Thursday, February 18, 2010

The education of Nathan Myhrvold

I came across this long 1998 interview with Nathan Myhrvold, which covers his childhood, education as a physicist, brief postdoc with Hawking, software startup and its acquisition by Microsoft, subsequent role there including the creation of Microsoft Research.

NM: Initially I wanted to go on in math. I talked to a professor at UCLA and they said the two best schools for mathematics were Princeton and Berkeley. I have been bad about procrastinating. So I put off applying, and I applied only to those two schools, which, if my kids do that, I’ll kill them. Of course they should apply to many, many schools, and they should keep their options open. I only applied to those two, and I got into both of them. I decided to go Princeton and I decided applied math was more interesting than pure math. So I went into this applied math program that could let you do whole variety of different things.

So the next degree I got was a master’s degree in mathematical economics. Then I finally got a Ph.D. in theoretical physics. A friend of mine said that I was trying to have more degrees than a thermometer. And they’re all on different topics, which in a way was a mistake because I could have been out much sooner if I had concentrated and focused on just one area.

DA: You were still in your young, early twenties.

NM: I was 23 so it wasn’t like I wasted that much time. And I’m glad I did because it was great to see all of these other fields and learn something about them.

DA: Were you considering spending your career as an academic?

NM: Oh absolutely, that was the only thing. I’m sure if you had interviewed me when I was in graduate school at Princeton, I would have been very full of myself about that. And I would explain in an enormous, articulate way about what else would one do? You know, what greater thing could one aspire to? But of course I’m not there.


NM: ... People have a lot of metaphors for entrepreneurship. I like two of those metaphors. One is white water rafting, and I say white water rafting because you have a skill in rafting that counts for something. I know a number of people that are great rafters. But you’re also going on this wild river, and the current is going, and you’re going to get splashed, and wet and thrown, and even the best rafters have been thrown out of the raft and capsized and everything else. It’s partially under your control, and it’s partially not under your control. And a lot of people don’t realize that.

I talked to a lot of people when I first started this company. There was a venture capitalist who had been an entrepreneur, and he was full of sage advice. I remember I was in his office, which was in the Bank America Tower in San Francisco. It was on the 50th floor with this stunning view. And he says, “You know, having a company is like having a baby.”

I said, “Okay.” He says, “No, no, no, it’s not like what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it’s like the man’s role in having a baby, a half hour of fun, and nine months later you pass out cigars and you’re a proud father.” He said, “No, it’s like the woman’s role in having a baby. It’s nine months of incredible discomfort and pain and all this; and then the hard work starts.” And I have to say he was right. You know at the time I listened to him. I heard him out. I didn’t realize how true that was.


DA: Did the whole company go to Microsoft?

NM: Yes, well most of the company came. There were about 15 people who were employees, and a whole bunch of them were part time. The eight full time people all came, and we weren’t sure how long it was going to last. We weren’t sure whether we would like Seattle. We weren’t sure whether Microsoft really would like us once they saw us up close. It turns out this group had an illustrious career at Microsoft. I’m still here. My brother Cameron is a Vice President here at Microsoft. He actually didn’t join when we first came up. He was the only full time guy not to join. He went back to Berkeley and finished up that last quarter, and joined the following year. The guy who’s the technical lead on Windows 3.1, Windows 95, and is now technical lead for natural language in the company, came from my company. The guy who is the technical lead for graphics and Windows NT came from my company. The guy who’s the technical lead for multi-media for a long time at Microsoft, came from my company. These eight guys that came up, all had stellar careers. We sort of spread out throughout Microsoft and wound up in very senior
positions. ...

See here for a NYTimes update on his company Intellectual Ventures, also discussed in this earlier blog post: Gladwell amongst the patent trolls.


Unknown said...

Hi Steve,

You wrote in your Gladwell post:

> Myhrvold is the former cosmologist who left
> physics and eventually became consigliere to
> Bill Gates

From Wikipedia:

"Consigliere is a position in the American Mafia."

I think that describes Microsoft pretty well. ;-)

John Gruber is also not a fan of IV:

Myhrvold seems to get a lot of good press from the NYTimes ( I asked one of their journalists what PR firm Nathan uses to get such great coverage. He was a little indignant that I would even suggest such a thing then he mentions that he saw the pitch for the book and thought it would make a good story. And we wonder why journalism is in decline.

Nathan brags about how his group went on to fill high positions within Microsoft. I don't know if this is something to brag about. Besides DOS/Windows and Office, there hasn't been any big success or innovation. In fact, they have been perpetual laggards:

1. LAN - Novell
2. Internet browser - Netscape
3. Internet portal - Excite, AOL, Yahoo
4. Internet search - Yahoo, Google
5. Digital media - Apple/iPod/iTunes
6. Smartphone - RIM, Apple

Until about 2000, they were able to catch up and beat the upstarts by virtue of the hoards of money from their monopolies.

And how does Microsoft Research stack up against Xerox PARC (Ethernet, mouse, GUI, laser printer), Bell Labs (transistor, laser, numerous Nobels), IBM Research (fractals, relational databases, etc), HP (memristor) and even Sun Labs? Bob? The talking paper clip?

Peter Woit defends Myhrvol which is predictable. I read his blog because he is Mr. SM. Anything that sounds kooky or weird he attacks. And he is mostly right. Of course, the fact that the next revolution in physics will sound kooky and weird is problematic.


gs said...

There are economists who argue that intellectual property should be abolished. The book Against Intellectual Property is free online and available from Cambridge University Press. More material is here and here. Reaction to the NYT piece is here, including the comment by 'Repentant Patent Owner'.

The rationales for expansion of the IP domain over the last few decades make my BS detector go off. A false alarm? I don't claim to understand the issues in depth, but I am instinctively wary about monopolies, especially government-enforced ones.

Unknown said...

I've been reading puff pieces about Myhrvold since I can remember. He seems to be very good at convincing journalists and high level executives that he's "brilliant", but actual tangible evidence of brilliance seems to be harder to come by. I wasn't particularly impressed with his recent performance in the "superfreakonomics" kerfuffle.

Ian Smith said...

NM is a genuine example of someone with a 160+ IQ.

Max said...

Fascinating read, Thank you.

one trend I notice among them brilliant successful people though is that they are hopelessly idealist.

..We are living in bizzare mix of 1984 and Brave new world now, but really brilliant people just hide in their idealistic illusions of democracy, equality and inherent good of human nature.

I guess to be realist you have to be a loser, you have to be bitter, angry and mad.So its a broken circle losers cant change anything even if they have the right perspective. And winners live in the dreams of their own perfect world illusions

Unknown said...

I agree with "anon" that NM is a genuine example of someone with a 160+ IQ.

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David Smith said...

I commend the way these metaphors of entrepreneurship are described here. People have a lot of metaphors for entrepreneurship, thats very true, but can we have similar metaphors for art education schools?.

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