Alistair Rennie: “You have to look after your whole self”

You have to look after your whole self. Work is important, but to be really effective for the long terms you need look after your health, nutrition, the amount of sleep you get and of course your relationships. As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing […]

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You have to look after your whole self. Work is important, but to be really effective for the long terms you need look after your health, nutrition, the amount of sleep you get and of course your relationships.


As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alistair Rennie.

Alistair Rennie is the General Manager responsible for IBM’s overall Blockchain initiatives. In this role, Alistair leads the strategy and execution of IBM’s investment in the core blockchain platforms as well as the formation of business networks in multiple areas including Financial Services, and Global Supply Chain.

Alistair has led a number of IBM’s global software business including Collaboration and Workforce Solutions, Business and Industry Analytics, and most recently Watson Financial Services. He joined IBM in the Toronto Software Laboratory and has held a number of executive roles in sales, marketing and engineering within IBM.

Mr. Rennie holds degrees in Economics and Business Administration from the University of Western Ontario. In his spare time, you can find him riding his bike.


Thank you for joining us in this interview series, Alistair. Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

When I was 4 or 5 years old, I remember going into the office on the weekends with my Dad and he’d set me up at the IBM Selectric Typewriter to keep me busy. It was a game-changer for industrial design and it helped instill in me a lifelong appreciation for beautiful machines and the technology that makes them work. Soon after that, he let me hang out in the data center, and from then on, I was hooked on how computing was changing the World.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

There are too many stories to list — the most exciting thing for me has been being able to see the impact of the shifts in computing platforms — from Client Server to Internet to Mobile to Cloud and now to Hybrid Cloud, and how these transformations have affected the world. In the midst of it, you can get consumed by the technology, but the impact has always a significant reshaping of value.

Can you tell us about the cutting-edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

Blockchain is a powerful platform for enterprise — it enables you to program trust. At IBM, we are leaders in applying this ability to critical processes such as supply chain and ocean shipping. In just a few years, we have enabled the creation of more than 100 networks in industries from consumer goods to financial services. As clients continue on their digitization journey, the ability to have more collaboration and trust that cross the boundaries of the enterprise will be key — and Blockchain uniquely enables that.

How do you think this might change the world?

One of the things the pandemic really brought to the foreground is how much of the work done within our supply chains needed modernization. When COVID-19 hit, we really started to see in much starker terms the strain that these supply chains were experiencing. Without a single source of truth that applied throughout the supply chain, inventory was in the system, but it wasn’t on the shelves.

The ability to enable transparency across multiple systems — without slow and expensive centralized integration — is critical. We’ll see this growing transparency across our food supply from Farm to Fork, resulting in more flexibility in connecting buyers and sellers, and greater visibility into complex systems.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

It’s about having a clear point of view. At IBM, we believe data belongs to our clients, and a key safeguard to these “drawbacks” is a deliberate, intentional framework for establishing an ethical foundation for building and using new systems, for example the longstanding work we have led on ethical AI. We revise our framework for ethical AI each year, both because we know these technologies are constantly evolving, but also so that the community outside of IBM can be a part of this discussion and help hold us accountable as well

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

With the case of IBM Food Trust, which is now one of the largest if not the largest non-cryptocurrency blockchain network in the world, we talk a lot about the listeriosis outbreaks that affected leafy greens in 2015 and 2016. When it comes to food safety, that served as something of a wakeup call: People are getting that sick from a bite of lettuce? In response, we saw a lot of organizations including many of the largest food retailers in the world invest heavily in traceability so that, should another outbreak occur, they could quickly figure out where the affected products came from. When you think about something non-local at your grocery store, something like a mango, it used to take a week or two to trace that mango back to the farm it came from. Now we can do that process in a few seconds.

Of course, when you can trace food precisely, you can do really interesting things besides outbreak tracing. You can start to think more about preserving freshness, where should certain foods go and how should they be preserved. You can think about things like provenance which is obviously an enormous value creator in its own right. Is that Champagne really from the French region of Champagne? Tools that enhance provenance can help you determine that.

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

The foundation of our blockchain work has been to contribute to and be a leader in the vibrant open source community. All of our work is based on Hyperledger — and the success of that community has been critical the enterprise adoption of Blockchain. Secondly — we’ve built some very strong alliances with industry leaders. For example, we recently added CMA and MSC — two of the largest four shippers in the world — to our ocean shipping network TradeLens, which in itself was a collaboration with the shipping company Maersk. This alliance is speeding up the ability to have access to more than 60% of the world’s ocean shipping traffic which will be game changing.

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 lucky to work with many incredible leaders. One in particular I’d highlight is Steve Mills who was really the founder of IBM’s modern software business. Steve’s magic was giving everyone the support and confidence to do breakthrough things.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

It’s compelling to work at IBM for just this reason — much of what we do has the potential to change the world. As an example, the work we are doing with blockchain to enable transparency clearly has commercial benefits, but a huge side effect is an impact on sustainability. Being able to see where and how food is grown has double benefit. For brands it’s enabling differentiation and higher margins, but it’s also enabling farmers to use better practices and be directly rewarded through programs like Thank My Farmer.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

I’ll pick my top piece of advice — you have to look after your whole self. Work is important, but to be really effective for the long terms you need look after your health, nutrition, the amount of sleep you get and of course your relationships.

My runner up would be to never lose the power of a beginner’s mind.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think we all need to play our part in deeply supporting Diversity. That can mean a lot of things, but being able to listen, and reflect about what we each can do is important.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” C.S. Lewis

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I’d pitch them that Blockchain is a platform that enables multiparty collaboration and trust, and that its much more than a way to program money.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m on Twitter at @alistair_rennie and LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/alrennie

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