Mike Hatfield

Michael Hatfield admits to being a little disappointed when an internship between his junior and senior years at Rose-Hulman landed him in the communications area of aviation giant McDonnell Douglas. To him, working directly with the company's fighter jets seemed much more exciting than dealing with communications networks.

Fast-forward about three decades. Today, Hatfield is an incredibly successful technology entrepreneur with a particular specialization in . . . you guessed it, communications networks.

Hatfield, who earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and mathematical economics, is president and CEO of Cyan Inc., his third successful communications systems startup. Before that, he was founder and CEO of Calix Inc., maker of high-speed access systems for communications service providers. That was the follow-up to Cerent Corp., the provider of high-speed fiber-optics systems acquired by Cisco Systems in 1999 for about $7 billion.

So, the real thrill for Hatfield was not working on fighter jets after all, but rather building new companies and helping them take flight. He knew all along he wanted to be involved in launching businesses, probably tech-based companies.

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"Change" is quite the understatement. Not only was the telecom business changing, but the networks were evolving from local and long-distance voice communications to wireless voice connections and data links, and fiber optics. Hatfield handled the changes well, working at "Baby Bell" Ameritech, DSC Communications, and Advanced Fibre Communications before becoming more entrepreneurial.

Hatfield's startups reflect the industry's non-stop changes, focusing on different parts of the internet. Cerent addressed the need to move huge volumes of data and voice traffic through the core of the internet. Calix focused on technology for what's known as the "last mile" of the connection, from a communication provider's central office to the customer's home. Cyan fills in the middle ground between the internet's core and the last mile.

What's tricky about change is identifying the next great place to be.

"If you only react to what is, you're going to be too late," he says, calling on a football analogy: The quarterback must throw not to where the receiver is, but where he will be.

Hatfield's not quite ready to go public with where that receiver will be next, when it comes to internet and communications technology, but it's clear the future is red hot.

"There were a lot of people who thought the internet was going to be like the CB radio of the '90s," he recalls.

Those naysayers were incredibly off the mark.