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Published: May 5, 2014
 / Summer 2014 / Issue 75

 
 

Stephen Wolfram’s World-Changing Plans

Regardless of how Wolfram’s arguments are or aren’t integrated into the scientific canon over the decades to come, what many outside the academy find most impressive about A New Kind of Science is its audacity. Wolfram performed his work more or less independently, outside the mainstream of scientific research; he published the volume himself; and his work has been covered by the general press with an intensity that many serious scientists might have trouble imagining. Yet the tone of the book can be off-putting: Chris Lavers, in the Guardian, characterized A New Kind of Science as “the most arrogant piece of science writing I have ever read.” Indeed, Wolfram’s book starts off at full speed, aiming to crash through any accusations of small thinking: “Three centuries ago science was transformed by the dramatic new idea that rules based on mathematical equations could be used to describe the natural world. My purpose in this book is to initiate another such transformation, and to introduce a new kind of science that is based on the much more general types of rules that can be embodied in simple computer programs.”

Many critiques of A New Kind of Science have focused on Wolfram’s extrapolations from his work (he believes his findings are relevant not only for hard sciences but also for social sciences) and the unusual interest it has engendered outside the academy. It’s not just Wolfram’s conclusions that are unexpected; it’s also his methods. And such can be said for Stephen Wolfram himself, as a scientist and as a manager.

Indeed, the practices Wolfram the man uses to lead Wolfram the company are anything but conventional. He’s best known for his technical discoveries, but his most ingenious invention may turn out to be a successful company that he built around his own idiosyncrasies: his decisions about where to work, when to work, how to work—in a nutshell, his insistence on building a corporate culture that behaves a lot like he does.

The practices Wolfram the man uses to lead Wolfram the company are anything but conventional.

Managing Smart

Conventional wisdom about leadership says that you shouldn’t act like you’re the smartest guy in the room. But how can you do this successfully if you are consistently the smartest guy in the room? Wolfram received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology when he was 20, two years before he became, at the time, the youngest-ever recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (in 1981).

Actually, working with Wolfram doesn’t so much entail dealing with someone who’s the smartest guy in the room as it does dealing with someone who’s the smartest guy on the phone. Wolfram Research is based in Champaign, Ill., but its staff members are distributed around the globe, and Wolfram runs the company from his home north of Boston, with only infrequent visits to the headquarters.

Wolfram is a fascinating presence on the conference calls he uses many times a day to supervise the business of Wolfram Research. The five such calls that I sat in on included some low-key project kickoff calls in which Wolfram indulged his curiosity, speculated on what was possible, and paused to see who could add to his insights. There were also middle-of-the-project calls in which the messiness of software development was apparent and Wolfram wasn’t shy about creating a sense of urgency to get past it. During one call, he dismissed a key feature of a program (“That’s amusing, but that’s not top of mind”); in another, he dismissed someone who advocated an approach he wasn’t sold on (“No, let me explain what’s relevant here”). That blunt delivery can cut both ways: A subordinate had no trouble asking his boss, quite directly, “Do you understand what I just said?” But it’s always clear who gets to decide. And it wasn’t surprising to hear that the more Wolfram talks, the more technical the conversation gets, even if the call is ostensibly about marketing.

 
 
 
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Resources

  1. John Koetsier, “Sentient Code: An Inside Look at Stephen Wolfram’s Utterly New, Insanely Ambitious Computational Paradigm,” VentureBeat, Nov. 29, 2013: What’s behind the “amazing” Wolfram Language.
  2. Carly Page, “Wolfram Alpha Will Soon Be Able to Read Your Mind,” The Inquirer, Mar. 11, 2013: A report on Wolfram’s 2013 South by Southwest presentation in which he predicts that the company’s analytics engine will soon work preemptively, meaning it will be able to predict what its users are looking for.
  3. Stephen Wolfram, “Computing a Theory of Everything” (video), TED.com, Apr. 2010: Wolfram discusses “the single biggest idea that’s emerged in the past century”: computation.
  4. Stephen Wolfram, “The Personal Analytics of My Life,” Wired, Mar. 8, 2012: “One day I’m sure everyone will routinely collect all sorts of data about themselves,” Wolfram writes. “But because I’ve been interested in data for a very long time, I started doing this long ago.”
  5. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at: strategy-business.com/innovation.
 
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