Peter S. Fuss: From Michigan to Leading a Global Network Technology Company

Fuss’ solid foundation and curious nature led him to make lasting contributions first at Bell Labs, and then as a founder and president of Tellabs, International.

2012 Interview with Peter Fuss

Peter S. Fuss (BSE EE 1956; MS EE 1960, NYU) was a student at Michigan when drafting classes were mandatory, and computers were made with vacuum tubes. But his solid foundation and curious nature led him to make lasting contributions first at Bell Labs, and then as a founder and president of Tellabs, International, a subsidiary of Tellabs, Inc.

A Knack for Fixing Things

Before transferring to Michigan, Peter attended a small school in Illinois and says he had to make money; “So I got a job at a small TV-radio repair shop,” recalled Peter. “I bluffed my way in because I had watched my best friend’s father fixing radios for people in his basement. I figured it wasn’t too hard – basically in those days you felt whether the tube was hot and if it wasn’t you replaced it. Not quite, but pretty close.”

And he was good at it.

“He used to be awful,” laughed his wife Evelyn. “If we were at somebody’s house and their TV fell out of adjustment, he’d get up and fix it.”

When Peter transferred to Michigan, he decided to switch from Physics to something he knew nothing about, but peaked his curiosity.

“I wanted to learn about electronics, TVs, radios, and all the things that it did,” said Peter. “Before that I had done all mechanical things. I was fixing everything.”

His most unforgettable class was in an electronics lab. Everything was done in the lab, “and that’s the way life is,” said Peter.

His curiosity in electricity made him part of some of the most influential technology of the century, including work with early transistors at Bell Labs (a groundbreaking company in the mid-1900s).

“I lived through a tremendous period of time in which electronics, basically semiconductors, came to be,” he said.

The Early Years and Bell Labs

After graduating from Michigan in 1956, his first job was with McDonnell Douglas. His ingenuity got him off the drafting bench and working on a missile guidance system. He was called up for his ROTC commitment and spent the next couple years as an electronics officer for the U.S. Air Force in Korea and Albuquerque.

In 1958, Fuss started his 19-year stint at Bell Laboratories. He said it was Bell’s “hey day, when there were only 5,000 people.”

His first job was working on a missile guidance system. The engineers were using vacuum tubes, but wanted Fuss and a colleague to experiment using transistors for the same functions. Fuss and his colleague split up the job. “I did the digital part,” said Fuss. “Ken did the radio receiver, and we were left alone. “Transistors were very new in those days,” recalled Fuss. “We literally had to drive out to Allentown to pick up samples because they were just beginning to make them. He designed a circuit using a transistor in an unusual way and wanted to find out what was going on, He had a discussion with the future Nobel Prize winner William Shockley. In those days at Bell, everyone’s door was open.

All was well until the Air Force sent up the first vacuum tube model, it lost communication due to a vacuum tube failure and they had to blow the missile up.” He and Ken then worked nights and weekends, They got it working! That guidance system was in production for over 20 years, and was used to put many satellites in orbit.

It was a busy time for Fuss. Not only was he working nights and weekends on making these newfangled transistors work, he was earning his master’s degree in electrical engineering from New York University (he completed it in 1960), and he met his future (and current) wife, Evelyn (married in 1961). That also worked out well!

Next, he designed the digital part of a system to detect submarines from airplanes, which was used for about two decades, and from there he worked on systems for deep ocean submarine detection. “I came up with a way of using a digital fast Fourier transform in real time,” said Fuss. This was, in fact, one of the first real time fast Fourier transforms to do submarine detection.

For this project, Peter was sent to Bell’s North Carolina lab as a department head and given his pick of collaborators to design and produce the system from scratch.

Fuss’ interests turned to telephones, something he had yet to work on, even though he was working at the world’s foremost company in the field. After expressing his interest, he was given the opportunity to become a department head of either the hardware or software switching computer division.

He told his boss, “ ‘well I haven’t lead a large software project but it I like the challenge.’ And so I picked the operating system for the switching computer, and later my boss added the hardware side as well. My main contribution was putting the software and hardware people together as a team even on the night shift. You work better when you put the two disciplines to solve the problem in the same room. Suddenly the hardware people learn about software, the software people learn about hardware.

Going Global

In 1977, he joined Teletype Corporation, where he was Director of Research and Development, eventually in charge of all the electronics. While leading the development of electronic terminal systems, VLSI, and software, he brought the collaborative nature of Bell Labs with him.

“My door was always open,” said Fuss, “and I was out in the lab meeting my people. It was no fun sitting in an office at a big desk, with a secretary between you and your people.”

A couple years later, he was asked to join a year old company called Tellabs, Inc. as their Vice President of Engineering. The CEO had worked in the same area at Bell Labs as Evelyn, who was an associate at the company. Tellabs is a leading manufacturer of voice and data communications equipment.

“I started literally with 6 engineers, and we ended up with a multi-billion dollar company,” said Fuss. “That became a really interesting challenge. At Bell Labs, there were always people overqualified looking for something to do and all you had to was round them up, point them in a direction, and give them some responsibility and amazing things would happen. When you’re out in the cold, cruel world there aren’t amazing people lying around waiting for something to do. And you’ve got to find them, convince them to go into a startup, and make it happen. That’s before startups were really popular. We ended up pioneering some digital switching systems and became the leader in that field. That ended up being a global company.”

In 1986, he volunteered to build Tellabs International, Inc., a subsidiary of the parent company, Tellabs Inc. and is responsible for all Tellabs operations outside of North America with sales, R&D, and manufacturing facilities in 24 cities throughout the world. With this job, he branched out into marketing and sales.

“I started hiring people, building offices and building our international business, which became one third of the revenue of Tellabs in a few years.”

But living on those 747’s was tough, so he finally retired from Tellabs in 1993, turning this time to consulting.

Fuss holds ten patents, primarily in the area of digital signal processing. He has served on the boards of several technology companies, including HyPerformix,Inc., CLEAR Communications Corp., Illinois Superconductor Corp., NetPhone, Inc., Octave Communications Inc., Mechatronic Labs, Pulse Data Inc., Cogentric, Inc., NetEdge Systems Inc., Terrapoint Canada Inc., and Geomagic Inc. He is a consultant and former executive vice president of technology at Batterson Cross Zakin Venture Partners.

Fuss was awarded the College of Engineering Alumni Society Medal in 2011. The CoE Alumni Society Medal is the highest honor awarded by the Michigan Engineering Board of Governors. He is also a recipient of the CoE Merit Award for Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Peter and Evelyn are both devoted to service and philanthropy – mostly to educational institutions. Peter served as a member of the highly successful College of Engineering Progress & Promise: 150th Anniversary Campaign Committee, was chair of the Michigan Engineering Fund, and served on the Michigan Engineering Alumni Board and the EECS department’s National Advisory Committee. Peter and Evelyn provided a leadership gift for the construction of the Peter S. Fuss Pavilion on North Campus, and this past year, they endowed the Peter and Evelyn Fuss Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering. They have three children and eight grandchildren.