Cerius Journeys: Interim Executive, CTO, Blockchain Expert, Venture Capital Partner
Denise Montgomery: Welcome to Cerius Journeys, a conversation with top level executives who handle crisis management and other important transitional decision making for organizations in need. Today’s guest is Barbara Bickham, a CTO who is working heavily in the AI and blockchain spaces. Hi, Barbara.
Barbara Bickham: Hi. How are you?
Denise Montgomery: I’m fantastic.
I wanted to, before we get going, bring attention to just quickly who you are, what you do. So I wanted to let you tell us that in your own words first.
Barbara Bickham: Wonderful. So I’m Barbara . I am the founder and CTO at Trailyn Ventures. We put companies on blockchains.
So we provide strategic, technical advice to help companies innovate in the blockchain and artificial intelligence space. So we’ve been doing that about four years now. Trailyn did AI first, and then it kind of pivoted or moved into the blockchain space. [00:01:00] So that’s kind of who I am and what I do.
Denise Montgomery: Alright. Okay. Blockchain and AI, those are both enormous, challenging, innovative, groundbreaking spaces, and you’re in both of them. How do organizations know that they need to give you a call?
Barbara Bickham: Well, there are two ways companies know they need to give me a call. First of all, if they want to innovate in their processes or automate their processes, then they would call me about artificial intelligence.
So how do you automate things? How do you get good information from data? How do you create good data? I think we all have learned about models. And how incorrect models can be, how data and models are important, how assumptions in models are important. And then AI could do projections or regressions.
It’s important to understand the data and information that you have so you can get proper data and information out of these kinds of AI models. So that’s one way. If you want to put your company on a blockchain, then that’s another reason why you would call me. So what we do is I work with practical usage of a blockchain.
So I’ll give you an example. One of the companies I work with is called the Active Group. They do sustainability on the blockchain. So what we do is we track companies that have sustainability plans. So I want to reduce my carbon footprint, I want to do more recycling, I want to become a paperless office.
And then we track that on the blockchain. And we validate and verify that with a registry, which actually we’re applying to become a registry. So that’s one way you can use a blockchain without it being so [00:03:00] mysterious.
Denise Montgomery: I love the fact that you bring up that word “mysterious” because still to this day, when you use the word blockchain around a lot of people, their eyes glaze over with a combination of confusion and mystification and sometimes I think even just a tiny little bit of terror. If you have to explain blockchain to someone at a cocktail party, what do you tell them?
Barbara Bickham: I tell them four words: it’s encrypted, private and protected. It’s distributed, not in one place or decentralized, not in one place.
it’s immutable, permanent record and it’s a ledger, debit and credit. That’s it. That’s all blockchain is. Four words.
That’s the essence of a blockchain.
Denise Montgomery: Thank you. You actually just helped to demystify something for me that I’ve been trying to wrap my head around for six months.
Barbara Bickham: [00:04:00] There you go. Now, you have the other hand. So now that you kind of know what it is, the real question is how do you apply it into your organization or company?
And so that’s why you would call and say, “Hey. Okay, now that you’ve demystified this, how do I actually apply this in a real world way?” And so I work with companies in applying it in a real world way.
Denise Montgomery: And that leads me right to my next question, which is: you’ve been doing this since 1993; what industries and niches and types of projects and assignments have you been able to bring your particular group of skills, knowledge, expertise to? What have been the sorts of assignments and projects that you have been able to shepherd to completion and success?
Barbara Bickham: I’ve worked on multiple projects that have gone through completion [00:05:00] and success. So I’ll give you an example of one. I worked with a company called Exchange Rate IO, and they are a trading bot. And I actually did trading bots in the Forex, which was kind of the currency trading area. So I had some knowledge about how trading bots worked. And so for that company, I helped them raise money – a lot of the technical people have to raise money.
And then I also helped them kind of set up their overall company strategy and how they were going to be interfacing with blockchain and these exchanges which are built on top of blockchain. So that’s kind of one successful project. It’s still going. It’s still running. Another project I’m working with, Blips Lifts, is a company that does social networking on the blockchain.
But the thing about social networking is that a lot of companies now are being [00:06:00] censored or banned from a lot of social media, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook. So this particular network is blockchain based. So there’s a record of your interactions.
But the other half of it is that as kind of an open and more free community than the traditional ones that we work with, like Facebook, where they control your data, you control your data, and you control all of your content, and you also control the ability to monetize that for yourself. So these social networks are starting to come up because other social networks are being more restrictive, I’ll put it that way.
Denise Montgomery: I can see entire new horizons opening up, especially as apparently we’re going to be finding whole new ways to network in coming.
Barbara Bickham: [00:07:00] Absolutely. I work with a lot of blockchain companies that are evolving a lot of the newer technologies. I worked with a company, now we’re trying, we’re getting them ready — that’s, I don’t want to say a Zoom competitor, but they can do video on demand on a blockchain. So, there’s a lot of companies now trying to solve a lot of these problems or they were solving them prior to, and so they’re still solving these problems. And so how do you, how do you kind of position yourself in this new economy?
