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

 
 

Stephen Wolfram’s World-Changing Plans

•Recent versions of Mathematica integrate Wolfram|Alpha so people can run real-time Alpha searches from inside Mathematica-created programs. It works the other way around as well—snippets of Mathematica code can be used as input in Alpha.

Each success is built on and adds value to previous ones, such that each now feels like a building block in Wolfram’s larger and still-evolving vision. And building blocks, of course, are made to be combined. Little more than a week after he announced the Wolfram Language, Wolfram returned to his blog to reveal that the language, as well as Mathematica, would be bundled with the system software for the Raspberry Pi—the device du jour for young hardware hackers. (He hopes this will get his ideas into the hands of the next generation of tech geniuses.) It’s still unclear the specific ways in which the new Wolfram Language differs from the existing Mathematica language; we’ll see when it’s released and inspected.

Most recently, Wolfram has launched a connected devices project with the aim not only of collecting knowledge about a plethora of smartphones and tablets, but also of serving as the platform on which the data in those devices can be shared and analyzed—by programs like Alpha.

Since Wolfram’s various initiatives are so closely linked, it’s important for the company to find and develop people who can hold the different parts of the founder’s vision in their head simultaneously. “Getting the right talent is important,” Wolfram acknowledges. “But, sadly, these days I don’t do that much frontline interviewing. When I did more of that, we’d talk to the person for a while about all kinds of things and we could tell whether they were capable of expressing themselves, or whether they were bullshitting. We’ve found that as long as people can say what they think and be straightforward and so on, it usually works.”

Perhaps as the company continues to grow, Samer Diab’s depiction of Wolfram as an all-knowing leader intimately connected to all his people and their work will get more complicated, especially since Wolfram is no longer an active part of every hire at his company. And these days, a new Wolfram employee’s development may take a while, regardless of who shepherds that person through the hiring process. “Sometimes, managers tell me that a person is good but not ready to be in a meeting with me yet,” Wolfram says. “Many times, in a meeting, I’ll ask who knows about something. If the person who’s supposed to know about it doesn’t actually know anything about it, it usually turns out badly.”

What kind of person can thrive in such an environment? Cliff Hastings started at Wolfram Research 16 years ago, doing tech support and driving something called the MathMobile, which he brought to universities and colleges so he could demo Mathematica. He’s now the company’s director of sales and strategic initiatives. Hastings identifies the shared characteristics of people who have succeeded there for a long time: They’re unequivocally Type A. They know Wolfram’s products and technology backward and sideways. And when hiring, he says, “we look for a person more than someone who can fill a role. A special person will move beyond the job they were hired for, and a passion for the company turns into passion for a job you helped create. Many of the people we bring in [are hired] because they’ve expressed enthusiasm for one part of what we do. Then they come in and get even more excited about something else. It’s all connected, though. You’d figure that someone excited about Mathematica would also be excited about Alpha.”

 
 
 
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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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