuff up in the lab, see it with my own eyes. Why is it behaving that way? I make a joke about myself: I think like an atom. If I were an atom, and I looked around, what would I see? What would I want to bond with?”
Bookbinder has a wide-ranging intellectual appetite. While at Corning, he has worked on both the U.S. Olympic bobsled and the performance of Geoff Bodine’s race cars. His cheerful gabbiness and eagerness to explain complicated science in simple terms can obscure the fact that the work he does is well beyond the reach of ordinary people.
When he was at GE Plastics, Bookbinder helped invent the form of Lexan plastic that makes compact discs cheap and easy to mass-produce. (“My mother tells people I invented the CD — I wish.”) At Corning, just last year, he had a flash of insight that allowed the company’s fiber factories to increase their productivity by a significant percentage — enough to show up in the company’s per-share earnings a couple of quarters later — at a time when every Corning fiber factory was running at 100% of capacity, with orders waiting to be filled. (Technically, Bookbinder is not even part of the fiber-optic research groups; he’s assigned to the biochemistry core-technology group.)
Over the past few years, working for the company that invented Pyrex, Bookbinder invented a new kind of plastic labware that is accelerating the drug-discovery process at pharmaceutical companies.
And yet, it is as much Bookbinder’s gregariousness as his scientific insight that serves Corning so well. Bookbinder is the yenta of Sullivan Park. He is a tireless gossip who arrives at Sullivan Park around 8:00 or 8:15 every morning, but he rarely reaches his office until after 9:30, because he’s chatting with people as he wanders around. He knows what dozens of his colleagues are working on, have worked on, and wish that they were working on.
Far from being an idle pastime or simple nosiness, Bookbinder-as-yenta is a vital part of the Sullivan Park R&D operation, a one-man knowledge-exchange system of unusual capacity, insight, and weak jokes.
So he bumped into a guy one day doing work on a certain kind of filter made of thin layers of material laid down on high-quality glass. “I said, ‘How are you? What problems are you working on?’ ” The guy did have a problem: When Corning went to cut the painstakingly prepared glass sandwiches into filters, the glass tended to shatter, scattering small shards everywhere.
“They were taking this perfect thing, putting a diamond saw to it, and ruining it,” says Bookbinder. As it happened, he knew of a fluid that binds to glass, but that doesn’t stick to anything else. He suggested that if the scientist used that fluid while cutting, it would keep the glass from flying into shards.
And how did he know about that fluid? Well, he happened to be talking to another scientist not so long ago . . .
Bookbinder got on an elevator with an acquaintance one day, asked his trademark question — “What’s your hardest problem?” — and ended up getting off with the scientist to help him bang out a solution and provide some contacts. Often, Bookbinder gets as much help from these apparently casual conversations as he gives.
How did last year’s dramatic breakthrough for the company’s optical-fiber factories happen? “Well,” says Bookbinder, “a friend and I were shooting the breeze, talking about work. I had some chemistry thing I was showing him. I was saying, ‘What can we do with it?’ ” Six months later, the factories had implemented the change that resulted from that conversation.
Bookbinder’s meandering curiosity is not a personal quality that Corning has always appreciated. He was one of the first midcareer scientists to be hired at Sullivan Park. (He and his wife, Andrea, who is now a chemical engineer at Sullivan Park, had been at ge Plastics for nine years.) “Frankly, the experience was not particularly pleasurable for the first couple years,” says Bookbinder. “I have a very aggressive personality, a very assertive personality, and they didn’t know what to do with me. They were treating me like a classic new hire–a young scientist who didn’t really know much.”
Bookbinder says that in nine years at Corning, he’s only had one worthwhile direct supervisor–his current one. “The thing I value most is my freedom,” he says. “I’m very cooperative. But if someone tells me that what I’m doing has no value, that I’m working on the wrong things–and we’ve got 10 patents and product going out the door–well, I’m going to keep right on doing what I’m doing.”
Partly because of the larger culture at Corning, partly because of the senior management at Sullivan Park, and partly because of Bookbinder’s own personal temperament and goals, he didn’t really worry about what his immediate bosses thought. “Dana was the earliest midcareer hire we did,” says David Morse, who was once one of Bookbinder’s senior managers. “We needed to learn to hire people like that–to preserve what’s good at Corning and maximize what’s new. When Dana came here, I said, ‘This is what I see as your potential, here’s how we manage your career to do that, and here’s why that will be fun.’ “
For the most part these days, says Bookbinder, “I can work on things that I think are important without being needled about it. They trust me, and they know that I won’t embarrass them, wasting a lot of money and effort. If a project isn’t working, I tell them. If I’m out of ideas, if I can’t find the right person, I’ll tell them. They know I will go figure stuff out that will make money and create jobs.
