I had the pleasure of interviewing Alison McCauley is CEO and Founder of Unblocked Future, blockchain strategist, and author of ‘Unblocked: How Blockchains will Change Your Business’. Alison is a self-proclaimed nerd focused on the intersection of human behavior and technology with 20 years of consulting with over 100 technology-first startups and Fortune-500 companies. Unblocked Future is a blockchain consultancy helping businesses to shape their role in the decentralized future.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the story of how you decided to pursue this career path? What lessons can others learn from your story?
It’s 100 percent pure serendipity. I’m trained as a social scientist, and have spent my career helping entrepreneurs drive adoption of emerging technology. I was working primarily with AI and machine learning companies when a client approached me with an idea for a blockchain pivot. I was skeptical and grilled him and his team — and came out dazed. I saw the potential in this technology to attack, one by one, so many problems we face today in our digital lives. On the way home, my mind raced through industries and potential applications. When I look back on that drive, I now see it as the moment I fell down the rabbit hole.
It’s important to understand that although the space is dominated by technologists today, many, many more skills are needed. Whatever functional or industry experience you have, there is probably someone who needs you.
Also, don’t let the raw or amorphous nature of the space keep you out. When I was just getting started, I would begin each day with a list of questions, some very basic, and then go search for answers. It was uncomfortable. I had hundreds of pages of notes. But at a certain point, it clicks and you start to understand, just like it does when you learn a foreign language.
Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
I am lucky that we get to work with a range of clients — and at this early stage, it’s always interesting because so much is totally new. We have to think on a lot of different planes at once. For example, many of the entrepreneurs in this space not only have achieve a deep understanding of their customer, but also wrangle a raw technology with no established best practices. If that wasn’t hard enough, they are often faced with the challenge of designing and developing what is essentially a new mini economy. It’s a systems thinker’s playground!
But I’m most excited about the book I just finished writing, Unblocked: How Blockchains will Change Your Business. There is a huge disconnect between what those in the space understand about our future, and what everyone else believes. I think this is dangerous — this technology is poised to have a huge influence in our world, and we need more voices involved in shaping it. One of my missions is to raise blockchain literacy. My hope is to help more people understand what blockchains and related technology make possible, and inspire them to learn how this can make a difference in their lives and business — maybe they’ll even get actively involved with making something meaningful or useful with the technology.
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?
When I would do homework, my father would make me to break my thought process down in excruciating detail — even if I knew the answer. As an aerospace engineer he had to answer “impossible” problems, and wanted to equip me to navigate the unknown. In my first job, as a consultant in a large firm, I worked in four different industries over a year — but was expected to add value in each on day one. Every night, I would come home with a list of things I didn’t understand, and would break them down and start to see answers. I learned how to be comfortable even in the uncomfortable space of the unknown — and that’s helpful in this space!
What are the 5 things that most excite you about blockchain and crypto? Why?
- Hope for an alternate future. Over the years, I’d become increasingly discouraged by how social and environmental problems are getting harder to outrun. Now I have a new sense of hope that, if we do this right, we could have more of a fighting chance. I’ve seen promising visions for fighting fake news and encouraging the adoption of sustainable energy. Projects seeking to make more efficient use of existing infrastructure. Teams looking to encourage development in emerging regions by enabling new traceability of and accountability for funding. Pick any big, sticky problem — there is a good chance that there is a team finding new inspiration and hope in a blockchain-driven solution.
- New alternatives to Web 2.0 powerhouses. Today, consumers’ data and attention is harvested liberally by Web 2.0 powerhouses like Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon. We give this pretty freely — rarely do we actually read privacy and data use policies. And even when abuses are uncovered, it’s seen as an extreme move to delete accounts. However, blockchain pioneers are hard at work at alternatives that give consumers more control of their data — and even compensate consumers directly for the value they contribute to a platform.
- Triggering new pools of innovation. The hype and financial incentives in the space, whether right or wrong, has the side effect of attracting investment which is drafting to related technologies. Other kinds of distributed ledger technologies and cryptography are getting renewed interest. All of a sudden, back office operations are sexy and interesting. But most of all, it’s bringing momentum to the movement for more equitable distribution of value, increased transparency, and accountability. We have so many more thousands of people spending more of their time working on this. It’s like a string of firecrackers — the initial interest is setting off a domino effect.
- The new tech mashups. From where we are sitting now, it’s hard to picture what the next Big Thing will be, but it’s possible that it comes from some mashup of blockchains plus something. Maybe that’s blockhains plus IoT, or blockchains plus AR, or blockchains plus AI. There are a lot of fascinating projects happening in all these configurations right now that expand our understanding of what is possible. But it’s early, and we’ve only scratched the surface. It could be that this is where we source the next big breakthroughs that could impact our world (although it is also yet to be seen whether the outcome will be positive or negative).
