Michael Bloomberg likes to say that being fired from his high perch at Salomon Brothers in the summer of 1981 was one of the best things that happened to him. Freed from the golden shackles of one of Wall Street’s most iconic investment firms, the future mayor of New York City wasted little time. He used his newfound freedom—and a $10-million payout—to quickly hire three computer programmers and launch the tech and media powerhouse that would eventually make him one of the wealthiest people on the planet.
One of Bloomberg’s efforts to spread that wealth comes to fruition Wednesday, when Cornell University officially opens its Cornell Tech engineering campus on New York City’s Roosevelt Island, a sliver of land in the middle of the East River. Native Americans used Roosevelt Island as a hunting ground and fishing spot before 17th-century Dutch settlers bought the island to raise hogs. Over the past 180 years it has been home to a mental hospital, penitentiary, smallpox hospital, almshouse, nursing school and government rent-subsidized apartment buildings. The island’s newest resident—Cornell Tech—was the result of a campaign that then-Mayor Bloomberg began nearly a decade ago to create an incubator for tech start-ups akin to Stanford University in Silicon Valley, Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Boston area. His foundation has also contributed at least $100 million toward the new Cornell project.
From the outset, Cornell has billed its new institution as a hands-on “applied science” facility, where students will spend much of their time considering the practical applications of what they learn. The university’s new graduate-level campus aims to train would-be entrepreneurs in core subjects such as computer science and business while also offering a master’s degree that combines elements of law, technology and entrepreneurship. In partnership with Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, the school’s curriculum includes dual master’s degrees in “connective media” (the human and social impacts of technology) and health tech.
Prior to serving three terms as mayor and briefly flirting with the idea of challenging Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations, Bloomberg was best known as an entrepreneur. He launched Bloomberg, LP, shortly after his departure from Salomon Brothers, based on what he saw as an opportunity to offer businesses access to aggregated financial information, news and analysis from a single desktop device—at a time when stock markets were going digital, yet few companies used personal computers. The Bloomberg Terminal arrived in 1982—a year after IBM introduced its first PC—and later evolved from being strictly a piece of hardware into a service accessible from just about any computer or mobile device.
Scientific American spoke with Bloomberg recently about how the former electrical engineering student ended up on Wall Street, the freedom of building a tech company from the ground up, and why he pushed to install a new engineering college in the nation’s largest city.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
You studied to be an electrical engineer. How did you end up on Wall Street at Salomon Brothers?
I was interested in science from my days going to the Museum of Science in Boston as a kid. I went to [Johns] Hopkins [University] to study physics in 1960. When I got there, it turned out there was a German [language] requirement, which I hadn’t known about. After three days in German class, I became an engineer.
When I was graduating from Hopkins, I knew I could regurgitate what was in the book, but I also knew that I could not write the book. You have to understand the limits of your academic capabilities. And so, I went to [Harvard] Business School for two years. When I graduated, I was supposed to go to Vietnam. I had a commission as a second lieutenant in the army, as I remember, but they wouldn’t take me at the last minute for flat feet. I couldn’t believe that. And so, a friend of mine said, “Well, call Goldman Sachs and Salomon Brothers.” And I did—and both offered me a job, and I went to work for Salomon. About two years, maybe a year and a half after I got there, I remember, I went to Billy Salomon, who was the managing partner, and said I had read about these things they called computers. And computers could do all the stuff that I’d been having to do. And Billy said, “That’s a great idea. If you have time at night, get somebody to help you work on it.” And I did. For 15 years it was great, until I got fired—and thank God they fired me. And then I started this company.
What interested you about the different ways data could be used in the business world?
I think in looking back there were two big companies [Reuters and Telerate] that collected data and displayed it. What they did not pay any attention to was the thought that you could take the data and do something with it. And so, the business we created was you could take and use data that was publicly available. If it was a bond, you could use data to do a yield calculation. If it was a stock, you could graph its price—those kinds of things. The big companies never thought that there would be a real demand for that next level [of data analysis] because they’d been doing the same thing for many, many years.
