The House of Quants
Before it was the self-proclaimed largest bookstore on Earth or the Web's dominant superstore, Amazon.com was an idea floating through the New York City offices of one of the most unusual firms on Wall Street: D. E. Shaw & Co.
A quantitative hedge fund, DESCO, as its employees affectionately called it, was started in 1988 by David E. Shaw, a former Columbia University computer science professor. Along with the founders of other groundbreaking quant houses of that era, like Renaissance Technologies and Tudor Investment Corporation, Shaw pioneered the use of computers and sophisticated mathematical formulas to exploit anomalous patterns in global financial markets. When the price of a stock in Europe was fractionally higher than the price of the same stock in the United States, for example, the computer jockeys turned Wall Street warriors at DESCO would write software to quickly execute trades and exploit the disparity.
The broader financial community knew very little about D. E. Shaw, and its polymath founder wanted to keep it that way. The firm preferred operating far below the radar, deploying private capital from wealthy investors such as billionaire financier Donald Sussman and the Tisch family, and keeping its proprietary trading algorithms out of competitors' hands. Shaw felt strongly that if DESCO was going to be a firm that pioneered new approaches to investing, the only way to maintain its lead was to keep its insights secret and avoid teaching competitors how to think about these new computer-guided frontiers.
David Shaw came of age in the dawning era of powerful new supercomputers. He earned a PhD in computer science from Stanford in 1980 and then moved to New York to teach in Columbia's computer science department. Throughout the early eighties, high-tech companies tried to lure him to the private sector. Inventor Danny Hillis, founder of the supercomputer manufacturer Thinking Machines Corporation and later one of Jeff Bezos's closest friends, almost convinced Shaw to come work for him designing parallel computers. Shaw tentatively accepted the job and then changed his mind, telling Hillis he wanted to do something more lucrative and could always return to the supercomputer field after he got wealthy. Hillis argued that even if Shaw did get rich — which seemed unlikely — he'd never return to computer science. (Shaw did, after he became a billionaire and passed on the day-to-day management of D. E. Shaw to others.) "I was spectacularly wrong on both counts," Hillis says.
Morgan Stanley finally pried Shaw loose from academia in 1986, adding him to a famed group working on statistical arbitrage software for the new wave of automated trading. But Shaw had an urge to set off on his own. He left Morgan Stanley in 1988, and with a $28 million seed investment from investor Donald Sussman, he set up shop over a Communist bookstore in Manhattan's West Village.
By design, D. E. Shaw would be a different kind of Wall Street firm. Shaw recruited not financiers but scientists and mathematicians — big brains with unusual backgrounds, lofty academic credentials, and more than a touch of social cluelessness. Bob Gelfond, who joined DESCO after the firm moved to a loft on Park Avenue South, says that "David wanted to see the power of technology and computers applied to finance in a scientific way" and that he "looked up to Goldman Sachs and wanted to build an iconic Wall Street firm."
In these ways and many others, David Shaw brought an exacting sensibility to the management of his company. He regularly sent out missives instructing employees to spell the firm's name in a specific manner — with a space between the D. and the E. He also mandated that everyone use a canonical description of the company's mission: it was to "trade stocks, bonds, futures, options and various other financial instruments" — precisely in that order. Shaw's rigor extended to more substantive matters as well: any of his computer scientists could suggest trading ideas, but the notions had to pass demanding scientific scrutiny and statistical tests to prove they were valid.
In 1991, D. E. Shaw was growing rapidly, and the company moved to the top floors of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper a block from Times Square. The firm's striking but sparely decorated offices, designed by the architect Steven Holl, included a two-story lobby with luminescent colors that were projected into slots cut into the expansive white walls. That fall, Shaw hosted a thousand-dollar-a-ticket fund-raiser for presidential candidate Bill Clinton that was attended by the likes of Jacqueline Onassis, among others. Employees were asked to clear out of the office that evening before the event. Jeff Bezos, one of the youngest vice presidents at the firm, left to play volleyball with colleagues, but first he stopped and got his photo taken with the future president.
Bezos was twenty-nine at the time, five foot eight inches tall, already balding and with the pasty, rumpled appearance of a committed workaholic. He had spent seven years on Wall Street and impressed seemingly everyone he encountered with his keen intellect and boundless determination. Upon graduating from Princeton in 1986, Bezos worked for a pair of Columbia professors at a company called Fitel that was developing a private transatlantic computer network for stock traders. Graciela Chichilnisky, one of the cofounders and Bezos's boss, remembers him as a capable and upbeat employee who worked tirelessly and at various different times managed the firm's operations in London and Tokyo. "He was not concerned about what other people were thinking," Chichilnisky says. "When you gave him a good solid intellectual issue, he would just chew on it and get it done."
Bezos moved to the financial firm Bankers Trust in 1988, but by then, frustrated by what he viewed as institutional reluctance at companies to challenge the status quo, he was already looking for an opportunity to start his own business. Between 1989 and 1990 he spent several months working in his spare time on a startup with a young Merrill Lynch employee named Halsey Minor, who would later go on to start the online news network CNET. Their fledgling venture, aimed at sending a customized newsletter to people over their fax machines, collapsed when Merrill Lynch withdrew the promised funding. But Bezos nevertheless made an impression. Minor remembers that Bezos had closely studied several wealthy businessmen and that he particularly admired a man named Frank Meeks, a Virginia entrepreneur who had made a fortune owning Domino's Pizza franchises. Bezos also revered pioneering computer scientist Alan Kay and often quoted his observation that "point of view is worth 80 IQ points" — a reminder that looking at things in new ways can enhance one's understanding. "He went to school on everybody," Minor says. "I don't think there was anybody Jeff knew that he didn't walk away from with whatever lessons he could."
From The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone. Copyright 2013 by Brad Stone. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.