Nearly 3 years ago, I gave a talk at a Harvard mathematics conference announcing that “I am leaving academia to build a company”. What I really did is go on unpaid leave for three years from my tenured Full Professor position. No further extensions of that leave is possible, so I finally have to decide whether or not to go back to academia or resign.
How did I get here?
Nearly two decades ago, as a recently minted Berkeley math Ph.D., I was hired as a non-tenure-track faculty member in the mathematics department at Harvard. I spent five years at Harvard, then I applied for jobs, and accepted a tenured Associate Professor position in the mathematics department at UC San Diego. The mathematics community was very supportive of my number theory research; I skipped tenure track, and landed a tier-1 tenured position by the time I was 30 years old. In 2006, I moved from UCSD to a tenured Associate Professor position at the University of Washington (UW) mathematics department, primarily because my wife was a graduate student there, UW has strong research in number theory and algebraic geometry, and they have a good culture supporting undergraduate research.
Before I left Harvard, I started the SageMath open source software project, initially with the longterm goal of creating a free open source viable alternative to Mathematica, Maple, Matlab and Magma. As a result, in addition to publishing dozens of research mathematics papers and some books, I also started spending a lot of my time writing software, and organizing Sage Days workshops.
Recruiting at UW Mathematics
At UW, I recruited an amazing team of undergraduates and grad students who had a major impact on the development of Sage. I was blown away by the quality of the students (both undergrad and grad) that I was able to get involved in Sage development. I fully expected that in the next few years I would have the resources to hire some of these students to work fulltime on Sage. They had written the first versions of much of the core functionality of Sage (e.g., graph theory, symbolic calculus, matrices, and much more).
I was surprised when my application for Full Professor at UW was delayed for one year because – I was told – I wasn’t publishing enough research papers. This was because I was working very hard on building Sage, which was going extremely well at the time. I took the feedback seriously, and put more time into traditional research and publishing; this was the first time in my life that I did research mathematics for reasons other than just because I loved doing it.
I tried very hard to hire Bill Hart as a tenure-track faculty member at UW. However, I was told that his publication count was “a bit light”, and I did not succeed at hiring him. If you printed out the source code of software he has written, it would be a tall stack of paper. In any case, I totally failed at the politics needed to make his case and was left dispirited, realizing my personal shortcomings at department politics meant I probably could not hire the sort of colleagues I desperately needed.
UW was also very supportive of me teaching an undergrad course on open source math software (it evolved into this). I taught a similar course at the graduate level once, and it went extremely well, and was in my mind the best course I ever taught at UW. I was extremely surprised when my application to teach that grad course again was denied, and I was told that grad students should just go to my undergraduate course. I thought, “this is really strange”, instead of lobbying to teach the course and better presenting my case.
To be clear, I do not mean to criticize the mathematics department. The UW math department has thought very hard and systematically about their priorities and how they fit into UW. They are a traditional pure mathematics departments that is generally ranked around 25 in the country, with a particular set of strengths. There is a separate applied math department on campus, several stats departments, and a massive School of Computer Science. Maybe I was in the wrong place to try to hire somebody whose main qualification is being world class at writing mathematical software. This blog post is about the question of whether the UW math department is the right place for me or not.
Outside Grant Support?
My number theory research received incredible support from the NSF, with me being the PI on six NSF grants. Also, Magma (which is similar to Sage, but closed source) had managed to find sufficient government funding, so I remained optimistic. Maybe I could fund people to build Sage via grants, and even start an institute! I applied for grants to support work on SageMath at a larger scale, and had some initial success (half of a postdoc, and some workshops, etc.).
Why is grant funding so important for Sage? The goal of the SageMath project is to create free open source software that is a viable alternative to Mathematica, Maple, Matlab, and Magma – software produced by companies with a combined thousands of fulltime employees. Though initial progress was encouraging, it was clear that I desperately needed significant money to genuinely compete. For example, one Sage developer had a fantastic Sage development project he wanted about 20K to work fulltime on during a summer, and I could not find the money; as a result he quit working on Sage. This project involved implementing some deep algorithms that are needed to more directly compete with Mathematica for solving symbolic inequalities. This sort of thing happened over and over again, and it began to really frustrate me. I could get plenty of funding for 1-week workshops (just travel expenses – everybody works for free), but there’s only so much you can do at such sprints.
I kept hearing that there would be a big one-in-10-years NSF institutes competition sometime in the “next year or two”. People hinted to me that this would be a good thing to watch out for, and I dreamed that I could found such an institute, with the mission to make it so the mathematics community finally owned the deep software on which teaching and research are based. This institute would bring the same openness and robustness to computational mathematics that rigorous proof had brought to mathematics itself a century earlier.
Alas, this did not happen. I remember the moment I found out about the actual NSF institutes competition. Joe Silverman was standing behind me at a coffee break at The Arizona Winter School 2010 telling people about how his proposal for ICERM had just won the NSF institutes competition. I spun around and congratulated him as I listened to how much work it was to put together the application during the last year; internally, my heart sunk. Not only did I not win, I didn’t even know the competition had happened! I guess I was too busy working on Sage. In any case, my fantasy of creating an NSF-funded institute died at that moment. Of course, ICERM has turned out to be a fantastic institute, and it has hosted several workshops that support the development of open source math software.
Around this time, I also started having my grant proposals denied for reasons I do not understand. This was confusing to me, after having received so many NSF grants before. In 2012, the Simons Foundation put out a call for something that potentially addressed what I had hoped to accomplish via an NSF-funded institute. I was very excited again, but that did not turn out as I had hoped. So next I tried something I never thought I would ever do in a million years…