“I’ve been so fortunate and I never feel like I’m doing enough to pay it forward, but I’ve tried to focus on empowering women in leadership roles and in STEM. I mentor a lot of women, and I’m the co-chair of the National Association for Female Executives (NAFE) Roundtable and I’m on the board of the AnitaB.org. I hope that I’m a role model for some of these women. Data suggests that you will only enter a field if you know someone in that field or can see yourself in it. Without exposure, that’s very hard to do. With every company, every business, every profession becoming a tech business, it’s critical to ensure no one is left behind. I think it’s key to enable people to use technology as a tool to improve the way things work — mobile is a given now, but I hope AI, machine learning and blockchain become tools everyone takes for granted at some point. You know you’ve succeeded when it’s the outcome, not the tech, that people talk about.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Marie Wieck, General Manager for IBM Blockchain, who has been at the company for more than 30 years. She started doing mainframe systems architecture, launched IBM’s MobileFirst business and today, is focused on driving open ecosystem growth for Blockchain.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Going way back, I was always interested in math and science and how things worked. I attended an all-girls high school where every leadership role was held by a woman and taking accelerated STEM classes didn’t stereotype you. Fast-forward, and I’m still in tech and still surrounded by high-performing women — and men — at IBM, from the CEO on down to our Blockchain technical and business leaders in Industry Platforms who are driving innovation in development, offering management, ecosystems, etc.
It’s a great place to be, and it’s this diverse culture, and spirit of innovation in fast-growing segments like blockchain, that has kept me at IBM for over 30 years. I’ve been involved in so many aspects of the enterprise technology wave — from mainframe to software to cloud — that has shaped how I’m able to leverage those experiences in what I do today. I’m focused on innovating in the open source Hyperledger community to build blockchain networks that drive process transformation in a variety of industries from digitizing global trade to cross-border payments.
Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
We are doing work in every single industry, and I learn something new every day, but one of the most exciting areas is our focus on food safety and ending food waste with the ultimate goal of alleviating world hunger. Every improvement you make in shelf life, traceability and prevention of disease helps to address the roughly 30% waste in the food supply chain. Can you imagine how many people you could feed with that extra food?
That’s why, about a year ago, we launched IBM Food Trust — a blockchain solution to help food companies more easily track where their food comes from and build greater transparency and trust in the global food chain. In its first year, we had food titans like Dole, Driscoll’s, Golden State Foods, Kroger, McCormick and Company, McLane Company, Nestlé, Tyson Foods, Unilever and Walmart partner with us. We have shown that we can reduce the time it takes to trace food to the point of origin from over 6 days to 2.2 seconds. That quick identification can prevent illness and will mean a huge cost and waste savings with the ability to do recalls with pinpoint precision, rather than recalling an entire type of food from every grocery store.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve been fortunate to have several terrific sponsors and male allies in my career, but one incident in particular had a profound impact on me. I was a new manager attending a big project review. There were about 40 people in attendance, and I was one of only two women — and one of the younger attendees. Standing in the back of the room, I asked a question of the senior engineer who was presenting. He curtly replied he didn’t have time to address the inquiry. The site general manager piped up: “Her name is Marie. It was a good question, and we’ll make time.” I don’t know if it really was a good question, but it had a big impact. Everyone then knew my name and listened to what I had to say. I had to make that count, but it demonstrated the power of amplifying diverse voices. Really listening — to everyone — is an incredible way of accelerating innovation and addressing unconscious biases.
What are the 5 things that most excite you about blockchain and crypto? Why?
a. We’re exiting the “Blockchain tourism” stage. We aren’t just talking about how blockchain can address the challenge of digital rights management or trade finance. We are now asking “how can we do this at scale?” That’s an incredible step forward for blockchain as more organizations and industries see the technology as a valuable and trusted tool.
b. This means we’re also creating new businesses and new models — not just saving time, or money for an owner. I haven’t seen this much interest in a new technology and entrepreneurship since the early days of the Internet. I think the fact that these are distributed networks designed for collaboration is fueling the growth. The token economy being created around blockchain is expected to growth 5–10X in the next five years. We aren’t focused on crypto-currencies per se, but on new business models like asset backed tokens, loyalty “points”, and stable coins which can provide new sources of value.
c. Permissioned blockchain doesn’t mean private. New means of providing trusted identity like our work with Sovrin can greatly ease secure access to data with the provenance for that authorization and access. It’s creating trusted connections across networks that didn’t connect before. People are recognizing this key difference and it can facilitate new ecosystems to address our business problems. Getting buy-in from the majority of enterprises or governments — whether it’s setting up a banking consortium or a food supply collective — can lead to new collaboration.
d. Blockchain for good. Blockchain is being leveraged for non-profit and humanitarian efforts to make processes and data sharing more efficient — from microfinance to carbon credit trading. Consumers are getting into it too: from tracking the provenance from coffee to diamonds, to leveraging tokens for tracking transactions in ride sharing applications, the idea of using digital ledger technology to improve trust in a community is crossing into mainstream consumer uses.
e. The pace of innovation. New blockchain capabilities like zero knowledge proof and the integration of blockchain with other technologies like AI, IoT and Quantum is increasing the value of blockchain networks. It’s not only exciting in how these intersections are advancing the state of the technology, but what it can do to help society. Some of blockchain’s most exciting applications for payments, identity and property rights and education, can, for example, aid women in developing countries where blockchain can help ensure humanitarian relief efforts get to those that need it.
