TECHNOLOGY; Internet 'Bad Boy' Takes on a New Challenge
When James Rutt decided to step down as a top executive of VeriSign in March to play God with electrons and bits, he wanted to make sure that his executive assistant, Jana DiCarlo, did not become lost in a bureaucratic shuffle.
So he did an unusual thing: he ran ads in Washington-area publications announcing that he was leaving his job and that his ''truly remarkable'' executive assistant would need a new boss. Among her skills, the ad listed, ''heavy calendar management'' and ''intelligent phone screening'' as well as ''general purpose whip crackin' in a fast-paced environment.'' The ad continued, ''the only thing she hates is being bored.''
He even gave her a Web site, www.killerassistant.com. Setting up the Web name was easy: VeriSign is the biggest registrar of Internet domain names. Ms. DiCarlo soon landed a job as an executive assistant at a public relations company.
The ad was weird, but weirdness becomes Mr. Rutt, a self-styled country boy and ''bona fide net head.'' He formerly ran Network Solutions, the company that managed the underpinnings of the Internet's system of domain names, and he joined VeriSign when it acquired Network Solutions.
There was one other odd feature of the advertisement: there was a photograph, but not of Ms. DiCarlo. Instead, it was an image of the cigar-chomping Mr. Rutt wearing a wrinkled short-sleeve shirt and a rascal's grin. He is not a shy man.
Now 47, he has worked his way through the virtual world since he first heard a modem squeal in 1980 as an early customer of a pioneering online service, the Source. Mr. Rutt, a graduate of M.I.T., worked for the Source for a time, and was also a founder of the company that became the investor information service First Call. He also headed the technology operations of Thomson, the big publishing company based in Toronto.
Mr. Rutt came to Network Solutions in 1999, a period of tumultuous change for the company. Having previously worked under government contract as the sole registrar of Internet domains like .com, .org and .net, Network Solutions was in acrimonious negotiations with the federal government over ceding some of its authority. The year before Mr. Rutt's arrival as chief executive of Network Solutions, the Commerce Department had provided for a group called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers to set policies on domain names and had moved to end Network Solutions' monopoly over the domain-name-granting business. Mr. Rutt acknowledges a certain cantankerousness and credits his demeanor with having helped carve out Network Solutions' place in the post-monopoly world.
After navigating those waters and reaching deals that were widely seen as favorable to Network Solutions, he negotiated his company's $15.3 billion acquisition by VeriSign last year. Network Solutions lost its corporate identity on Jan. 1, when it was officially absorbed by VeriSign; Mr. Rutt retained the titles of chief strategy officer for the merged company and president of its mass-market division.
Today, VeriSign runs the central database, or registry, of Internet addresses ending in .com, .net and .org. But many other companies can sell domain names as registrars. In a subsequent agreement, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or Icann, extended VeriSign's rights to manage the lucrative .com database in exchange for giving up management of the .org database.
Mr. Rutt's elbows-out manner of dealing with others did not endear him to those across the negotiating table. ''The one thing that can be said about him without any dispute is that he had good timing,'' said Joe Sims, a lawyer for Icann, who would not comment further on Mr. Rutt's tenure at Network Solutions. His bad-boy side is well known -- tolerated, and to an extent, loved by his co-workers. His successor at VeriSign gave him a gag gift: a small black box with a remote control. When a button on the remote control is pressed, the machine emulates the sound of flatulence. ''The perfect gift,'' he said with a big smile.
He says that 20 years was enough in the online world: ''The time had come to do something entirely different.'' That ''entirely different'' thing is a field of computer science Mr. Rutt stumbled into a few years ago: complex adaptive systems.
The ungainly term refers to the programming of software that builds itself through processes that mimic evolution's own engine of mutation and natural selection. It is survival of the fittest, cycle by cycle. He boned up on the works of Stuart A. Kauffman and John Holland, pioneers in the field, and began to do programming on weekends.
He sees it, he says, as a chance to ''build some real intellectual capital again.''
The genetic algorithms that are used in complex adaptive systems could be applied to many kinds of software currently in use. Research is under way to evolve programs for use in stock trading, voice recognition, network traffic routing, cryptography and other fields. But Mr. Rutt said such applications are only the beginning. ''This is some deep stuff,'' he said. ''It comes down to some serious questions about the nature of reality and being. It's about how everything works.''
He did not smile as he said this. Instead, his eyes contained the bulgy excitement of a convert. He is especially drawn to the fact that complex adaptive systems are a branch of science still open to the gentleman scholar. ''All you need is a computer,'' he said, ''not a supercollider.''
So far, Mr. Rutt has developed programs that play the board game Othello. After he set up a primordial soup of starter programs and pitted them against one another, he said that within 15 minutes they had started to develop competence at playing the game. ''They got better and better and smarter and smarter,'' he said. ''The hair stood up on the back of my neck.''
Mr. Rutt says he hopes to do far more but also realizes that he has some things to learn about mathematics if he is to successfully evolve into this next phase of his life. ''I tell my friends, if I show any sign of starting a company in the next two years,'' he said, ''come over and chloroform me, drag me out to a bar and talk me out of it.''
He has always been the kind of computer executive who enjoys having bits under his fingernails. Soon after coming aboard at VeriSign, he handed a hefty book to Anil Pererira, the company's senior vice president for services to business.
As Mr. Pererira recalled it, ''With that gruff kind of Wilford Brimley voice, he said, 'This is a great book Anil, you should take a look at it.' '' The book was a technical guide to BIND, the software used by computers on the Internet to make sense of domain names. ''He's a great combination of technical savvy and business savvy,'' Mr. Pererira said.
Mr. Rutt says he has been listening lately to a blend of rock and country music, but keeps coming back to ''Picnic,'' an album by the Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen, a bad-boy troubador who sings of fast living and good times:
Got no complaints, no regrets,
I got no grand design
I'll ride the horse that brought me here
'Til I cross that finish line
One day in late March was Mr. Rutt's last in the office at VeriSign. He sat in jeans and sneakers, with a flannel shirt straining against his ample form. He spent his last hour or so cleaning out his e-mail, tidying up the electrons. Then he gathered a few papers and walked toward the exit.Suddenly his face went ashen. He spun around and went back to his office. He returned, with the flatulence toy. ''That would have been a real loss,'' he said, and left the building.