Patrick Nettles

CEO, Ciena

As the Starship Ciena rocketed from tech supernova to tech black hole and back again over the past four years, Patrick Nettles sat in the pilots chair, cooling nerves with his mantra, "Steak before sizzle."

Nettles isnt easily rattled. After founder David Huber left Ciena, the companys fortunes were in the hands of this southern gentleman who avoids the limelight, bristles at overpromotion and preaches customer service.

Ciena was the first company to make a lot of money on Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing (DWDM) equipment, which multiplies capacity in an optic network by putting traffic on dozens of different-colored wavelengths on each hair-thin fiber. Wall Street loved the company, and the early investors got rich. Nettles brought Ciena public in a blockbuster initial public offering in 1997.

By 1998, the joyride seemed over. Competitors were offering a wider array of technology in their versions of DWDM. But the engineers at Ciena never stopped innovating. And the company achieved a solid foothold in the burgeoning market of supplying optical switches -- the intelligent points where big new Internet pipes connect to new-generation networks.

Cienas stock is about five times what it was a year ago. And Ciena recently acquired Cyras Systems and its switches to fill in the last piece of its end-to-end optical switch solution.

No chief executive of a networking firm is better situated than Nettles to shake the market this year with an array of optical equipment. As investors turn off the free-money spigot, carriers are shifting from legacy network equipment to lower-cost optical systems. Ciena seems ideally situated and quicker to optical than most of the old-guard equipment makers, such as Lucent Technologies. And its larger than companies such as Celox Networks and Sycamore Networks that offer similar optical intelligence, but not the core-to-metro-to-access end-to-end solutions of Nettles company.