I think that’s what happens in innovation generally. All of a sudden people say, “Oh, why didn’t we think of that?” Well, you’ve been doing the old thing for decades. Did you ever read Clay Christensen's book, The Innovator's Dilemma? The basic gist of the book is you see change coming but you’re immobilized because your employees, your customers and your stockholders like what you’re doing, you’re making money, and so you don’t do anything until one day it just overwhelms you. And that clearly is what happened to companies like Eastman Kodak. They saw electric cameras but they did nothing because their whole business was built around selling film. And then one day, lo and behold—and it happened pretty precipitously—people stopped buying film, and they were out of business.
How much of a challenge was it to create the technology that you needed to make Bloomberg successful?
I don’t think it was that difficult. I mean, I’ve only written one computer program in my life, in FORTRAN, back in 1963. So, I really wasn’t going to do the coding. But I hired three guys who had been programmers at Salomon, and I said, “Okay, here’s the data. Here’s the calculation. We want to be able to take that piece of data, stick it in the calculation and display the results.” And it didn’t work the first time, but you do simple things and then eventually you build your capabilities. But to do the first calculation is something that’s truly unique. After that, I suppose, it’s just—it’s not science anymore; it’s just technology.
Why did you decide to bring a school to NYC to focus on incubating new technology and tech companies?
I think the government’s job is to, among other things, help the economy so that you’ll have a tax base and people will have employment. I think that we saw an opportunity to get a graduate engineering school so that people coming out would start companies here rather than what you see in Silicon Valley. Most [tech] companies came out of Stanford. New start-ups in New York City won’t just come from Cornell Tech—they’ll also come from the process that brought Cornell to the city. Our search for a new engineering school resulted in Cornell bringing Technion with them and led to [New York University] building a whole new engineering campus in downtown Brooklyn. Columbia University did the same thing [in Manhattan’s West Harlem neighborhood]. Carnegie Mellon University even came to New York and put a facility in the [Brooklyn] Navy Yard. Our search attracted an awful lot of academic facilities that will educate entrepreneurs and encourage them to start companies here.
What do you expect will be the larger impact of Cornell Tech beyond New York City?
If it works here, it may be something that other cities want to try. Also, I suppose you can argue that for America, the more companies that come here the better off every city is and every citizen is. New York is just the latest. There are several cities smaller than New York City around the country that do very well in technology—Austin, Boston, Seattle and Pittsburgh, for example.
Is there a particular challenge in launching start-ups in New York City, given the cost?
No, I don’t think costs really matter. Young people will go to work for almost nothing if they think they have enormous opportunities. And what we tried to do in New York City was—for the 12 years I was in office—[to] make available facilities that were underused, including the Brooklyn Army Terminal and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. There are lots of old buildings that were able to be repurposed, and provide opportunities for people to do things that they couldn’t do elsewhere. The other thing is that if you’re going to build products for the world, it certainly helps to be where the world is. And it’s pretty hard to argue that—there are a couple that would tie with us—but we’re the most cosmopolitan city you can have. Forty percent of all the people who live in New York City were born outside of the United States. And being here gives you access to people with lots of different experiences and types of education, but also people who have a feel for what people around the world want to use and want to buy and want to believe.
Why did the city choose Roosevelt Island as the site for Cornell Tech?
You had a hospital that was falling apart that just was not doing the job for its patients, so we built a new hospital up in Harlem and moved the patients there. That gave you the opportunity to repurpose that area. Those buildings were not useful for anything else—they were loaded with asbestos, which was one of the things that made them expensive to take down. What we did was say, “Okay, it’s a good location. It has the advantage of being part of the city but being slightly away from it.” You’ve got three different ways to get into the city virtually instantaneously from the island, and great views, which you wouldn't have if you were in the city—it’s the perfect place to put a school. The way things are going, if you’re going to educate kids, you want to be where the culture and the intellectual capital are. And I’ve always said that culture attracts capital a lot quicker than capital will attract culture. My only disappointment was I’d hoped that we would get more universities to put campuses on Roosevelt Island. There’s still some land there. In the end, there was really only one that had the money and the moxie to do it. Cornell plans to keep on building—they’re starting on two more buildings in the fall.