A Prodigy's Metamorphosis: Now He Peddles Software

Bill Lawren, The Scientist 3 (October 16, 1989) 1, 26. A decade after getting his Caltech Ph.D. at age 20, physicist Stephen Wolfram grabs for the brass ring as a program developer.

It's two o'clock on an ordinary Monday afternoon, and Stephen Wolfram is just showing up for work. He greets an assistant, grabs a batch of charts, and heads for his first meeting, a conference with a team of graphic designers. Together they'll tackle a tough question regarding a piece of Wolfram-designed software. The question: In what variety of colors should the software be displayed on a computer screen?

Wait a minute. This is Stephen Wolfram, the boy genius and enfant terrible, the theoretical physicist who helped invent the field of cellular automata (how complex systems can evolve from the interplay of simple, identical components) and drew from colleagues accolades like "astonishing" (Nobel physicist Richard Feynman) and "vision to do things that people just didn't imagine were possible" (former University of Illinois computer scientist Stephen Omohundro). What's Wolfram doing dedicating an entire afternoon to what amounts to algorithmic interior decorating? And liking it?

Apparently, Stephen Wolfram has undergone a metamorphosis. The former prodigy (first paper at 16, a Caltech Ph.D. at 20, MacArthur Fellow at 22, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at 23) is now, at nearly 30, the president and chief executive officer of Wolfram Research, Inc. of Champaign, Ill., a company whose only reason for being is to produce, market, sell, and distribute an innovative software program called Mathematica. For now, the boy wonder dwells in the grown-up world of big business.

What's more, he seems to have a flair for it. First of all, there is widespread agreement that Mathematica, which is Wolfram Research, Inc.'s only product, is a valuable and even revolutionary piece of software. ("A breakthrough," said the magazine MacUser. "Superb handling of mathematics and outstanding graphics," said PC Magazine.) Essentially, Mathematica is designed to do for mathematical computations what conventional computer spreadsheets do for mere arithmetic. It can graphically display, in living color and 3-D, every step of a calculation, no matter how complex the math involved. In sum, says Wolfram, "Mathematica makes it easier to turn to a computer to do mathematics than it is to turn to a calculator to do arithmetic."

Early signs from the marketplace indicate that Wolfram's consumers agree with him. Mathematica, he says, is selling "incredibly well," with a wide variety of users, who include theoretical physicists, engineers, educators, and even stockbrokers. As a result Wolfram Research, in only its second year in business, has already been profitable for more than a year. Reluctant to give out anything in the way of actual sales figures—"one of the advantages of being a private company," he says, "is that you don't have to discuss that"—Wolfram will concede, in what may be a monumental understatement, that "most people would call us successful."

External signs indicate that this is not just empty bragging. Wolfram Research now boasts in excess of 80 employees—with more than 25 in research and development, who are designing and writing the next versions of Mathematica : the rest in marketing, sales, documents, and general administration—and three floors of offices in the Huntington Tower, a strange, round, pink building just a few blocks from the campus of the University of Illinois, where Wolfram is on leave as a full professor and director of the Center for Complex Systems Research. Even more important, Wolfram Research can claim alliances—most of them forged by Wolfram himself—not only with such influential academic computer scientists as Harvard's William Press and Carnegie-Mellon University's Dana Scott, but with such commercial giants as Apple, Sun Microsystems, and Steven Jobs' NeXT Computers. It is these alliances—made possible at least in part by Wolfram's long-established reputation for both scientific genius and practical acumen—that give the company's product its powerful and perhaps unique position in the software marketplace.

For Wolfram, all this represents yet another transitional phase in what has been an unusually peripatetic life. For most of that life, since he entered Oxford at 17, the London-born Wolfram has been an academic scientist. (Hardly an orthodox one, though—he dropped out of both Eton and Oxford, and was ready to drop out of graduate school at Caltech when, as Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann puts it, "we tricked him—we gave him a Ph.D.") In retrospect, despite his personal satisfaction with his seminal work in cellular automata, chaos theory, and complex systems, he thinks he was never quite happy as an academic. He found that his scientific idealism was eroded quickly by intellectual thievery ("a fair fraction of my first papers," he says, "had their ideas stolen by someone else"); by the hypocrisy of grant writing ("giving sales pitches to government bureaucrats about why my work is important..."), and by the onus of teaching classes to mediocre students, which he now calls "an incredibly mind-numbing experience."

Meanwhile, Wolfram had long been interested in business. Although he never had a boyhood lemonade stand, it is said that he once lined his pockets by selling his Eton uniform to a group of tourists. While still at Caltech, Wolfram developed an early precursor to Mathematica, and despite what he calls an "ugly interaction" with the university, which claimed proprietary rights to the program because it had been developed on university time, Wolfram was able to launch his own company—Computer Mathematics Corp.—to sell the program. The company quickly made money, Wolfram says, although, characteristically, he declines to reveal exactly how much.

But the conflict with Caltech, his growing distaste for academia, and the elation of being the successful boss of a successful company combined to steer Wolfram away from the university and toward the world of commerce. Using his own money to capitalize the venture, he launched Wolfram Research, Inc. in 1987, after spending several years at the Institute for Advanced Study and two more at the University of Illinois. (Although he is still officially on leave, Wolfram has little contact with the Center for Complex Systems Research these days.)

He interviewed a number of Harvard Business School graduates as potential CEOs, but they turned out not to share his vision of Mathematica's natural marketplace. "They wanted to turn out a version to run on a PC," Wolfram says, "but I knew there were enough people out there with the more powerful computers that Mathematica was designed for to support a very interesting business." So he decided to run the company himself.