“This company has a 140-year history of inventors. This company realizes that invention is its whole lifeblood. I can see through a bad boss or two. There are a lot of neat people here. And I have a tremendous amount of fun at what I do.”
Indeed, this year Bookbinder received Corning’s Stookey Award for outstanding exploratory research, a career honor named to commemorate one of the company’s distinguished researchers. Dana Bookbinder is 43 years old.
Miracles of Glass (III)
Sullivan Park is 1.3 million square feet of lab, factory, and office space–about the size of a large suburban shopping mall. The space has been doubled in the past five years, to accommodate a doubling of research funds and staff as Corning refreshes its commitment to innovation.
The halls of Sullivan Park actually smell like a laboratory–with a faint chemical tang–and parts of the place are crowded with people wearing lab coats, shouldering past each other.
The facility has a wide range of capacities–the ability to make glass; to make fiber; to make optical devices; to do molecular, even quantum, analysis of almost any substance. It is a sometimes-
jarring mix of refined science and industrial muscle. There are clean rooms where researchers wear bunny suits; there are places where forklifts and bucket trucks are parked in the halls.
And there are signs everywhere that this is quite serious, sometimes dangerous, business. Sullivan Park has four separate emergency systems, each with its own color code and alarm pulls: fire (red), medical (blue), hazardous materials (yellow), and vacuum (green). Emergency medical teams are in place, and there are depots of paramedic supplies at various points around the building. Stretchers are bolted to the walls, as are cardiac defibrillators.
SCIENTISTS ARE PEOPLE TOO
Adam Ellison’s khakis are sprinkled with pin-sized holes, burn marks where liquid glass, thousands of degrees hot, has spattered his pants. He roams the halls of Sullivan Park at a lope–he says he once clocked a typical day of racing between labs at about three miles–a pair of protective goggles slung around his neck. Ellison sounds a little bit like the Cookie Monster, from Sesame Street: He speaks with a perpetual croak, because one of his vocal chords is paralyzed. “It’s a problem at Corning,” he says wryly, “because if I can’t shout, it reduces my ability to argue for my point of view.”
A common layman’s notion about science is that, as a profession, it might somehow be above personalities, or pettiness, or even substantive disputes. Got a disagreement? Do an experiment. If science is about facts, what’s there to argue about?
Plenty, actually. To start, there are the usual questions of what to spend money on, which projects are most important, and which ideas are most promising. Day-to-day bench science may ultimately reach conclusions about things, but arriving at conclusions is a process filled with trial and error. Which approach is quickest? Which is most likely to produce results? Scientists at Sullivan Park spend large chunks of their time not in the lab, but in meetings, trying to sort out such questions.
And the intersection of modern science and modern technology is a surprisingly elusive, shifting crossroad. Scientists at Corning have been studying glass for a century, and each year, more than 1,000 people at Sullivan Park alone produce a huge body of new research. But Corning, like many companies, doesn’t quite understand how its products do everything that they do, or why. Bookbinder just recently solved some mysterious and unnerving behavior in the company’s optical fiber by discovering that it contains an ingredient– a contaminant–that no one had ever suspected was there. How much of the “dirt” is in the fiber? So little that Bookbinder had to infer its presence logically. Sullivan Park’s millions of dollars’ worth of high-powered analysis equipment couldn’t detect it, because it is in the parts-per-trillion: the equivalent of 12 inches of the distance from the earth to the sun.
One of the secrets to managing creativity, at least scientific creativity, turns out to be that, like most other kinds of management, it’s ultimately all about people. “The downside to any project here,” says Ellison, “is almost invariably a human thing. The challenge is to corral all of these egos and make sure that they don’t stomp all over each other.”
Human relations–teamwork, ability to take criticism, ability to mentor, ability to entertain other points of view–is a very large part of the researchers’ performance reviews. “If I were technically brilliant, but a jerk,” says Ellison, “I wouldn’t last too long here. I’m an extrovert. People often say that your greatest asset can also be your greatest weakness. Being an extrovert is my greatest asset–and my greatest weakness.
