The Machine that Turns Ideas into Real Things

The Machine that Turns Ideas into Real Things

For three decades, Wolfram Research has created and iterated on a suite of powerful computing technologies. Stephen Wolfram, who founded the company as a young science and math prodigy, started with a simple goal: “To build the tools to do what I wanted to do.” Today, Wolfram Research has more than 800 employees who continue to push its software forward.

Distributed Podcast: Hear Matt Mullenweg in conversation with Stephen Wolfram. Read the transcript.

While the company maintains offices in Boston, Tokyo, Oxfordshire, and has its headquarters in Champaign, Illinois, many of its employees work remotely. Stephen has been a distributed-work pioneer, having served as a remote CEO since the company’s early days. There are many reasons to work remotely, but for Stephen, much of it has to do with his unwillingness to waste even a moment of time commuting. He is an early “quantified self” devotee who arranges his schedule and living spaces around productivity. He believes his work is just that important. 

Building a Company to Pursue Knowledge

A narrative through-line emerges across Stephen’s many projects: the development of computing technology to better understand the mechanics of physical stuff. 

Stephen published his first scientific paper at 15 and received his PhD in theoretical physics at 20. In 1973, he began to use computers, and became enchanted by the potential of computing technology to explain phenomena in the material world. His work on SMP, the first modern computer algebra system, earned him a MacArthur fellowship in 1981 — making him the youngest recipient of the award at the time.

After a successful career in academia, Stephen realized that his research would be a better fit for a business, and thus Wolfram Research was born. The company released its flagship product, Mathematica, in 1988. Mathematica is a technical computing system that is used for countless applications, including neural networks, machine learning, image processing, geometry, data science, and visualizations.

Stephen split the ‘90s between the development of Mathematica and continuing his scientific research. That work culminated in a 1,200-page tome published in 2002, A New Kind of Science, which introduced Stephen’s ideas about the possibility of a fundamental theory of physics. Stephen used Mathematica to develop his formulas and equations. 

The following two decades saw Wolfram Research take Stephen’s work even further with Wolfram Alpha, a milestone in artificial intelligence research. The platform allows users to ask questions via a text field, and then provides answers to those queries, drawing from its vast knowledge base. 

More recently, Wolfram Research has named the foundational layer of these technologies: the Wolfram Language, a robust computational language that can be used within the Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha environments, along with other Wolfram Cloud applications.

Remote CEO Pioneer

Stephen has been focused on and committed to his singular vision for decades. Although he is heavily involved in day-to-day product development, Stephen keeps the business of running a company at arm’s length — literally. He’s been a remote CEO for 28 years. However, this distance doesn’t stop him from staying extremely hands-on in product design and development. Hiring strategically means he can spend more time focusing on the nuts and bolts of the products Wolfram Research makes. He describes his attitude toward the role of a CEO on his blog. 

I’m one of those CEOs who actually does a lot of stuff myself, as well as managing other people to do things. Being a remote CEO helps me achieve that, and stay focused. And partly following my example, our company has evolved a very distributed culture, with people working scattered all over the world.

“It’s all about being productive,” says Stephen, “rather than about ‘showing up’.” Stephen seeks out people like himself: “independent thinkers, independent doers.” 

Stephen aims for his company to have minimal internal politics. He wants it to be a place with a lot of happy, long-term employees. He says that many people who leave Wolfram Research end up coming back after a while, having missed the unique work experience the company affords. 

We have a lot of very bright people who have a lot of opinions. And I like to believe that we have a company where what we are mostly interested in is finding people who can be productive in our environment, and they have very different personalities. 

But, says Stephen, these folks do good work, and a good manager can find ways for workers with atypical work styles or social behaviors to be productive, especially in a distributed setting. “I think that the role of management is given [to determine] who these people are,” he says. “How do you fit them together with what we are trying to do in such a way that you take advantage of their good traits?”  

During job interviews, Stephen employs a casual approach, letting candidates share their enthusiasm for their area of expertise. When interviewing for executive-level roles, he prefers to have a conversation with candidates rather than employing a rigid Q&A formula. In fact, he believes that polished interviews actually work against the goal of getting to know someone’s real abilities and personality. “It’s just so difficult to find out who is the actual person here,” he says.

