In the winter of 2000, Hossein Eslambolchi was having second thoughts about changing jobs. Eslambolchi had spent 14 years in increasingly important technology jobs at AT&T, the communications giant that put a telephone in nearly every American home and business. But then he decided to jump ship to become a senior VP in charge of a business unit developing equipment for telecom-services providers at Cisco Systems, whose switches and routers were helping to power the Internet revolution.
"I was a little frustrated with the scope of my responsibilities at AT&T and didn't think there was any room for growth," says Eslambolchi, at the time an AT&T senior VP for packet and optical services. He also was traveling every week, spending around 80% of his time on the road. "I felt I owed it to my family to consider alternatives, so I said yes to Cisco."
After a few weeks at the new job, Eslambolchi started to feel "guilty that I had left a job unfinished at AT&T," he says. "I didn't want to think in my own mind that I had failed." Eslambolchi met with Cisco CEO John Chambers and told him he wanted to return to AT&T. Chambers tried to convince him to stay, but Eslambolchi had made up his mind: "I wanted to finish the job at AT&T."
That job has gotten a lot more difficult. When Eslambolchi returned to AT&T, the company's major push was around its cable TV and cellular businesses to go with its long-distance network, and its goal was to sell a package of voice, video, and wireless services and regain its role as the leading provider of communications to the American public. But the company was forced to sell off its cable and cellular units, and unfavorable legal and regulatory decisions caused it to retreat from the residential voice market. Now AT&T's focus is on providing business communications services, a market where technological innovation is essential if AT&T is to differentiate itself from a host of competitors.
It may be exactly the kind of challenge Eslambolchi was born to take on. A slim, compact man who grew up in Tehran, Iran, he says he inherited the innovation gene from his father, an engineer who developed software algorithms to control the temperature in chicken coops to help eggs hatch. "I was taught to innovate," he says. "I was inventing things as a child. I was born thinking out of the box." Eslambolchi says he graduated first in his high school class and was accepted into medical school, where his plan was to become a brain surgeon. Instead, he chose to move to the United States and become an engineer. He started at Oklahoma University in 1975 and later, seeking a warmer climate, transferred to the University of California in San Diego, where he earned a doctorate in electrical engineering.