Who Needs A Degree?

"It's all intuitive" for Chris Oliver, Cabletron's ace techie

Christopher J. Oliver needed an inspiration. The director of engineering for Cabletron Systems Inc. saw his best engineers tied up in knots over the design of a new computer network switch. The company seemed in danger of losing its edge in the rough-and-tumble market for networking equipment.

At home with a pencil and a notebook, Oliver sketched out diagrams for what would become the SmartSwitch, introduced last year as Cabletron's bid to remain the dominant provider of high-end hubs and switches that transmit data among computers. Says company co-founder Craig R. Benson: "In a couple of weekends, he managed to find the breakthrough that 20 guys had been working on for eight months."

In an industry notorious for technological complexity, the person Cabletron counts on to keep it in the game is the 35-year-old Oliver--whose education ended with six months of vocational training after high school. "It's all intuitive," says Paul Johnson, an analyst with Robertson, Stephens & Co. "He doesn't have the formal training, and yet he has been the technical architect behind a billion-dollar company."

BAD BOYS. In 1985, Benson, a friend, hired Oliver as employee No.5 at Cabletron, which got started in a garage, cutting computer cable to order. Today, Cabletron is part of the networking industry's top tier, alongside 3Com, Bay Networks, and Cisco Systems. For the fiscal year ending Feb. 29, the company is expected to report profits of $216 million on sales of $1.1 billion--a gain of about 31% for both.

In recent years, Benson and co-founder S. Robert Levine have become known as networking's bad boys, putting down rivals, feigning takeovers, and winning praise for taking meager salaries--even though the value of their joint 29% stake has soared with Cabletron's overall capitalization, now about $4.9 billion.

Oliver has become known for his sense of where the industry is going. When rivals moved rapidly to adopt a network standard known as ATM, for asynchronous transfer mode, Oliver held back. Cabletron introduced some ATM products in February--but waiting, he says, let him avoid overinvesting in a technology that proved slow to catch on. "When the whole industry was running to invest in ATM, I said `Why?"' he boasts. "Just because it's the new thing doesn't mean it's the right thing."

Ironically, detractors sometimes say Cabletron's products are too advanced. But suppliers and analysts credit Oliver with an uncanny grasp of networking's constantly shifting, interlocking standards and technologies. The unfolding of such natural gifts is not uncommon in software--Bill Gates is the prototypical nerd who dropped out and made good. But Oliver's peers--and subordinates--are electrical engineers with multiple degrees. Networking is "rocket science," says analyst Esmerelda Silva of International Data Corp.

Oliver's boldest gamble so far is his reliance on computer chips known as ASICs--application-specific integrated circuits--to handle the complex queueing of data in high-speed networks. "This is a mechanical problem, and I'm a machinery guy," Oliver says. "So I built a machine." His "machine" uses a custom chip that hardwires, in one piece of silicon, many routing tasks previously performed by software. The jump in performance is impressive: The SmartSwitch can link four times as many computers as rival products and boosts data transmission speed by a factor of five. John Leediker, Intel Corp.'s general manager for networking and imaging, calls the advance "visionary."

COWBOY BOOTS. Oliver doesn't claim to know the source of his knack. Growing up in Danvers, Mass., he devoured Popular Mechanics and cared more about motorcycles and trains than school. His father, who ran a machine shop, often took him to nearby Salem to watch the trains. His parents worried, he says, when he quit work as a bench technician to join Cabletron.

A "machinery guy" on and off the job, Oliver designed his own car--a mid-engine Corvette built with parts his father helped machine. Now he's assembling a single-engine plane from a kit. And he and his second wife, Christine, are designing a $10 million house.

Oliver's growing prominence and wealth--his 1.8% stake in Cabletron is worth about $88 million--have fueled his already supreme self-confidence. Wearing cowboy boots and spouting cocky self-assessments--"I love change; I run toward change"--he seems almost ripe for a fall. Then again, in an industry that punishes technical screwups remorselessly, he hasn't stumbled yet.

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