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  • Meeting Challenges, Taking Risks

Photonics Spectra
Jul 2008
An interview with Dr. Arthur N. Chester, conducted by Dr. Milton M.T. Chang

Arthur Chester retired in 2002 after 14 years as president and general manager of HRL Laboratories, formerly Hughes Research Laboratories, in Malibu, Calif. The company is one of the leading industrial research laboratories, with approximately 350 scientists and support personnel on staff. Chester received his BS in physics from the University of Texas and his PhD in theoretical physics from California Institute of Technology. He has published more than 40 technical papers and edited 16 books as well as conference proceedings. He is a past president of IEEE Laser Electro-Optics Society (LEOS), a fellow of IEEE and a recipient of its Centennial and Third Millennium medals. In addition, he is a fellow of OSA and an elected fellow of the California Council of Science and Technology. He is on the boards of several high-technology companies and is co-director of the International School of Quantum Electronics in Erice, Italy.


Milton Chang is managing director of Incubic Venture Fund, which invests in businesses related to photonics technologies. He is a former CEO and president of Newport Corp. and of New Focus Inc. and currently sits on the boards of Precision Photonics and OpVista. He earned a BS from the University of Illinois and MS and PhD degrees from Caltech. He is a fellow of IEEE, of OSA and of LIA, a former president of the LEOS and of LIA. He is on the board of trustees of Caltech and is a member of its Committee of 100.

Milton Chang: I hope to gain some insights from your successful career.

Arthur Chester: Everybody’s life follows a different trajectory. We all face a lot of choices all the time, even if we stay in the same position. There will be one project or another to participate in, or one person or another to work with. And as long as you’re willing to take the chance of doing something different, you are going to learn, and you will come out of each change with more skills and perspective that you will find good application for in the rest of your life.

Starting from Caltech, what made you choose Bell Labs, and what happened there?

Let’s say the emotional traction of going to Bell Labs and the financial practicality lined up. I got into laser research and, after a couple of years, they had me working on the picture phone because Bell Labs gradually phased out the laser program. I was finding fewer and fewer opportunities to do interesting research and decided to look around after a couple of reorganizations. I went to Hughes Research Laboratories (HRL) because its laser program was expanding.

You had a meteoric rise there.

I was working on ion lasers and chemical lasers. They had me participate in marketing so, in a couple of years, I became a section head. The choice was obvious when presented as, “Either you take this management position, or we can find somebody else to fill the position who will have more control over your time.” I became department manager and then assistant lab director. These things all happened about two years apart, so it was a relatively rapid rise.

Why did you move into the “factory”

After being in that position for five or six years, I was feeling a certain itch. At the same time, the VHSIC (very high speed integrated circuits) program came along, so I put up my hand. I ran that program for a few years, and then I became the group vice president of the technical engineering division, which was the largest engineering division in Hughes — about 1200 employees. And after a couple of years of that, I moved over to manage the strategic system division.

What got you back to HRL?

At that point, I had figured out how to run a business unit, but I decided that it had been more fun managing research. About that time, George Smith, then the lab director, was coming up to retirement at Malibu. To make a complicated story short, Hughes suddenly was very anxious and wanted me to run HRL when I announced that I would be leaving in 12 weeks to run the Raytheon Research Laboratories back in the Boston area.

Running HRL is a big job!

It was certainly an exciting opportunity for me. That was 1988. Within a few years, the CTO at corporate retired, and I was given that job in addition to the Malibu job. The long-term corporate technical strategy was to be at the front of the technology areas where the business units were going, where you can create a demand by the brilliance of what you come up with.

How do you manage technologists outside of your field?

Management is basically an interaction between people, trying to corral people who have a certain independence of mind and a lot of individual personal goals. As you know, the person who really understands his subject thoroughly can explain it to a reasonably intelligent outsider and make it comprehensible. So I think that using the skills that one develops as a researcher (asking questions) and interpreting the answers in the context of “where is the speaker coming from,” you can get a pretty good feeling for whether they know what they are talking about and how it fits into the body of human knowledge.

Let’s get back to the sale of Hughes Aircraft Company.

Hughes was completely privately held — actually owned by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Florida. The board at the medical institute said, “We’re not serving the charitable charter of the medical institute by having all of our assets in one company.” So they auctioned off Hughes, and GM [General Motors] won the bid. They intended to let it run pretty much unfettered, and they did that for a period of time.

I thought Raytheon owned Hughes.

Only the defense portion. That came later when Raytheon persuaded GM to sell off the defense part of Hughes, which was sort of done over Hughes’ head.

Boy, that’s like being taken over byan archenemy!

I hardly need to tell you that some of the old-time Hughes executives who spent their entire lives trying to put Raytheon out of business were not pleased. In any case, in 1997, we developed a concept for a shared corporate R&D laboratory, jointly owned by Hughes and Raytheon, and it was supported partly on contact and partly on company funds. One change that occurred was that Hughes then sold off the space business to Boeing, so Boeing took over the Hughes ownership of the lab. GM, who still owned DirecTV and also had a lot of vested interest in the lab at that point, bought a portion of ownership from Raytheon and Boeing. So from that point, there were three owners.

Any success story from the perspective of GM?

The relationship with General Motors was stimulating. A valuable HRL link into General Motors was through the GM R&D laboratory. HRL would offer expertise in fields where it was a leader, such as lasers, optics and high-speed microelectronics, and GM R&D would adapt and translate these technologies into the specific and demanding requirements of the vehicle business. In particular, Hughes helped GM with instrument panel displays, radar to assist cruise control, antenna design, energy storage and systems design. The OnStar system was developed by a Hughes subsidiary — Hughes Network Systems — in almost complete form and only later on transferred and integrated into GM.

You must be good at overcoming fear of the unknown.

Each one of us has a region of comfort that we settle into. The more unfamiliar a new situation is, the more information we need to have. What we’re always striving for is to have an intellectual decision and an emotional decision that agree. That is, the decision should make logical sense, but then it should also feel right. I generally try to learn more about the situation whenever I don’t feel that both sides of the decision line up.

Still, it is taking a risk.

As technically trained people, we have a tendency to want to find the perfect answer. If we never step out of our comfort zone, we will probably miss some opportunities. It’s probably better to try things even if it may feel risky from an emotional point of view. It is good to keep in mind that the decisions we make in our normal life are usually not irrevocable, and other opportunities will come along, so we can feel relaxed enough to make a decision instead of procrastinating.

Any words of wisdom to pass on?

Always be nice to everyone. The importance of it is really obvious when you find the same people reappearing in your life, in new roles.

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