In all the interviewing that I do, people sometimes come into it tense but if you’re doing interviewing right, the people aren’t that tense… At some level, if the people are sufficiently intimidated that’s probably not a great indicator, because the fact is, in our company, there are a bunch of strong opinions, and people will express themselves. And if somebody is like, “Oh no, I can’t deal with that,” that probably isn’t a great indicator. 

Stephen has filled his company with the best people he can find, no matter where they live. “Are you doing good stuff?” asks Stephen. If so, “where you live is your independent business.” He concedes that timezone coordination can sometimes make collaboration challenging, but this is never an insurmountable annoyance. This encourages employees to arrange their work around their lives, and not the other way around. 

There’s one guy in our user interface team who’s been at the company a long time, but he said, “Well I’m going to go remote and I’m going to this island off the coast of Nicaragua because my wife is a primatologist and she is studying — What were they? Some kind of monkey-like creatures on this island. And he got a microwave link set up, and there he was, being perfectly productive.

Because Wolfram Research has a distributed workforce, the geographic diversity of its employees makes for a wide range of skills and interests. “If everyone was in the office, in the same place — it’s like everyone’s thinking the same thing,” says Stephen, pointing out that the work that Wolfram Research does is related to knowledge and data about the world, so having people provide input from around the world is a boon for the company. “It helps to have a team that’s based in different places, and is used to working with people from different places.” 

The company maintains a “Who Knows What?” database, where employees can submit topics on which they have some amount of expertise. To build this database, they’ve asked all employees a series of questions like “What languages do you speak?”, “What magazines do you read?”, and “What subjects have you taught classes on?” When teams are starting new projects, they’ll often hit the Who Knows What database. For example, when a team was inputting data about oil rigs in Wolfram Alpha, they realized that one of their salespeople used to work for an oil exploration firm and possessed deep knowledge of oil rig operation. The team could have searched outside the company for this kind of specialized knowledge, but Stephen says that there’s an advantage to working with employees because they have familiarity with the company culture, and their contributions can be taken in more seamlessly. “There’s less introduction that you have to give, than if you’re talking to an outside expert,” says Stephen.

Personal Infrastructure

Since he’s been running his company remotely for almost three decades, Stephen has built up a wealth of knowledge about how to effectively manage distributed teams from afar. 

The first component is embodied in Stephen’s approach to individual productivity.

I’m a person who’s only satisfied if I feel I’m being productive. I like figuring things out. I like making things. And I want to do as much of that as I can. And part of being able to do that is to have the best personal infrastructure I can.

Stephen has accumulated dozens, if not hundreds, of productivity hacks. If he devises a more effective way to complete a task, he first looks for an appropriate tool already built by someone else. If nobody has built the tool he’s looking for, he’ll often try to have an expert build a custom solution. If that’s not an option, he educates himself on the problem and hacks together a solution himself. After wonky audio-visual equipment caused a disastrous delay to his TED Talk, Stephen found a workaround — a dongle that ensures he’ll never have to deal with frustrating presentation logistics again.

I decided I’d better actually understand how computers talk to projectors. It’s a complicated business, that involves having the computer and the projector negotiate to find a resolution, aspect ratio, frame rate, etc. that will work for both of them. Underneath, there are things called EDID strings that are exchanged, and these are what typically get tangled up. Computer operating systems have gotten much better about handling this in recent years, but for high-profile, high-production-value events, I have a little box that spoofs EDID strings to force my computer to send a specific signal, regardless of what the projector seems to be asking it for.

It’s precisely this hacker mentality that has fueled Stephen’s commitment to distributed work decades before it became a trend in tech. Every moment of Stephen’s life is carefully considered, and every facet of his workspace is optimized for productivity. His office boasted a standing desk and treadmill desk many years before these became de rigueur in the Valley. He’s even built a mobile desk that he can use while strolling around his wooded Massachusetts property on sunny afternoons. 

“At an intellectual level,” says Stephen, “the key to building this infrastructure is to structure, streamline, and automate everything as much as possible — while recognizing both what’s realistic with current technology, and what fits with me personally.” He even considers Wolfram Research itself as “one giant productivity hack” that he’s been building all along, an “efficient machine for turning ideas into real things, and for leveraging what skills I have to greatly amplify my personal productivity.”

Thinking in Public

Just as he optimizes his own personal infrastructure, Stephen seeks to spread his learnings as widely as possible. He blogs prolifically about everything from the origins of a math equation possibly written by computing pioneer Alan Turing to his experience testifying at the senate about A.I.-selected content on the internet. 