What are the 5 things that worry you about blockchain and crypto? Why?
a. The computing power required to mine or maintain the Bitcoin network has a huge environmental cost — consuming as much energy as 159 countries.
b. When it comes to blockchain, the regulatory environment is not quite keeping up with the technology, and policies vary greatly from country to country. This makes operating global networks more challenging. Since the value of blockchain is in sharing data, this is especially difficult when data residency requirements prevent data from crossing country borders, limiting the collaboration and innovation.
c. Blockchain is still in its early days and is still somewhat misunderstood. Confusion about cost and complexity can box ideas out. While I’m excited to see more industries, companies, non-profits and startups harness the power of blockchain, we still need to make the platform more accessible. That means greater standardization and access to the technology. It’s an area we’re focusing on at IBM — providing enterprise-grade platform tools to startups via Starter Plan or compiling the ‘best of’ practices from earlier users into a Founder’s Handbook, and providing free access to universities through our Blockchain Academic Initiative.
d. Not all open source is created equal. We are firm believers that open source is required for broad access and adoption of new technology. It’s why we were a founding member of the Linux Foundation Hyperledger project, which now has over 250 members. But it’s the collaboration and contribution of insights, ideas and code that make a community, not just putting the source code from a single company in GitHub.
e. Who’s in charge? Participating in a new peer to peer distributed network is a new concept for many. Whether you’re deciding between a public or permissioned network, or concerned about who holds the ‘final say’ in a blockchain consortium, or even broader questions of who’s involved in global regulatory oversight, there’s still a Wild Wild West element to blockchain. Questions on governance, more so than the technology itself, are slowing adoption. This is understandable when you are dealing with PI data or potentially sharing information with competitors. We’re making headway on both privacy with technology like identify mixer and zero knowledge proof (ZKP) as well as building out governance processes and trust anchors with a number of consortia who utilize IBM Blockchain, particularly in the banking and trade finance sectors. These founders are paving the way are providing good guidance for others as they explore new territory.
f. Interoperability: In any emerging area, you really want to let a thousand flowers bloom to encourage the best ideas and innovation, but at a certain point standards and interoperability helps foster even greater collaboration as we build on other’s successes. We’re really focusing now on drive connections and interoperability across disparate blockchain technologies. We’re excited about the interest in Project Burrow to enable innovations with Ethereum smart contracts to be leveraged in Hyperledger Fabric solutions.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
Well, I’ve been so fortunate and I never feel like I’m doing enough to pay it forward, but I’ve tried to focus on empowering women in leadership roles and in STEM. I mentor a lot of women, and I’m the co-chair of the National Association for Female Executives (NAFE) Roundtable and I’m on the board of the AnitaB.org. I hope that I’m a role model for some of these women. Data suggests that you will only enter a field if you know someone in that field or can see yourself in it. Without exposure, that’s very hard to do. With every company, every business, every profession becoming a tech business, it’s critical to ensure no one is left behind. I think it’s key to enable people to use technology as a tool to improve the way things work — mobile is a given now, but I hope AI, machine learning and blockchain become tools everyone takes for granted at some point. You know you’ve succeeded when it’s the outcome, not the tech, that people talk about.
What 3 things would you advise to someone who wanted to emulate your career? Can you share an example for each idea?
a. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received was: “You cannot become fit by reading about exercise.” I think the same is true of blockchain or any other technology. Don’t be afraid to jump into the deep end of the pool, you have to get in there and see what you can do with it. Once you get the hang of it, use the opportunity to teach someone else too.
b. If you want to innovate and drive change, you can’t surround yourself with people just like you. Just like the Medici effect, the most innovative teams have diverse backgrounds and skills. Think outside of the box.
c. I’ve never had a master career plan. I’ve always been interested in new trends and technologies, but at the end of the day I looked at every new role in 3 ways: 1. Am I passionate about it? You won’t spend the time to become an expert if you are not interested in it. 2. Can I learn something new? Both from a business perspective, and from the team. 3. Can I bring something to the table to make a difference? When these are in place, new challenges become fun.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
It’s tough to pick just one! Given my interest in advancing women in tech, I think I’d pick two who would be fascinating to collaborate with. Melinda Gates is doing great philanthropic work. In my role on the board of Charity Navigator, I’ve seen how a focus on data driven outcomes can help improve the performance of the whole non-profit sector. She’s focused on women’s equality and trying to apply the same data driven approach to determining why women aren’t making as much progress as we should in the tech sector. There are roughly the same number of women in engineering today as when I graduated from college. We have a lot of hypotheses about what is holding women back — from a lack of role models, to not having access to education or stretch assignments — but no one really knows. Melinda is putting significant investment and research into trying to find the root cause and what we can do about it. You can’t fix what you don’t understand.
In the spirit of innovation, I’d also say Elon Musk. He exemplifies the engineering discipline of continuous innovation, entrepreneurship and thinking outside the box. He is setting clear goals that really inspire creativity and innovation around grand challenges like putting humans on Mars or changing the economics of solar power. He’s talked recently about tackling education as a next challenge. Given the forecasted gap of 1M+ technical skills in the coming years in the US alone, the gap of women in tech, and our work on Ptech, tackling this challenge would help advance innovation in many areas.