An interview with Marie Wieck, the blockchain icon who has just joined the Daimler AG supervisory board.
Marie Wieck is considered a blockchain icon and ranks amongst the world’s leading tech experts. She is primarily responsible for fostering female junior employees in the IT sector. What is her message for young women who choose to lead?
Ms Wieck, how did you get into this field of mathematics and science we call STEM?
I continue to joke that I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but I’ve always been interested in maths and science. I applied to seven colleges and happened to get into Cooper Union. This college was free and therefore I thought someone was trying to tell me something when I got accepted to the engineering programme. I wound up majoring in electrical engineering with a minor in computer science. Then I got an internship at IBM and the rest is history: I went on to get my master’s, had a small stint at Bell Labs and then went back to IBM. Since then, I’ve been involved in hardware, software, the cloud, mobile services and blockchain technology.
So you were already interested in STEM as a girl?
Yes, my favourite thing was the science fair. I am naturally curious. I like to know how things work.
Who were your role models growing up?
My biggest role model was my dad. He grew up in Germany, right outside of Stuttgart, where Daimler’s headquarters are. Originally, he wanted to be an engineer, but World War II interrupted his dream, so he became an apprentice to be a bookbinder and came to the US. He started his own business, he literally built his own house, we worked on our own cars... His whole philosophy was that if you can read, you can do anything.
Do you speak any German?
I understand a bit but I don’t really speak it. It is one of my New Year’s resolutions to learn German. Particularly with the connection now with Daimler, I really want to be able to engage directly with some of the team there.
What about female role models?
I went to an all-girls high school where everyone – the president of the student council, the captain of the basketball team, the faculty for the most part – they were all women. Anything that needed to be done was done by a woman. It definitely prepared me to not be afraid to lead. Also, I grew up at a time when the women’s lib movement was very strong. I still have a T-shirt from a race I did when I was a kid and it says: “Women Run the World”.
Women are still a minority in computer science and software development. How can we make programming cool for girls?
True, there are fewer women now in computer science than when I started. But things are improving again. When you look at STEM in total, we see more women than men going to med school. In large part this is because there are very clear and visible role models for women in the field of medicine – women to look up to in TV, movies and popular media. When I was growing up, one of the shows that I loved was MacGyver.
MacGyver, this nerdy detective type – really?
Oh yes! Here was someone that solved problems using science. We don’t have enough of those characters in tech. If you cannot imagine a job and a career path for you, you won’t pursue it. That’s why it is important to have more visible role models. Movies like Hidden Figures or the documentary on Hedy Lamarr, who was an inventor and scientist in addition to being a glamorous actress, are good sources of inspiration.
Don’t be afraid to “outsource”. You don’t have to do everything.
You are the GM of IBM’s Blockchain division. Could you explain in layman’s terms how blockchain technology works and in what areas besides cryptocurrencies it will be useful?
At its core, blockchain is about trusted data. It’s an electronic recordkeeping system that creates a new way to share and secure data across a business network. The data could represent assets like a car, or transactions like a foreign currency exchange, and not just the current value of the data, but the history of every update or transfer is recorded and shared simultaneously with the consent of all interested parties who have a role in the network. The ability to do this in real time, maintaining access and governance across many disparate parties, without a middleman, is what makes it so transformative. The results are some exciting new business models in areas like provenance, supply chain and financing.
That’s quite abstract. Could you give some examples where blockchain possibly will change
We are using it for food safety, for example, or to exchange information in clinical drug trials and even to detect click-ad fraud on the internet. We will also be using it to make the mining of cobalt more safe and ethical. Another area of application is digital rights management, where it can be used to make sure that the artist who recorded a song actually gets paid or that the donation you made to charity actually made it to the right place. We think it will fundamentally change the way transactions are done just as the internet changed the way people communicate.
In addition to your role as general manager of IBM’s Blockchain division, you are also on the Supervisory Board of Daimler AG. What responsibilities and what opportunities come with that position?
I’ve been on the board since April 2018 and it has been a fascinating journey, particularly given the digital transformation that is occurring in the auto industry. The whole notion of the shift from “I am the manufacturer of a car or a truck” to “I am an innovative mobility service provider” is a fundamental part of what my role is on the Supervisory Board, which is to communicate to investors how the growth and value of Daimler AG continue to develop. Seeing the intersection between different industries and how technology can really help benefit the end users is an important aspect.
Often enough, women are discouraged from juggling their careers and their caregiver roles. How did you manage to have both a family and a career?
Well, it takes a village. Both my husband and I shared caregiving responsibilities. I took a leave of absence, I worked part-time for a while. He took a leave of absence and then retired early to spend more time with our children. We had a large extended family, and I also had great support from IBM with regards to different flexibility options at work. Don’t be afraid to “outsource”. You don’t have to do everything, and you can turn to others for help.
You have to try new things.
You have two daughters, 20 and 22 years old. How do you encourage them to find their way in the world?
Both my husband and I are engineers, so they had plenty of exposure to maths and science, but the most important thing is to do what you love. As long as you expose your children to and allow them to explore all different aspects of life – arts, science, music, different cultures, different places – I think they’ll find their way.
What would you personally still like to achieve or learn?
I like to really engage with the things I am focused on. So my two big things for this year, apart from getting more fit and eating better, are learning German as I said and trying to be a much more visible role model myself to women in STEM.
What is the best advice someone has ever given you and what would your advice for aspiring young women be?
You can’t get fit by reading about exercise! This is true for any career or venture. You have to try new things. I’ve seen studies that say a child today will likely have seven careers before they retire. And it was estimated that three of those careers don’t even exist yet. When I think back on my career, mobile and blockchain technologies were not part of my education and yet were things that I did. You can’t be afraid to continually learn new things; be curious and then just dive into the deep end. Be bold!
Marie Wieck joined IBM in 1983. She has held a variety of technical and executive roles in IBM’s hardware, software, services and cloud units. Today she is general manager of IBM Blockchain and member of Daimler’s Supervisory Board. For more information, please go to mb4.me/MarieWieck.