Denise Montgomery: And probably also speed to market and speed to or through the technical issues is going to be critical in these times.
Barbara Bickham: Absolutely.
Denise Montgomery: So the next question that I was going to move us on to is, let’s just back up a little bit. Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from?
Where’d you come from? How did you learn to do what you do? Was it the school of hard knocks or was it school? Was it a combination? Did you look down at everything?
Barbara Bickham: [00:08:00] So I’m a native of LA. I’m born and bred in Los Angeles. As far as my career journey, I went to Berkeley. Got a computer science degree from Berkeley.
My very first job they asked me to architect and design a system from scratch and I really thought they were crazy cause I literally just graduated from school and I said, “are you sure you really want me to do this? I just graduated.” And they said, “No, no, that’s fine. You went to Berkeley, so you’ll figure it out.”
I was lucky to really be able to craft something from nothing, which is very rare when you first come out of school. So I had a very traditional kind of trajectory. During that time, for the first half of my career, I did a lot of architecting, designing, managing people, things of that nature.
Then I started a company, I’m actually one of the wireless pioneers in the United States. So when you text “help, one, two, three, four, five,” that’s partially my fault. All that messaging, all that messaging [00:09:00] data, all the texting. It’s partially my fault. So I did that for nine years.
I actually coined the term digital strategy as well cause I pivoted my company from my product to a service and cause all these Hollywood people were like, “can you do that American Idol style voting and polling in my show?” I said, “yes, of course.”
So I helped companies get their things onto phones and then also put content on phones and help them create their mobile and digital strategies and monetize it. So one of my expertise is monetizing things. It’s not just about creating it. I also am always mindful of how are you going to powder this?
How are you going to make money with this? So that’s very important.
Around 2007, 2008, I got an opportunity to start an angel group. And then after that, you know, 2008 came less angels, 2009 close.
I grew down, then I went to a private, merchant bank. So private equity, private merchant bank. Did that for a year. Went back to my coding roots, won the Gartner Cool Vendor Award for my company during that time. And then I came out and became a CTR. So that’s how I got into the CTO space. It’s how I became a CTO.
Denise Montgomery: It sounds like you have seen pretty much every important development in tech.
Barbara Bickham: I worked on the [00:11:00] PC and the Sportster modem, as well. I worked on some very famous products. I don’t talk about that too much, but I’ve worked on some, but then I look at it and say, “everything old is new again.”
Denise Montgomery: It’s interesting that you also mentioned that because that full circle perspective that you have is kind of rare in terms of the tech world, because we have a lot of folks who haven’t been around as long and who haven’t seen as much and who haven’t seen tech go full circle.
That leads me to another question actually. We learn what we learn in a lot of ways, and I wanted to ask you, do you have a mentor or any particular person in your life that you learned things from that you have a particular memory of or affinity for that you would like to share?
Barbara Bickham: Absolutely. [00:12:00] So I had a very excellent boss.
His name was Steve Rice. I don’t know where Steve is. I’ll have to call and find him. But he’s in the computer security space. And it’s actually funny how we met. This happens to me quite a bit, but he was the first one to do whatever. So I was just doing my normal work as I do. And I guess he had heard something about me.
He’s in Maryland, so the company was remote, so I’ve done this remote thing for a while. So he flew in to meet me and find out like, who is this person doing this? This computer work cause I guess he had heard about me.
So that was pretty awesome. And after that we kind of forged a bond and he kind of mentored me into management. He mentored me into leadership. He mentored me in many, [00:13:00] many aspects of my life. He’s a very great friend of mine.
I have another person that was very influential in my life. His name was Hartman Penny. he actually made flex time in Germany. That’s his claim to fame. So, he mentored me for a very short time, but he was very influential in my life, as well. So that was pretty awesome. I mean, I’ve met some pretty cool entrepreneurs as time has gone on.
Denise Montgomery: So were there lessons that you picked up from either of those or both that you have been able to carry with you and in your own work and pass on down to other people?
Barbara Bickham: Yeah. I think the things I learned from them, it’s more about like how do you really lead people and how do you really connect with people? Especially when you’re remote. I learned that very well from Steve [00:14:00] and Harty as well, because they were not physically here. We were not in physical proximity all the time.
And you know, we have these wonderful tools like there wasn’t all this back then. So how do you communicate and how do you keep that connection going? And how do you lead multiple people in multiple locations, in multiple time zones constantly?
The other thing I learned is we’re complete people. We’re not just like, “I’m a worker. I’m this,” we’re whole people. Some people are moms, some people have kids, we have all aspects of life. And you can’t look at somebody and say, “you’re just this,” because you’re not. That’s just one aspect of you and we have many aspects. And so that’s one thing I learned from them. It’s kinda like you have to look at people as [00:15:00] whole people, cause they’re not robots. We’re not robots. So, sometimes when things are happening, like things are happening now, you have to ask yourself, how is this impacting people?
