The math story of my life

“If I had only known back in school what I know today!”

We all mutter that phrase once in a while for many different reasons. Maybe it was when you were learning grammar, how you treated your parents or siblings, or breaking your arm attempting a crazy trick on a skateboard?

Looking back, for me, it was algebra – which turned out to be the basis of my entire professional career. I was a pretty good math student, eventually graduating from college with a mathematics degree. But I was no savant. The solution to math (or story) problems did not just pop into my head.

Like my peers, learning algebra meant first formulating the problem; then writing equations; then, finally, solving the problem according to specific rules. While solving math problems seemed challenging and fun throughout my educational years, I could not foresee then how my life would be so impacted by it. In 1991, after graduating from business school, I accepted a job that required management science, computer programming and consulting skills. Perfect, it seemed, since I got to use both of my degrees.

At that time, my employer was the leading optimization modeling/consulting firm to the Forest Products industry, which also meant learning the lumber, plywood and paper business. In the mid-90s, due to a random meeting with to a mutual customer, I was introduced to a revolutionary new software program using optimization techniques as the foundation.

Curiously, it didn’t look like anything that I was used to. Problems were defined using a drag-and-drop graphical user interface, with variables and constraints somehow interpreted from a combination of data and the visual flow diagram. All the hard math stuff was automatically handled from compiled code installed with the software.

It sounds cliché, but that day I saw the future. Someday, I knew this new technology will be able to solve the exact same problems that I was currently earning my paycheck doing, which was writing custom equations using old, FORTRAN-like code in flat files running in DOS.

Fast forward a few years, I joined River Logic in September 2000. After only needing a few days to become familiar with a far more advanced and robust version of the same product – then called Enterprise Optimizer (EO) – I opened Hiller and Lieberman’s “Introduction to Operations Research” textbook from my math undergrad days and went to work solving some well-known problems. I just had to prove to myself it was that easy and, of course, it was. At university, deriving an answer to a math problem was an exercise in mathematics.

With EO, it is an exercise of solving a business problem. After nearly a decade of writing equations, the mechanics of formulating equations no longer mattered to me. That part of my career ended, but it was a joyous ending as I began a “new” career helping EO customers achieve the most valuable possible. And early customers came from many verticals: military, food, healthcare, metals and, of course, forest products.

Now, after nearly 14 years, EO has exceeded even my grandest expectations at the time. Today it is the leading business planning and prescriptive analytics software, all because of a brilliant idea to take mathematics learnt in school and turn it into a valuable asset companies use to optimize their business.

Optimization in IBM vs River Logic

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