“And that very point was in my last performance review–that the way for me to enhance my performance here at Corning was to be more cautious about how people react to me. To give them time to speak their minds. I suspect that’s the most common kind of issue in discussing people’s performance–not, ‘You need to learn more about optical physics.’ “
The other challenge of managing creativity–whether you’re dealing with people who write Hallmark greeting cards or people at Sullivan Park–is deciding how to measure and reward productivity. “I regard research as a low-probability enterprise,” says Ellison. “I melt something, I get all excited about it, but I don’t think I’m going to be shipping a product anytime soon. I gird myself for disappointment every day, because I know that only 1%, or maybe 3%, of my effort will ever pay off.” Credibility, which comes slowly, is won by having good ideas, playing them out, helping colleagues, and eventually coming up with something useful.
“Huge numbers of ideas wind up going nowhere,” says Ellison. “Once in a while you have one that has a big impact–a breakthrough that dwarfs what’s been spent on you. So our reward structure has to be different.”
In fact, what makes Ellison so happy at Corning has little to do with pay or benefits, and a lot to do with the two senior technicians who help him do his research, and with the new high-purity melting rooms that Corning is building, at a cost of $3 million, so that he can do more experiments.
“I would hate to be competing against me,” says Ellison. “At Argonne, I was so desperate for a technician that I offered to pay for one out of my own pocket. Here, not long after I came, I was assigned a second full-time technician–a man with 30 years’ experience, who has forgotten more about making glass than I will ever learn. He has tripled my research capability.
“In four years here, I’ve done eight times the work I did for my PhD thesis. Intellectually, I gallivant the world. Professionally, the quality of science I’ve done here exceeds that of anything I’ve done before. The stakes are higher, and I’m much, much more motivated to understand.”
Ellison pauses. “I certainly have no want of resources. That, in fact, is the reward.”
Miracles of Glass (IV)
One of the glasses that Corning makes–a uv polarizing glass–is so specialized that an entire year’s production would fit in a single briefcase. Retail cost? $40 million. Corning made the 200-inch mirror for the Hale Telescope atop Mt. Palomar, the glass for the mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope, and the window glass for every manned American spacecraft from Mercury to the shuttle.
During the early heyday of the railroads, Corning solved a vexing, dangerous problem, which was to design signal-lantern glass that wouldn’t shatter, despite being hot on the inside and covered with ice or snow on the outside.
Corning has also had some singular failures, which it keeps close track of. The company developed an extremely fire-resistant glass-polymer material and tried to sell it to the airlines for use as an airplane interior. It suffered from two problems: It was much heavier than what the weight-sensitive airlines were already using, and it was ugly. That product–which is called Corten–remains on the shelf, waiting for a market.
And for years, Corning bet that the best foundation for computer disk drives was a glass ceramic. Corning even built a factory to manufacture glass substrates for computer disk drives. The problem was, they couldn’t convince anyone else. In 1995, Corning finally shut down the glass disk-drive business.
THE RIGHT PEOPLE ON THE RIGHT PROJECTS
A manager changed Doug Allan’s life–altering not just the arc of his career, but the way he thinks about
himself. “What difference has Lina Echeverría made in my life? All the difference in the world,” says Allan, 44, a research associate who has a PhD in theoretical physics from mit. “She helped me grow up. She utterly changed my attitude about what it means to contribute to this lab.”
Not that Allan was a novice when he ended up in Echeverría’s glass-research group–at least not a scientific novice. He had been at Corning a decade, working one-on-one with a Corning fellow, developing techniques for quantum- mechanical modeling. Basically, Allan was trying to develop equations to predict and explain the behavior of all kinds of materials based on their molecular structure.
In some ways, it was an idyllic professional existence: The work was cerebral and focused on his area of interest, and he was working without interference at the frontiers of math, physics, and materials. “My previous manager was very hands-off,” says Allan. “He liked to give me a lot of freedom. What I didn’t know was how valuable someone with a hands-on style could be, because I didn’t get that experience until Lina got involved in my career.”
Allan was transferred to Echeverría’s group to bring his modeling skills to bear on some of their problems, and also because if his career at Corning was to flourish, he had to get out from behind the shadow of one of Corning’s most respected scientists. For a while, working for Echeverría wasn’t that much different.
Then, one day, she asked Allan to join a team that was attacking a puzzling problem: Semiconductor makers, who were using highly specialized lenses made from Corning glass to etch their chips, discovered that after years of pulsing laser light through the lenses, the glass was changing, shrinking, and affecting performance. “It was my first exposure to working on a team, and to working on something that was being sold as a product,” says Allan. “I would certainly say I was frightened.”
Quite simply, the team needed Allan to model the glass and the light and to help explain what was happening. “Compared to my previous work,” he says, “the modeling was utterly trivial. And yet some of the first calculations I did had more impact on Corning than all my eight years of quantum mechanics. It changed my perspective.”
