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

 
 

Stephen Wolfram’s World-Changing Plans

Wolfram agrees that hiring the right people can lead to good surprises—even if it sometimes takes a long time for those surprises to materialize. “One of the more bizarre things that’s happened in the history of our company is this thing where I’ll hire talented people and then I’ll realize I’m not really quite sure what this person’s going to do for us. Sometimes they’ll be floating around for several years. Well, there are a few things they can do here and there, but there’s no really strategic thing they can do. Then I’ll suddenly realize, gosh, there’s this new project we’re doing, and this person is the ideal person to be a key figure in that. There are two dynamics. First, you have talented people; then you figure out, as part of the role of management, how to connect these talented people with a project that actually needs to be done.”

Identifying connections is clearly a theme with Wolfram—between products, between people and products, and between people, products, and the whole of the company. “The number one thing I probably contribute is making connections to other things,” he says. “As a CEO, I get different people in different parts of our company to learn about what’s happening in other parts of the company. It’s somewhat successful, but ultimately I’m usually the one who has to tell people to make this or that connection.”

Staying Connected Remotely

Wolfram Research would be a different company if its leader worked regularly at the main office in Champaign. (Wolfram was formerly a professor at the University of Illinois.) “I did live there for the first few years of the company,” he says. “But I like the concept of people being able to live wherever they want. The whole company is very distributed. I think it’s rather healthy that people are not all on top of each other all the time.”

Wolfram travels from the Boston area to Champaign at least three times a year and some random additional times, but not for very long. “I was there last week and I was only there for two days. I was going nuts, because I said there isn’t enough for me to do here. I can sit in my office and do the same readings I would do anywhere else. When I lived there more than 20-something years ago, there were a couple of issues. One was that people would just wander in and say, ‘Oh, by the way, can I talk to you about this?’ And it turned out they didn’t need to talk to me about that. It would have been much better if it was in an email. Then I can process it in an organized way. If they want to have a meeting, they schedule a meeting. I feel vastly more efficient when I’m working remotely than I do when I’m on site.”

What does feel efficient to Wolfram is his rather unusual working regimen. “I have a pretty precise schedule,” he says. He works from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., breaks until 8:30 p.m., and then works until 2:30 a.m. It’s a 13-hour workday, and he says it rarely varies. (Our two-hour meeting at his home took place during his usual break time.)

That long day with a break in the middle makes it easier for Wolfram to communicate with executives across many different time zones. Luc Barthelet is executive director of Wolfram|Alpha, and he is based in California. “Stephen and I spend several hours a week on the phone,” he says. “We have a one-to-one every Monday evening. Well, it’s evening for me. It’s the middle of the night for him. When I’m going to talk to him, I have to tighten my seat belt. Stephen spends 80 percent of his awake time in conversations. That’s how he thinks. He needs to speak to someone to get ideas. He needs to speak. We don’t have meetings where he just listens. He doesn’t just absorb.”

 
 
 
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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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