For a company that is dead in all meaningful respects, Nortel Networks has an uncanny knack of finding its way into the news. Just as late rapper Tupac Shakur’s posthumous song releases kept him in the public consciousness long after his untimely death, Nortel has its recurring scandals and misadventures to sustain its dark legacy.
Recently, Nortel has surfaced in the headlines for two reasons. First, there was (and is) the ongoing fraud trial of three former Nortel executives: erstwhile CEO Frank Dunn, former CFO Douglas Beatty, and ex-corporate controller Michael Gollogly. That unedifying spectacle is unfolding at a deliberate pace in a Toronto courtroom.
Decade of Hacking
While a lamentable story in its own right, the trial was overshadowed earlier this week by another development. In a story that was published in the Wall Street Journal, a former Nortel computer-security specialist alleged that the one-time telecom titan had been subject to decade-long hacking exploits undertaken by unknown assailants based in China. The objective of the hackers apparently was corporate espionage, specifically related to gaining access to Nortel’s intellectual property and trade secrets. The hacking began in 2000 and persisted well into 2009, according to the former Nortel employee.
After the report was published, speculation arose as to whether, and to what degree, the electronic espionage and implicit theft of intellectual property might have contributed to, or hastened, Nortel’s passing.
Presuming the contents of the Wall Street Journal article to be accurate, there’s no question that persistent hacking of such extraordinary scale and duration could not have done Nortel any good. Depending on what assets were purloined and how they were utilized — and by whom — it is conceivable, as some have asserted, that the exploits might have hastened Nortel’s downfall.
Abundance of Clowns
But there’s a lot we don’t know about the hacking episode, many questions that remain unanswered. Unfortunately, answers to those questions probably are not forthcoming. Vested interests, including those formerly at Nortel, will be reluctant to provide missing details.
That said, I think we have to remember that Nortel was a shambolic three-ring circus with no shortage of clowns at the head of affairs. As I’ve written before, Nortel was its own worst enemy. Its self-harm regimen was legendary and varied.
Just for starters, there was its deranged acquisition strategy, marked by randomness and profligacy. Taking a contrarian position to conventional wisdom, Nortel bought high and sold low (or not at all) on nearly every acquisition it made, notoriously overspending during the Internet boom of the 1990s that turned to bust in 2001.
The situation was exacerbated by mismanaged assimilation and integration of those poorly conceived acquisitions. If Cisco wrote the networking industry’s how-to guide for acquisitions in the 1990s, Nortel obviously didn’t read it.
Nortel’s inability to squeeze value from its acquisitions was symptomatic of executive mismanagement, delivered by a long line of overpaid executives. And that brings us to the board of directors, which took complacency and passivity to previously unimagined depths of docility and indifference.
In turn, that fecklessness contributed to bookkeeping irregularities and accounting shenanigans that drew the unwanted attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Ontario Securities Commission, and which ultimately resulted in the fraud trial taking place in Toronto.
Death by Misadventures
In no way am I excusing any hacking or alleged intellectual property theft that might have been perpetrated against Nortel. Obviously, such exploits are unacceptable. (I have another post in the works about why public companies are reluctant to expose their victimization in hack attacks, and why we should suspect many technology companies today have been breached, perhaps significantly. But that’s for another day).
My point is that, while hackers and intellectual-property thieves might be guilty of many crimes, it’s a stretch to blame them for Nortel’s downfall. Plenty of companies have been hacked, and continue to be hacked, by foreign interests in pursuit of industrial assets and trade secrets. Those companies, though harmed by such exploits, remain with us.
Nortel was undone overwhelmingly by its own hand, not by the stealthy reach of electronic assassins.