After that success, Echeverría asked Allan to do the same kind of modeling on the lcd-glass crash team, of which Adam Ellison was a part. “She said, ‘I’m kind of asking, but it’s not really voluntary–it’s a huge emergency,’ ” Allan recalls. “I did think about it for a day. If I said no, it was clear that I would have Lina’s displeasure. She made it very clear that she would be grateful if I would do this.” Again, Allan joined up, and again, he had a gratifying experience on the project.
Now, five years into working for Echeverría, Allan is so much in demand that he often has to palm off requests for his modeling skills to others. More importantly, he’s discovered skills beyond his aptitude for equations. “I used to think that math and computational skills were all I brought to the party,” says Allan. “My old boss
didn’t care about my personality at all. What Lina has taught me is that my personality matters a lot. If I do a calculation but can’t explain the results to my colleagues, what’s the point?”
What Allan discovered is that despite his limited experience with teams, he works well in them and has quickly found an important, diplomatic role to play. “I get along with people, and I don’t take offense in professional disagreements,” he says. “And not everybody here gets along with everybody else.” Allan says, for instance, that Adam Ellison’s powerful ability to express his point of view often puts off his colleagues, whether he’s right or not.
“I am good at smoothing things over,” says Allan. “By getting along, by being friendly, by having conversations with people, I’ve become far more productive to my colleagues and to the company. I know it sounds trite, but Lina knew things about me, and appreciated things about me, that I didn’t know about myself.”
For Echeverría, Allan’s emergence from his professional cocoon (“He beams now,” she says proudly) is a good illustration of her central tenet of managing creative people. “I feel that if I do one thing right, everything else falls into place: that is, getting the right person on the right project.”
In some sense, that’s all that managers really have to offer–the right kind of work. It’s the way Echeverría taps people’s talent, it’s the way she develops new skills, it’s the way she broadens people’s experience. Doling out assignments is the way she makes sure that talent doesn’t languish, and that people are attacking Corning’s priorities. “Scientists are very driven to deliver,” she says. “It’s in consonance with the nature of their work.” Sometimes they just need a little direction.
“I do ask people to join specific teams and to play specific roles,” says Echeverría. It isn’t just for their own benefit, of course. Corning has work that needs to be done, and fast. The “clock times” in the telecommunications businesses where Corning makes the most money are so short that the company often forms three or four teams to attack technical problems simultaneously from different angles. It can’t wait to fail and start again; it needs to fail and succeed at the same time.
“There are times when I don’t assign someone to a team not for any technical reason,” says Echeverría, “but because it wouldn’t be the right mix of personalities. Sometimes I have to do a double whammy–assign the right technical person, and assign someone to handle the human-factors part.”
Echeverría does not have a Pollyannaish view of management or of human nature. “Sometimes I go ahead and put someone on the team, and I say, ‘I cannot sanitize the world for you. I cannot take away this personality you don’t work well with. If you do not learn to deal with this person now, you’ll encounter this person again later. You have to learn.’ “
Inside the glass group, there was more than a little skepticism of Echeverría when she took over as manager, especially because she warned that she had a more hands-on approach than the man she succeeded. “They wanted to know, Can you be our leader? Can you inspire us?”
The term “hands-on manager” has, in fact, become synonymous with “micromanager.” The difference is a matter of restraint: The best managers must be hands-on, in order to provide guidance, coaching, and judgment about priorities.
Managers are often afraid to ask their employees how they’re doing, or how they are feeling, because they aren’t sure how to respond if the answer isn’t good, or if people reveal a view of themselves that doesn’t line up with reality. “People here expect that I will be honest with them,” says Echeverría. “If you are not honest with them, you are not respecting them. You are just sugarcoating. I think that science-and-technology people are too smart for that.”
Recently, she recalls, a member of her group came in very concerned about the level of competitiveness that the person was encountering with the other members of a team the person was on. “And I held up the mirror to that person, because that person was the source of most of those problems. It started out as a very contentious, very difficult conversation. I do see other people’s point of view,” says Echeverría.
Part of Echeverría’s talent, of course, is her ability to handle such situations. She is a woman not just of energy and humor, but also of thoughtfulness and charm. “I am protective of my group,” she says. “They know that, and I gain in their respect for me. I do things that are a little painful for me–so they are willing to do some things for me that are a little painful for them. What I’m after as a manager is that I want people to feel so good about themselves that they don’t need to punch someone else to feel good about themselves.”
Sidebar: WHAT DO DISHES and DNA HAVE IN COMMON?