Another knowledge stream Stephen wants to share with the world is Wolfram Research’s product meetings. Wolfram Research records, live-streams, and publicly archives all of their meetings. You can watch their most recent meeting, and hundreds of others. 

“In the world at large, people often complain that ‘nothing happens in meetings.’ Well, that’s not true of my meetings,” said Stephen in an op-ed for Wired. “In fact, I think it’s fair to say that in every single product-design meeting I do, significant things are figured out, and at least some significant decisions are made.”

Since these meetings are so valuable, Stephen wants to ensure that everyone in the world has the opportunity to benefit from these discussions. 

It’s an interesting and unique record of a powerful form of intellectual activity. But for me it’s already nice just to be able to share some of the fascinating conversations I end up being part of every day. And to feel like the time I’m spending as a very hands-on CEO not only advances the Wolfram Language and the other things we’re building, but can also directly help educate — and perhaps entertain — a few more people out in the world.

How does Stephen ensure that the meetings are productive? Their purpose isn’t simply to align objectives, but also to function as a space where actual work gets done. Stephen will often write code or try out new Wolfram Language functions during meetings. The group might tackle a bug, start working on a new product feature from scratch, or complete the final visual design for a project they’re about to launch. People with subject-matter expertise might get called to join a meeting, and are expected to be able to riff on their expertise or answer a specific question. 

Like any distributed company, Wolfram Research relies heavily on videoconferencing. But whereas many distributed organizations put a lot of effort into tools that facilitate high visual fidelity to capture the subtle nuances of communication, Wolfram Research workers rarely broadcast “talking head” video. Instead, they primarily use screen sharing. “I find video distracting,” Stephen says, explaining that he expects and hopes that people who aren’t interested in every part of a meeting will dip in and out of the conversation. This way, the conversation can freely go down a rabbit hole that might only be relevant for some of the attendees, while others can temporarily shift into working on other projects until the meeting becomes relevant for them again. Nobody is distracted by a wall of faces that aren’t even paying attention to the conversation. To make up for the lack of visuals, Stephen is adamant about using professional-grade audio equipment, and he expects everyone else on the calls to do the same. 

Regardless of the equipment used, the point of a meeting at Wolfram Research is to get things done. That might involve resolving questions that require multiple people with wide-ranging areas of expertise. It might entail troubleshooting problems as they arise in real time. Participants exercise their intellectual agility to keep up with the fast pace of these meetings and contribute value where they can. The meetings can be intense at times, but nobody ever leaves one thinking, “Well, that was a pointless waste of time.”

The meetings that we’re live-streaming now are about features of the Wolfram Language etc. that we currently have under development. But with our aggressive schedule of releasing software, it shouldn’t be long before the things we’re talking about are actually released in working products. And when that happens, there’ll be something quite unique about it. Because for the first time ever, people will not only be able to see what got done, but they’ll also be able to go back to a recorded live stream and see how it came to be figured out.

CEO for Life

When Stephen discusses his work, you get the sense that the moment he becomes disinterested in a field is the moment he moves on to a new one. He’s not particularly occupied by the pursuit of profit for its own sake, only insofar as it enables him to further pursue his research. 

You can do things that are very commercial, but a little bit intellectually boring. And it tends to be the case that you’re doing a lot of rinse-and-repeat stuff if you want to grow purely commercially, so to speak. Or, you can do things that are wonderful intellectually, but the world doesn’t happen to value them and you can’t make commercial sense that way. And I’ve tried to navigate something in between those two where it’s where I’m really intellectually interested and where it’s commercially successful enough to sustain the process for a long time.

Stephen has been careful about the way he’s grown the company in order to ensure that he can continue to chart its course. Apart from his customers, he answers to no one.  Having resisted external investments throughout his long career, Stephen has the freedom and flexibility to pursue things he finds interesting, even if there isn’t immediate profit potential. It has also allowed him to experiment with unorthodox ways of doing business, including his early adoption of distributed work and remote CEO-ing.

As a result, Wolfram Research isn’t frequently on the radar of tech reporters, and Stephen himself might never appear on a Wired cover (although he did make the cover of R&D magazine). However, Stephen’s decision to pursue sustainable, steady growth and independent control, along with his commitment to “intellectually-valuable” work, has enabled the company to “build the tools to do what [Stephen] wanted to do,” and to develop a few world-changing technologies along the way. 

Photo courtesy of Donncha Ó Caoimh.