How Ari Buchalter Moved From Astrophysics to Algorithms

The innovator details how a PhD prepared him to become president of a global technology company

Ari Buchalter was drawn to astrophysics because it sought to answer big questions. While completing his PhD and postdoctoral research, he studied cosmology—the study of the origin and structure of the universe—focusing, in part, on how the universe evolved from the Big Bang. “All scientists share a fundamental curiosity about the world, and all are at heart problem solvers, looking for solutions to the challenges nature presents us,” Buchalter says.

Although that might seem a far stretch from the day-to-day, he approaches business in the same way. “In business, I’ve tended to focus on big problems rather than small ones and, in particular, on new ways of looking at them,” he says.

Buchalter’s first introduction to the business world was through his stepfather, an entrepreneur and pioneer in the field of industrial design who also traded equity options. “Knowing I was a math guy, he suggested I learn about options,” Buchalter says. The topic immediately piqued his interest. Buchalter set up a small hedge fund, and for a few years, he managed the fund while continuing his postdoctoral research. But he soon came to realize that his interest in a career in astrophysics didn’t match his lifelong interest in the subject. So, he says, he decided to shut down the fund. “I jumped with both feet into the business world,” he says.

Buchalter, currently the CEO of smart cities technology and media company Intersection, received an offer from McKinsey & Company, a leading consulting firm known for recruiting people with non-MBA advanced degrees and developing them into effective business leaders. Although his first consulting projects were in the sectors of wholesale banking and pharmaceuticals, he was quickly drawn to marketing and digital media, which posed what he says were the biggest and hardest questions—questions about how traditional companies should compete in the digital arena or how companies could make use of the vast amounts of new data being created. “This was truly new territory that businesses had never grappled with before, and that seemed especially exciting to me,” he says.

“All scientists share a fundamental curiosity about the world, and all are at heart problem solvers, looking for solutions to the challenges nature presents us.”

From 2008 through 2017, Buchalter served as chief operating officer and then president at MediaMath, a global technology company that powers programmatic advertising for marketers. He uses the same data-driven, analytical approaches for this work that he used in his academic research. His first order of business at MediaMath was to create the machine learning algorithms that power real-time trading of digital ads, using sophisticated techniques to determine which ads to show to which consumers in which contexts and at what price, to maximize ROI for MediaMath’s clients. “There were no off-the-shelf approaches that could handle the scales and speeds we were dealing with, so we had to create new IP combining techniques from statistics, predictive modeling, game theory, and high-frequency, algorithmic trading,” he says. Those algorithms now consume terabytes of new data daily, processing nearly half a trillion advertising opportunities per day and evaluating each one in under fifty milliseconds. “It was amazing to see the impact my quantitative training could have in a real-world environment,” Buchalter says.

Despite the overlap of analytic approaches, Buchalter soon found that there’s more to business than data, having at different times presided over functions as different as sales, operations, products, and engineering at MediaMath. In order to gain support from stakeholders across the organization with diverse priorities and agendas, Buchalter has had to master a range of influence techniques, such as storytelling. “Whereas in academia substance reigns supreme, substance and form both matter in the business world,” he says. “A business idea matters, but how you sell it matters, too.”

Buchalter says that transitioning to business required changing his approach to problem solving. “In academia, the value is on original, bulletproof ideas,” he says. “In business, you’ve got to tolerate a lot of ambiguity, get quickly to a solution that is good enough, and improve from there.” What’s more, business deadlines are frequent and hard, unlike the months- or years-long time frames for academic work. “Coming from the ivory tower, the pace of business takes some getting used to, and one has to adjust work habits appropriately,” he says.

Relationships For Success

Ari Buchalter notes that MediaMath’s success wouldn’t be possible without working closely with other companies—chief among them the Zayo Group. “Zayo provides MediaMath with a wide array of critical services, including IP transit in the United States and European Union, data center services, lit services (direct connect and 10G waves), and dark fiber,” he explains. “Working with Zayo has allowed us to scale our global, real-time marketing technology platform both flexibly and cost-effectively, not only providing reliable connectivity and network infrastructure, but excellent service and support as well.”

Despite these challenges, Buchalter has found that there are benefits to bringing academic skill sets into business environments. Those from different academic backgrounds offer new perspectives, which can lead to a valuable cross-pollination of ideas.

Convincing academics to explore careers in business is a matter of necessity, he adds. “We’re in a state in this country where we have a lot more students enrolled in graduate programs than there are traditional university research-type jobs for them to take,” Buchalter explains. For certain academic studies, such as medical science, there are many natural opportunities in the private sector. However, for areas like astrophysics, the options are more limited. “It’s important to make PhDs in these fields aware that there are other paths that value their skills and where they can be extremely successful doing really innovative, interesting things,” Buchalter says.

To help achieve this goal, Buchalter has organized and participated in panels at universities and scientific professional societies that give students access to people, like him, who have transitioned from academia into business. “I’ve seen firsthand the value of making the change from academia to business,” he says. And he’s sought out ways to share his experiences and advice with others.

While at McKinsey, Buchalter was involved with the company’s recruiting efforts aimed at PhDs and in training PhD recruits. In addition to its initial basic training for all recruits, McKinsey has a range of training programs aimed at developing non-MBAs, including a multiweek “mini MBA” program that teaches new hires much of what they would learn in a traditional MBA program. One of these programs is specifically aimed at PhDs and discusses the specific challenges they face in transitioning to the business world. After having gone through that course as a student and lived and breathed the realities first hand, Buchalter went on to teach the class for several years.

When it comes to career choices, Buchalter’s advice is always the same: take the job you want now, not the one you think will be a stepping stone to another position. “If you take a job you don’t enjoy waking up to each day, working with people who don’t excite and motivate you, it’s unlikely you’ll be successful in your current role and therefore unlikely to open doors later on,” he says. “Success breeds success, so focus on doing something you enjoy today and trust that your achievement will set the stage for whatever is next.”