A lot of people are impacted in different ways. I did my process very quickly. I have my days as well, and I go do something: I’m like, “okay, it’s launched. Boom, boom.” You know, I have my way of handling it, but a lot of people are in shock and awe.
A lot of people don’t know what to do. A lot of people are not prepared. A lot of people thought, “okay, this won’t impact me.” And it does impact you, even though it’s indirectly. So there’s a lot of emotion and like, how do you handle that as a leader and as a person that’s helping other companies or moving your company forward or advising other companies for mentoring other people?
How do you deal with that [00:16:00] even for yourself? And then you have that energy of the other people. So you also have to preserve your energy as well.
Denise Montgomery: Absolutely, and I love the fact that even though you are CTO, you are at the top of the tech, you are also talking very clearly about the fact that there are emotions here and we’re not robots, and that that’s a crucial part of leadership.
Barbara Bickham: I have high tech intellect. But also, where’s your emotional intellect? How did you handle these things?
You know, the other thing I’ve learned about myself and people as well is we all have our process. Everyone processes things in a different way. And you have to acknowledge and honor that for that person. The way you do it [00:17:00] is not necessarily the way they’ll do it.
Denise Montgomery: Very much appreciate that perspective.
So I wanted to quickly take us through, if you could just pluck from your years of experience, a client project that you worked with. What was the challenge? What was the problem? How did you approach it in your role as a top level executive who specializes in crisis or non-normal everyday operations work? How did you solve it? Where did you find the resources? How did you manage the resources? What was the outcome?
Barbara Bickham: Here’s a good one. So when I first became a manager, I was on the project that was, I call it the Dead Project.
Literally that project was seven years old. It had gone through for the managers, [00:18:00] for the product owners. All the developers had left, except for the one. There was one contractor. He had been there the whole time. And basically they’re like, “here Barb, just do it.” I am supposed to do this for myself and know what to do.
I have no idea. I never met her. Anything. So I said, “okay.” So after I calmed down on that, I said, “okay, I’m managing this project.” So the first thing: the problem was there was no corporate memory about that particular project. Like literally everyone had left except the contractor.
And nobody liked that contractor. A part of the reason why I was given the project was to see if I could handle this person. So the first thing I did was, I got in contact with the group and I called a little meeting [00:19:00] and we mapped out these milestones because we had to get this done fairly quickly, like within a couple months or they were just going to cut the project off.
And so we got all the milestones set up and then I decided I’m going to speak with the consultant cause he’s got all the memory of everything. He’d been here the whole seven years when this project has been doing nothing basically for years. So I talked to him and he was very curmudgeonly.
But once you got past the way he communicated, he got his work done. He was very, very good at what he did, but he just didn’t like the people. It was just a plethora of things. So every day I would talk to him and he would go through his plethora of things from seven years, cause for those seven years no one actually listened to him either.
And so the fact of the listening. And the fact of acknowledging his work. And then he kind of had the seniority because he was the main person. So like I made him feel like he wasn’t just a contractor, he was a part of the team that moves the ball forward.
And we actually got that project ahead of schedule. Because I had to make up these webpages and give status and do these other managerial things. I had never done that before. So I was creating my own little managerial style. But that project actually got forward ahead of time.
So fast forward a couple months and I think I went on vacation cause it was done during the summer. So when I came back, they said, “Oh, did you know that the [00:21:00] CEO is here talking about your project?” “No. Am I supposed to know that this?” “Oh, yeah, they’re taking credit for it.” I said, “I don’t care if they’re taking credit for it, it’s fine with me, you know?” So that project became the largest selling project in that company’s history ever.
Denise Montgomery: That’s amazing. I love that story so much.
Barbara Bickham: That was little on me with my very first manager. And so the thing I learned from that was, listening is important and understanding people is important.
Understanding how people work is important. Cause that was a part of his work process as well. Understanding how people feel, where their places are, and these were remote, this person was remote as well. So he wasn’t in the meetings all the time. He felt separated.
So, making them [00:22:00] feel included was important as well. There were many, many things that I learned from managing that very first project.
Denise Montgomery: That’s great. And I just checked the time and although I could talk to you all day, this is great. I now have to ask you our final parting question, which I borrowed from Inside the Actor’s Studio from James Lipton, who used to interview actors.
And if you ever watch the show, you know what the question is, which is: if heaven exists, when you arrive at the pearly gates, what would you like to hear?
Barbara Bickham: What would I like to hear? “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” That’s what I would love to hear. That would be a very good statement.
Denise Montgomery: I love that.
Thank you so much for spending time with us today. Very much appreciate everything that you have shared and your insights about [00:23:00] managing tech as a human endeavor.
Barbara Bickham: Absolutely, 100%. Thank you so much for having me.
Denise Montgomery: Thank you for joining us on Cerius Journeys. For more information, join us at ceriusexecutives.com.
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