Bell Labs empowered young people

“Empower young people” is another one of those admonitions like “have light management” (Bell Labs management was extremely light) that sounds uncontroversially good, but is both hard to do in practice and easy to screw up.

Bell labs’ tendency to empower young people is illustrated by Jim Fisk being in charge of radar/magnetron work at age 30 in the middle of WWII.

Empowering lightly-or-unproven people can clearly backfire, so doing it depended on a substrate of trust - both upwards, that higher management wouldn’t second-guess the decision and downwards, that the empowered young people could handle it. Where did that underlying Trust and conviction come from? It’s not clear to me, but getting to the root of it seems important for riffing on Bell Labs. Research requires more trust than other disciplines.

Keep in mind that empowering young people was probably not a uniquely Bell Labs thing (Bell Labs didn’t have a unique model) but a broader cultural trend in the first half of the 20th century. However, Mervin Kelly was even willing to promote young men at the expense of veterans, which is doubly risky and vaguely violates other cultural norms like the idea of loyalty being rewarded.

Also note that it was empowering technically-trained young people to do things that were in or adjacent to their areas of training. This stands in contrast to what feels like a more 21st century Silicon Valley take on “empower young people” which is to say “why shouldn’t we bet on a 22 year old with a philosophy degree to start a drug company. Empower Young people!” People who have done a thing should be in charge of a thing.


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