PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo MARCH 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 7
A MIND FOR DESIGN - By Pierre Home-Douglas - Photo-Illustration by Polly Becker

From the outside the University of Maryland’s gleaming new glass-and-brick Jeong H. Kim Engineering Building looks like any campus landmark, only spiffier. Step into the soaring atrium, however, and it immediately becomes clear just how radically this state-of-the-art “learning laboratory” defies convention.

University of Maryland’s Jeong H. Kim Engineering Building

Exposed catwalks and elevator shafts offer lessons on bridge-building and hydraulics. Large flat-screen panels flash scholarship opportunities. But the 160,000 square-foot Kim Building’s biggest surprise lies in its layout, which jumbles traditional with emerging disciplines—thus compelling collaboration. The wet chemicals area sits across the hall from a virtual reality lab. Traffic-safety students rub elbows with orthopedic mechanics. Then there’s the vast micro- and nano-fabrication clean room, which houses etching as well as optical lithography. By creating “the perfect environment” to support cross-disciplinary endeavors and innovation, says Nariman Farvardin, dean of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, the Kim Building “represents the future of the Clark School and of engineering itself.”

University of Maryland’s Jeong H. Kim Engineering Building ATRIUM

And how does the visionary alumnus and professor of practice feel about having his name “up there” over the splendid space he helped design and fund? “Very embarrassed,” says Bell Labs’ new president, Jeong Kim, 45, the self-made telecommunications titan who gave $5 million toward the building and to endow a scholarship. “It doesn’t feel right.” Indeed, Kim, a popular lecturer in reliability engineering—he has held joint appointments in the electrical and computer engineering department and the mechanical engineering department since 2002—initially refused the honor. He relented only because the first Asian-named building in the campus’s history could show how much immigrant engineers like him contribute to society.

And Jeong Kim, who spoke no English when he came to the United States from Korea with his impoverished family at age 14, has contributed much to his adopted country. His achievements include breakthrough technologies that allow voice, data and video transmission across a variety of paths—thus paving the way for high-speed fiber optics—and defense applications that allow real-time communication between reconnaissance sensors and battlefront shooters. Such innovations helped propel Kim onto the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans and into academic halls of fame. Yet he remains the most successful engineer-entrepreneur few people have ever heard of.

In an era of opulence and excess, Kim prefers to live below his means. The man who sold his company, Yurie Systems, to N.J.-based Lucent Technologies in 1998 for $1 billion, now commutes to the company’s Bell Labs headquarters from his Maryland home in a decade-old Acura with 135,000 miles on the odometer. “It gives you an indication that my lifestyle hasn’t changed as a result of my financial success,” Kim jokes in accented English. His cell phone loses reception and drops calls just like everyone else’s. Weekends find him shuttling his two daughters to music lessons, soccer games and other activities. “I’m basically their chauffeur,” says Kim, who enjoys chatting with the girls about school and friends—times he missed while building his business. “I’m like every other dad. It’s kind of fun.”

Fun was a luxury the young Jeong Kim could scarcely imagine growing up near Annapolis, Md. His father, stepmother (his parents divorced when Kim was very young) and three siblings arrived with almost no money. Clothing came from thrift stores. Food was so scarce that Kim often went hungry, and quarrels and other unpleasantness marred his home life. Kim left at age 16 and was taken in by his math teacher’s family. (He worked the graveyard shift at the local 7-Eleven to support himself, surviving on less than four hours of sleep a night.)

The Right Mentor

It proved a fortuitous—and pivotal—move. The math teacher, who shared Kim’s fascination with computers, also taught a programming course. This was the late 1970s, and Steve Wozniak had just come out with the original Apple personal computer. “When I saw that, I realized that if you can automate something, you could make a real big difference in the quality of our life,” recalls Kim, who had gravitated to physics but now began to dream of designing his own computer.

That dream—and an aptitude test—led Kim to Johns Hopkins University on scholarship and a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science. He spent all his time building computers—when he wasn’t dating his future wife and indulging in their mutual passion for Broadway musicals. (Early in their relationship they drove from Maryland to New York to see “42nd Street,” and named their eldest after the heroine in “Phantom of the Opera.”) He also worked at a startup launched by a Johns Hopkins alumnus, who happened to have his same adviser.

Rather than remain in the startup’s secure—and potentially lucrative—perch, Kim joined the Navy’s elite nuclear submarine service upon graduation in 1982. As he told an Academy of Achievement interviewer: “I did not want to wait until I was 80 years old or 60 years old to pay back” the country that had given him opportunities. Meanwhile, Kim continued to sink his savings into his old company—which floundered like other startups after IBM introduced its PC. After the company was disbanded in 1986, he pursued a master’s degree in technical management from Johns Hopkins, vowing to start a company but “do it right” someday.

Urged by his wife, in 1989 Kim left the Navy and then completed his master’s degree. Instead of starting his own business immediately, Kim joined Allied Signal, where he developed satellite systems at the naval research lab. He also decided to “finish” his education, earning a Ph.D. in reliability engineering—a key issue in satellite and other components—from Maryland in 1991. His interest was in electronic and network reliability.