Corning may have invented optical fiber, helping lay the cable for the Internet-wired world, but when you mention the company to almost anybody, you’ll get, “Corning – you mean, dishes?”
So what about the dishes, anyway?
If you go to Wal-Mart, you can still buy the classic Corelle, Pyrex, or Corning Ware dishes and casseroles. And they are still designed and manufactured by many of the same folks Corning hired years ago. But Corning doesn’t own the business or make the dishes anymore. The company sold the brands in 1998 to privately held
Borden, and they are now part of a Borden housewares company called World Kitchen (www.worldkitchen.com), which also owns oxo and sells Cuisinart and Farberware, and which claims to be growing the businesses substantially.
At some point, Corning’s dishes acquired a frumpy reputation, but their technology was anything but. The clear-glass, heat-resistant Pyrex dishes, first produced in 1915, were part of a glass revolution, and they eventually spawned a vital business for
Corning in containers and tools for scientific research. The heat-resistant, glass-ceramic material with the distinctive floral patterns, so renowned for its versatility as both a casserole and a serving dish, also found another use – believe it or not, for ballistic-missile nose cones. In fact, the molecule models that rest on a coffee table in the sitting area of director of glass and glass-ceramics research Lina Echeverría’s office are potassium richterite – a key ingredient to making dishes tough and durable, while also giving them the appearance of bone china.
The consumer-products business was so much a part of Corning’s culture that selling it was “emotionally difficult,” says Corning chairman and ceo Roger Ackerman. But by 1998, the business accounted for less than 10% of Corning’s revenues, and the company was becoming an optical-networking firm focused on high technology. Ackerman was happy to turn dishes over to someone who understood retailing. As part of the sale, Corning required Borden to keep the dishes operations in the greater Corning, New York area, and to sustain Corning’s level of employee benefits. “Doing it right was very important,” says Ackerman.
And Corning Ware technology continues to pay off for the company that invented it. Corning is moving aggressively into genomics, selling “gene chips” – glass slides with dna arrays on them – for medical-research purposes. Some of the technology for precisely printing 10,000 individual genes on a single glass slide is adapted from the decorating process used to get the floral patterns on the casserole dishes.
Sidebar: Five Steps from Inspiration to Earnings
Charles Deneka, Corning’s chief technology officer, can offer all kinds of metaphors for describing Corning’s R&D culture. It is, for instance, like the U.S. military, as opposed to the old Soviet military. The Soviet military was all about command and control – very tightly scripted and managed, and not all that good at adapting to change. The U.S. military is highly trained and conditioned, but it has been given the creative license and latitude to ad-lib in battle.
Corning’s R&D operation is like a soccer team, as opposed to a traditional football team: a collection of talent, all with roles to play, all able to keep performing in a game that is constantly changing. It is like a jazz ensemble, as opposed to a symphony.
But as Deneka, 56, acknowledges, in R&D, “there’s a range of management, from the intellectual process of coming up with ideas, of creating new thoughts, that is the least managed, up to the running of manufacturing lines of new products, which is as tightly managed as any factory.” And Corning has committed to paper the actual steps between inspiration and earnings, and made those steps part of the culture of Sullivan Park. They are quite simple.
1. An idea or inspiration forms. Before going much further, a team builds up as much preliminary knowledge as possible.
2. Experimentation tests the feasibility of the idea. Is it borne out in the lab? Is there a reasonable product possible from the idea?
3. Feasibility is one thing – practicality is another. At this point, an idea has morphed into a product, and there is a formal team working to overcome manufacturing and marketing hurdles.
4. Production and profitability are explored. Even if a good idea becomes a good product, can it be manufactured reliably? Can it be produced at a cost that will allow it to earn a profit in the market?
5. Profitability is examined in light of the product life cycle. Once a product is on the market, how do you stay ahead of competition? This question may take the R&D staff back to Step 1.
The various forms of optical fiber, Corning’s largest source of revenue, are at various steps of the process today. Corning’s biotechnology initiative – producing gene chips for medical research – is in the early stages of Step 4, with products coming out this fall.
There are formal meetings and reviews between each stage, and senior management at Sullivan Park makes decisions about which projects get the money to advance through the steps. And more and more, at each stage of the process, the formal project teams are made up not just of R&D people, but also of manufacturing and business staff members, because Corning is constantly trying to shorten product life cycles. If something new is going to become a business in a year, the business side of Corning needs to know.
Charles Fishman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior editor based in Raleigh, North Carolina. This article was his idea. Contact Lina Echeverría by email (email@example.com), or learn more about Corning inc. on the Web (www.corning.com).