- Using new incentives to shape social good. Cryptocurrency and tokens can be used to do much more than invent the protection and maintenance of a network. They can be used to shape individual and community behavior. It becomes really interesting when these are used to propel what I call social-aligned models — aligning complex networks of people, resources, and organizations around a common goal that benefits our world. For example, optimizing transportation infrastructure and resources by using tokens to shape the flow of people or vehicles through a city. This could unleash a whole new paradigm for how we invent positive change.
What are the 5 things worry you about blockchain and crypto? Why?
- Poor blockchain literacy. While I don’t think that the average consumer needs to understand blockchains any more than they understand how the internet works, a lack of “blockchain literacy” is going to hold back the space. We need more skill diversity to take this to the next level — and this requires inspiring and engaging the non-technologists. You also can’t identify the best “now” use cases if literacy is restricted to IT or innovation groups. Subject matter experts across the organization need to understand what the technology makes possible to help identify what will make a real difference.
- All or nothing views of decentralization. There is a great deal of tension in the community today around the core idea of decentralization. Extreme decentralization conflicts with a natural tendency for both synthetic systems and biological networks to become hierarchical. While extreme models push our understanding of what is possible, they face a difficult adoption battle. Instead of an abrupt transformation to “decentralized everything,” it’s possible we’ll see more of a gentle progression toward more equitable distribution, less hierarchy, and all the benefits that come from that. It will take time to do well, and I hope that the community keeps their energy up on this long journey.
- “First generation” problems. There are a lot of startups today trying to build a company, wrangle a new and fast-moving technology, develop new governance methodologies, and start a mini-economy all at once. This is hard! Take governance: it’s baked-in to these new networks. But we don’t have many examples of how they will function when millions of users get involved. Where will they break? How will they be gamed? This is likely to be a painful process.
- The best technology may not win. The tech landscape is littered with stories about technically superior products that were overshadowed by savvy competitors. Design is a cornerstone of adoption, but there are not enough designers, communicators, and user experience specialists in the space, and we may miss the benefit of some good technology as a result.
- Developing without foresight. These are complicated systems that are being built, and we don’t have a lot of examples of how they will operate in the wild. Meanwhile, companies are under pressure to move quickly and produce results. We are even seeing governments move without a full understanding of implications. There is a great danger we will bake ingredients into the protocols that cause big problems later.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
One thing I’ve been working on is piloting small groups that provide targeted support and mentorship for girls and women looking to achieve a specific, shared goal. Once the group strikes on a good formula, I share best practices and learning’s with others interested in starting their own similar groups, amplifying impact. My first pilot was focused on mother-daughter communication, and I started recruiting in 2012. The initial group of teen girls and their moms is still meeting regularly to talk about thorny subjects like sexuality and body image, and has spawned similar groups across the country. I’ve used this approach for groups on mid-life career change, starting a business, and going through shifts in family structure.
As you know there are not that many women in your industry. Can you share 3 things that you would you advise to other women in the blockchain space to thrive?
Follow the leaders. A lot of the early stories focused on male characters, but there are many incredible leaders in the space who happen to be female. I advise anyone coming into the space to find credible voices to learn from, and not limit themselves to the same handful of people that tend to show up on top 10 lists. I interviewed dozens of incredible women for my book and every single one is an important voice to follow.
Craft a cohort. This space is moving too fast for any one person to be able to learn on their own. Find people that have similar learning goals and team up.
You are not too late. It’s early, and the perfect time to jump in. Very few have more than a few years of experience. So many skills and kinds of knowledge are needed that you may be able to really quickly start contributing.
Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the blockchain industry?
The actress Geena Davis started a Gender in Media Institute with the idea of “if she can see it, she can be it.” The organization advocates for media to tell more stories about women and girls in roles of influence. I think the same thing applies here — we need to tell more stories about the incredible minds in the space that just happen to be female so that others can see that this space is being built by both women and men.
What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?
“Whatever you are, be a good one,” often attributed to Abraham Lincoln. It recognizes that although we all have a different recipe of skills and ideas, we can all use them for good. I am a single mom of teenagers, and this guides my parenting style. These kids need to find their own way in this world. It is not up to me what they become, but I can mentor and coach them to be “a good one” in the path of their choice.”
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
Technology does not make a market. People make a market. When you stand on a street corner and use your phone to connect with a car service, this is a vote: a vote for what company you are behind, a vote for how you this technology will shape your life. And we are voting continually, every day, by the choice of products and services we use. As blockchain-driven alternatives start to move into the market, they will not be as refined as today’s well-honed giants. But they may offer a future that is better for our world. I would like to see a movement in which more people consider their choice of product or service as a vote, and take their role in this voting seriously.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!