Many doctorates would gravitate to the comfortable groves of academe. But few engineers have Kim’s entrepreneurial drive or stomach for risk—which he says stems from his humble background. “When you start from the bottom, first of all you have a certain attitude,” he explains. “And that attitude is that if you’re not hungry anymore, then everything else is extra in life. So why not take a risk?”

Kim gave himself two years to make a go of Yurie Systems—the telecommunications company he launched in 1992. (He named it for the baby girl he had no time to see.) “If I can’t get momentum, then I’ll go back and get a job,” he vowed. After unsuccessful attempts to team up with a group, Kim decided to go solo as a contractor. Some 15 months later, he snared his first Pentagon contract. “I worked very, very hard,” he recalls.

Buoyed by the military’s demand for such products as high-speed data networks, Yurie Systems soared. Kim brought his old math teacher aboard and recruited such luminaries as former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and they were dazzled by his humility, brilliance and tenacity. (“You can see that even when he plays racquetball,” notes engineering school Dean Farvardin.) He also made a crucial decision to steer the company, which leveraged a new international standard called Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM), from defense contracts to commercial equipment. By 1997, the innovative Yurie box—which transmitted voice, video and data over phone lines as well as satellite and wireless networks—was named No. 1 on Business Week’s “hot growth” list and landed Kim on the cover.

A year later, Lucent Technologies bought the company, vaulting Kim—whose share reputedly topped $500 million—onto Forbes’ list of richest Americans and his partners to megawealth.

At 37, he could have retired very comfortably. Instead, Kim became chief of Lucent’s carrier network division, where he could continue to “add value to society,” as he told an interviewer. (Then, as now, he commuted to New Jersey to avoid disrupting his family.) He also began donating millions to educational institutions, including his alma maters and an endowed chair named at Stanford where his friend and former colleague William Perry now teaches—much to his friend’s surprise.

The success of Yurie Systems owes as much to Kim’s acumen and character as to any breakthrough product. Indeed, Kim’s powerful people skills convinced a reluctant Perry to join Yurie Systems. The former Pentagon chief had rebuffed all job feelers until he left office. He departed on a Friday. The next morning Jeong Kim knocked on his door. He explained that a board member had said Perry could talk once out of office, “so here I am.” Perry “invited him in, fully prepared to turn him down and to put him off.” A two-hour conversation changed Perry’s mind, “partly because I was impressed with the product but mostly because I was impressed with him.” Along with Kim’s “astute evaluation” of his high-tech product, Perry saw him as “a real winner and leader” with whom he would enjoy working. “It turned out to be a good decision.”

Return to Academia

A devoted father, Kim also tries to make his daughters recitals and soccer games. As he puts it: “You have to make time for family, otherwise what’s the point of working?” That philosophy prompted Kim to leave Lucent in 2001 for a teaching perch closer to home at Maryland. As a “professor of practice” the in School of Engineering, he lectured to standing-room only crowds. One observer likened the crush of questioners afterwards to autograph seekers at a rock concert.

Kim’s three-year tenure at Maryland coincided with the engineering school’s push for more cross-disciplinary initiatives and real-world practice. But like many institutions, most departments lay in separate spaces. Kim, who chose a two-floor building over a five-floor structure to facilitate brainstorming when Yurie Systems expanded, began rethinking engineering education’s physical plant.

The resulting Jeong H. Kim Building, which opened in September, reflects his discussions with builders and architects. “Traditionally, in universities, you create a panel to solve a particular problem,” notes Kim. “I took the next step. How does innovation really happen? It happens through serendipity. You let interesting, talented people interact, and wonderful things happen.” Rather than “create a center of excellence, just create the environment.”

By abolishing traditional intellectual and physical boundaries, the Kim Building’s very design fosters collaboration. Researchers from emerging fields such as nanotechnology share laboratories and team teach. Students huddle together in the building’s many computer labs and meeting nooks. Dean Farvardin expects to see “significant growth in our already strong cross-disciplinary research programs” as well as “exciting new scientific and technological advances coming out of these programs.” It should also help the Clark School recruit outstanding new faculty and students.

Recently, Kim embarked on another “fascinating challenge”—turning Bell Labs’ megawatt ideas into new commercially successful ventures while still supporting its core businesses. This “innovators’ dilemma” has been a challenge for every Bell Labs president and is particularly important today.” Indeed, Kim turned down the job four years ago. Bell Labs, which invented the transistor, lasers and other marvels, has long been considered engineering’s “crown jewel,” a description he says he “hated” because it was so apt. “It’s kind of pretty, it’s expensive and it sits on everyone’s head and doesn’t do anything useful.”

“We have plenty of innovations,” Kim says. The problem is cultural. By getting researchers to function as successful business teams, he reasons, the company could then capitalize on their innovations. “I don’t have all the answers,” Kim admits. “But the people are incredibly smart and motivated.” Plus, the telecommunications industry’s sharp downturn has raised the ante. “Everyone feels something has to change,” he says. “The challenge for me is to chart a course.”

Judging from Kim’s past track record, all roads point to success. But the immigrant engineer who once considered a day with a full stomach a triumph knows that persistence only goes so far. “When I was in college, I listened to a guest lecturer,” Kim recounts. “He said you have to work hard if you want to succeed.” Life soon tempered that maxim. Says Kim: “If you work on something, it’s really important that you work on the right stuff, then work hard.”

Mary Lord is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.


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