The Secret Labs Of Silicon Valley
From his office in Milpitas, Calif., Zahid Hussain (top) has a bird's eye view of billion-dollar ideas in their infancy. And he can’t speak a word about most of it.
As vice president of Operations at Flex, a $26 billion supply chain solutions company of 200,000 employees with offices in 30 countries, Hussain’s job is to walk customers through a showcase of Flex’s capabilities, all while proving just how little he’ll ever reveal about the details. He is the opposite of a corporate spy.
He knows exactly, for example, which companies are scurrying in and out of the four top-secret research facilities established under his leadership in Flex’s Milpitas campus since 2012—two medical/semiconductor manufacturing grade “clean rooms,” from which dust particles are almost entirely filtered and paper, pencils, and fabrics made of natural fibers are banned, and two other manufacturing centers. They’re where some of the most groundbreaking and disruptive technologies in products you use every day are developed. Of course, Hussain won’t say exactly which ones.
Zahid Hussain in one of Flex's mechanical fabrication rooms in Milpitas, California. Photos: Patrick Molnar
The most secretive customers slip in and out of frosted-glass labs-within-labs. Flex employees like Hussain speak about these confidential customers in hushed tones, using only their code names based on movie characters or beverage brands. They’re things you wear and rely upon for daily routines or your everyday security—or as part of national security.
The protocol to get into the secret labs, meanwhile, makes the TSA’s airport routine look like child’s play, Hussain says. Everyone goes in the same way they come out: empty-handed. (The goods to be tested arrive in black boxes, escorted by security officers.) Hussain provides testing equipment for these unnamed customers conducting clandestine research operations. They typically take just a few days at a time, he says. And most of these customers arrive late Friday afternoon and vanish by Monday morning.
Two years ago, Flex Chief Executive Officer Mike McNamara had the seemingly counterintuitive idea to set up the company’s innovation campus as a showroom for secrecy. It’s designed to prove that customers can trust Flex with their most proprietary projects. And it’s paying off, Hussain says. Some 500 corporate groups have toured the campus. More than 100 of them have signed on as customers, bringing the current customer roster to 157. To win them over, Hussain ushers visitors through seven buildings on campus, each dedicated to a different phase of the innovation process, from its startup incubator Lab IX (pronounced “Lab Nine”) to its advanced engineering center.
Of course, once companies finish developing cutting-edge products and take them to market, they often drop the veil of secrecy they initially depended upon. Six Flex customers to come through the lab—including cybersecurity providers FireEye and Palo Alto Networks—have issued initial public offerings in the past 18 months.
For some companies, the top-secret facilities so close to their own corporate headquarters are reason enough to sign up. Many are used to conducting secret research overseas, Hussain says, but the need for speed to market in a climate of constant innovation has created a demand for tinkering hideouts that are closer to home. While foreign-based manufacturing centers also offer California outposts, they tend to charge a steep premium for the local service, he adds.
Hussain, a chemistry major who joined Flex 20 years ago, says the biggest challenge for him these days isn’t keeping his mouth shut. The hard part, he says, is having to manage expectations of customers from a widening array of corporate cultures. Older, bigger companies, for example, may be more organized, but can be overly concerned with cost—sometimes to the detriment of their products. Younger startups, on the other hand, often expect instantaneous results.
Flex’s research facilities are designed to prove that customers can trust it with their most proprietary projects. And it’s paying off.
“They say ‘I cannot wait, I need to take it to trade show right now.’ But we cannot compromise the quality and functionality of the product,” says Hussain, whose expertise in the secret-keeping business often works in the best interest of eager newcomers. “We need to cool down those guys.”