Lucent's O'Neill crosses technological line

Seven months ago James O'Neill crossed the technological line from computers to communications. And so far life on the other side is suiting him just fine.

In January O'Neill joined Lucent Technologies Inc. as president of the company's Government Solutions unit leaving behind 20 years in the computer business. O'Neill previously had been with Digital Equipment Corp. most recently heading that company's federal business. Before his stay at Digital O'Neill spent 10 years at control systems manufacturer Sanders Associates now Lockheed Sanders.

O'Neill now is responsible for the $1 billion government arm of Lucent a $27 billion communications products and services company that spun off of AT&T Corp. 18 months ago. Lucent makes a range of gear from huge communications switches to such microelectronics products as high-speed modem chips.

O'Neill's task is to serve as the sales conduit into the government for Lucent's entire product line. He also represents Lucent's famed Bell Laboratories unit which pioneered Touch-Tone dialing and which continues to push the envelope in such emerging fields as wave division multiplexing.

To say that this mission excites O'Neill would be something of an understatement. "I've never been at a company with better people and better technology " he said in a recent interview in his Silver Spring Md. office. "There's much more variety."

O'Neill noted that the pace of technological change within the computer industry contrasts with the more leisurely rate of change within his new field. At Digital O'Neill said products changed every 90 days while at Lucent the new waves of technology hit about every 12 months. "It doesn't turn over quite as fast " he said.

Human turnover is also less dramatic than in the computer sector according to O'Neill. While Digital was battling workstation rivals Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc. for employees defections from Lucent have been rare O'Neill said. He attributes this condition to employee loyalty."People [here] have an affinity for Bell Labs " he explained. "People love Bell Labs."

But reminders of O'Neill's computing background can be found in his office. A photograph of O'Neill and Digital chief Robert Palmer sits on a table near a copy of Intel Corp. chairman Andrew Grove's book Only the Paranoid Survive. And Lucent's Bell Labs itself carries a reminder of the computer past as the inventor of the Unix operating system. "I fought Unix for 10 years of my life with [Digital's] VMS " O'Neill noted ironically.

Digital although now supporting Unix is a company where the operating system was once called "as exciting as a Soviet tractor " O'Neill said.The federal buyer offers another common thread between O'Neill's two careers: "It's the same customer " he said.

He said federal customers have growing communications requirements and are willing to spend the money to upgrade essential infrastructure. Finding customers is not an issue according to O'Neill. Deciding which customers to pursue is however.

"My biggest problem is trying to figure out what opportunities to go after " he said. "We're in a target-rich environment."

In discriminating among opportunities Lucent is pursuing work in the civilian agency market and the Air Force where the company needs to bolster its presence [FCW Aug. 18]. O'Neill views the government as a "big opportunity for Lucent" but cautions that vying for big deals is not a business for the fainthearted. "When you win you win big when you lose you lose big " he said.

In recent months Lucent has come up on the winning side. The company captured a contract under the Navy's $2.9 billion Vivid program which O'Neill called a must-win and is one of two contractors on the Army's Digital Switched Systems Modernization Program.

In addition to sorting out the myriad federal bid opportunities Lucent as a young company also has the challenge of creating an image for itself. O'Neill refers to Lucent as the industry's "best-kept secret" and a "stealth" company. He said recent marketing initiatives have raised the company's profile.

But ultimately O'Neill identifies Lucent with the government's thirst for bandwidth. "The more bandwidth you can give them the better " he said. "We call ourselves `Bandwidth `R' Us.' "

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