“Listening to those calls must have been a curious spectator sport,” Wolfram said a few weeks later during an early-evening meeting in a conference room at his home. “I’ve spent more than a quarter of a century finding people who I think are really smart. Maybe I have more experience than they have overall, but in particular areas I certainly hope that they’re smarter than me. The only thing that goes wrong sometimes is when there’s somebody who isn’t really getting it and they’re wasting a bunch of time for the 10 other people who are in the meeting.”
“Getting” what the boss wants is crucial for success at Wolfram Research, a company where Wolfram is the founder, namesake, and primary inventor. “My approach, which maybe not everybody agrees with, is that I’m very straightforward. I just tell people what I think, good or bad. I think people ultimately appreciate that because sometimes they’ve done something that wasn’t very good and I tell them that it’s not very good. Then they redo it or whatever, and it’s actually good.”
It’s not just his technical expertise that makes Wolfram the smartest guy on the phone, according to Samer Diab, the chief operating officer of Wolfram Solutions, the company’s consulting operation. “Someone like me is capable of managing 20 to 25 people,” he says. “The great executives I’ve worked with in the past max out around 150 people [about whom] they know to a detailed level what is happening. More than that and they need a management structure to keep up. Stephen is different. He has reached the ability to manage 600 people reasonably closely even if they’re not direct reports, and we haven’t found his maximum capacity yet. In five to 15 minutes, Stephen can ingest what’s happening with a group and then rapidly move to conclusions and offer advice and direction.”
Diab thinks his working relationship with Wolfram is different from the relationships Wolfram has with those in technology-oriented roles. “He does not inject himself into my operation like he does technology and development,” Diab says. “I talk with him to get the advantage of his brainpower. I tell him the problems our customers are facing and we discuss what groundbreaking ideas can we offer them. I absorb like a sponge while his brain does what his brain does. Then I go off and run my organization.”
Building on a Founder’s Vision
Not everyone can excel in an environment where an idiosyncratic leader is playing a short and a long game simultaneously. Wolfram has a portfolio of R&D projects that range from one (Wolfram|Alpha) that refreshes weekly to one that won’t have an impact, if it ever does, for a generation—as the theory of A New Kind of Science succeeds, fails, or is amended in the marketplace of science ideas.
And yet all those projects are meant to be complementary. Wolfram said that he started Wolfram Research in 1986 to “build tools I knew I would need.” When you look at his three major public achievements prior to the just-announced Wolfram Language—Mathematica, A New Kind of Science, and Wolfram|Alpha—you can see how the different products are enabled by, and improve, one another:
•Wolfram created Mathematica to build a foundation for A New Kind of Science research. It became a successful business on its own, to be sure, but Wolfram had a different motive for constructing the program. And one of his primary means of evangelizing for his New Kind of Science ideas is a summer school in which students test and expand the theory using Mathematica.
•Wolfram|Alpha is a product that its creator sees as having been made possible by A New Kind of Science theory, employing that system’s ideas about combining and retrieving information to create the only search engine rich enough to complement Google’s (although Wolfram detests it when someone refers to Wolfram|Alpha as a mere “search engine”).