Wolfram soon found that some of the intellectual baggage he brought with him from academia was best left unopened in the context of the business world. "There are some things one has to get over," he says. "In science, for example, when I had some results I immediately started telling other people. In business, that turns out to be a very bad idea. You have to be fairly pushy about keeping things to yourself." At the same time, the business turned out to have some areas that, for a scientist like Wolfram, are surprisingly and at times frustratingly fuzzy. "In science," he says, "you do a research project, and the results tell you if you were right or wrong. But in business you make an arbitrary decision—how much should your product cost, for example—and it's hard to know whether your decision is right.

"In fact, it can be suprisingly difficult just to know what's actually going on. We may have tons of data telling us how many users we have and how they use the program, but it's hard to analyze that data in a way that will tell us if we should be doing anything different in the way we market and distribute it."

Still, Wolfram found that there is a high degree of crossover between the ivory tower and the counting house. "Even though marketing is a dirty word in science," he says, "some large part of doing science successfully involves marketing your work—publishing it and explaining clearly just what the point of it is." He sees business problems—how, for example, to negotiate the maze of wholesalers, retailers, and jobbers who are distributing his Mathematica—as essentially intellectual problems. "You've got to be careful," he says, "not to disengage the kind of thinking you did in science when trying to solve these problems." At one point, for example, he found that after setting up volume discount prices for Mathematica, the program ended up in some venues with a price less than the cost of producing it. "A little bit of mathematical analysis," he says, "can show you when that's going to happen and help you avoid it." In fact, Wolfram uses Mathematica himself to help perform that kind of analysis.

Obviously, the scientist in Wolfram continues to operate. In fact, the texture of his workday has changed little since he left academics. He still sleeps until late in the morning, and doesn't begin work until early afternoon. He spends his afternoons in business meetings—an analog, he says, to the student conferences and administrative work that occupied his academic afternoons—and spends evenings, often until as late as 5:00 A.M., doing the creative work he has always loved—in this case, refining the next versions of Mathematica.

Although he says he "incredibly prefers" business to academia, Wolfram is the first to admit that the world of commerce is no paradise. He finds day-to-day operational management boring. "I try to find people I can trust to buy the office furniture and the paper clips," he says. And he admits to being frustrated by some kinds of personnel issues, for example, "When there's a high-level opening, should we promote someone who's been with the company a long time, or bring in someone new?" And at sales—the sine qua non of any commercial enterprise—he is, he admits, "mediocre at best."

For Wolfram, then, a great advantage of the business world is that he can avoid at least some of the jobs that he finds boring or troublesome. "In a university," he says, "if you're put on a committee to schedule when buildings should be cleaned, the university expects you, the actual professor, to actually show up at those meetings. But if you're running a company, you really can delegate the jobs you don't like. For example, when we sell Mathematica to a company, I'm not the one who gives the sales presentation. We have professional sales people who like to give them and are good at it."

On balance, Wolfram seems to have made the transition from academics to commerce without breaking stride. His former colleagues think this may be because the same qualities that made him an outstanding scientist have served him well as a businessman. "He's aggressive," says University of California, Berkeley, physicist James Crutchfield who has known Wolfram since 1982. "He's highly motivated, he's hard-working, and he's absolutely tenacious. He goes until he finds an obstacle, then he schemes some way to get around it." Peter Carruthers, a University of Arizona physicist (currently at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico), agrees. "Wolfram's initiative," he says, "is somewhere between quiet scholarship and Attila the Hun. His combination of brilliance and hard work will take him a long way in business."

Still, even those who know him best find it hard to say what really moves Wolfram from the inside. "I don't claim to understand him," says Crutchfield. "He's motivated by money, but he's also interested in getting ideas across, and in getting things done without having to go begging for grants. Is he happy? I don't know, I think that as long as things keep changing in the company, he'll stay. As soon as it starts to level out he'll do something else."

Carruthers thinks the world of science has not seen the last of Wolfram. "His scientific instincts aren't dead," Carruthers says, "even though tens of millions of dollars may be passing through his hands."

Wolfram agrees with these assessments. He sees money not so much as a way of upgrading his lifestyle—there is no garage full of Ferraris, no black book full of beauty queens—but as a ticket to intellectual freedom. "When I want to do some sort of basic research project that involves, say, buying a computer, or organizing a meeting to talk about a subject that interests me, I can just write a check." In fact, he did exactly that a few years ago, when he wanted to start a journal on complex systems. "Instead of going around begging publishing companies to finance the journal, I just put $25,000 in a bank account, hired some people, and did it." Wolfram has been publishing the journal, Complex Systems, since 1986.

He also agrees that the same restlessness that helped push him out of academic science will sooner or later push him in other new directions. He is interested, he says, in computerized pattern recognition and vision systems for robots, and has ideas as to "how all that could be done right for commercial purposes." For the moment, though, shepherding Wolfram Research and Mathematica through the commercial wilderness seems to provide most of the stimulation that Wolfram needs. "The only time I get bored," he says, "is when I try to take a vacation."

Does he, on the other hand, ever yearn for the relative tranquility of academia? "At times," he admits. "But the yearning is always relatively short-lived. Besides, if one is in the fast-lane mode of academia, as I was, life is not tranquil either. The difference is that in fast-lane academia I flew in a coach. Now I fly first class."

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