Caleb Ferguson (BS ‘14) Explains the Value of Blockchain for Supply Chains

Caleb Ferguson (BS '14)
Caleb Ferguson (BS ‘14), product marketing manager at BlockApps, joined the Center for Sustainable Business for a panel on Building Resilient Supply Chains with Blockchain to share his perspective on how businesses in many industries can benefit from this new technology. He highlighted the value that blockchain can provide in delivering high-quality, reliable data, which makes it easier to manage demand and absorb shocks to the supply chain. 

We followed up with Caleb to hear more about his career at the intersection of business and technology, what he thinks everyone should know about blockchain, and his favorite Stern memories.

Tell us about your role as product marketing manager at BlockApps and your career path leading up to it.

We’re a startup in Brooklyn that’s been growing since 2015. We have built a network technology and software that creates blockchain networks for business transactions, called STRATO. I help both our customers and the public at-large understand the link between the capabilities of blockchain and their specific business. It’s like a translation service between technical and business worlds. I also run the website, create multimedia content, make slides, run digital marketing, advertising and analytics. I do sales operations as well. 

With career paths it’s always easy to paint this rosy picture, like it was all planned, but it wasn’t. After graduating from Stern in 2014, I joined a management consulting firm called Kurt Salmon in their CIO advisory practice. That was a good marriage of my economics and information systems majors. A lot of our clients were banks and we helped them with IT programs to make compliance easier and help business move faster while still following all the rules. After a few years, I was hoping to work with new technologies across industries, so I went back to NYU Tisch for a graduate program called ITP (Interactive Telecommunications Program), during which I got an internship at BlockApps. At ITP I worked directly on networks technology and connected devices, so blockchain was a natural part of that study. Being a product marketing manager is an exciting combo of business skills I’ve gained with new technical details I learned along the way and at ITP.  

How is blockchain technology being used to create more resilient and secure supply chains?

A lot of our Fortune 500 clients use our product to get reliable data. It’s often called a single source of truth. Getting truly reliable information about what’s happening drives both the resilience and security aspects of how blockchain helps the supply chain. To me, there’s not much new about demand management or anticipating shocks in supply—we know exactly what to do given certain pieces of information. Resilience is a useful word for it, because blockchain doesn’t help with the “what”, so much as the “how” you can “bounce back” from a supply shock. Being able to trust the data and have it earlier than ever before makes it so much more useful for creating resilient supply chain operations. 

On the security front, to get reliable data, many clients have to modernize and create a sense of trust about who and what is putting the data into the system. We see a lot of them beefing up the security of how information is entered into their systems, both by humans and machines—increasingly IoT (Internet of Things) data is just as important to secure. Having the confidence that the device or person is “who they say they are” is crucial. This new model is very compatible with blockchain’s concept of a decentralized identity and a strong digital identity. It’s not really blockchain directly, but how it makes companies realize the value of quality data, and how that requires stronger digital identity management.

What should everyone understand about blockchain, even if this technology isn’t directly part of their jobs (yet)? 

At this level, don’t be afraid of blockchain. It’s just a technology, like many others such as machine learning, AI, and other big topic technologies. They are certainly powerful, and nascent, and will be a part of your job in the next decade. Not unlike how the internet revolutionized business, the most successful companies that take advantage of the technology are going to be the ones that refresh their business model and processes alongside it. My advice is to watch how blockchain is practically used around you. Also understand that blockchain is a tool, and it’s not going to spur success or innovation on its own—it’s just as much the processes and the people that surround it.

What career advice would you offer to others interested in or pursuing a career in business and technology?

The best advice I can give is to get really hands-on with the technology your company and customers use, and actually use them yourself. Understanding how this business technology feels to use will help you speak the same language as the people you’re working with. This will help you skip so many steps of misunderstanding and really get to the bottom of whatever problem you’re trying to solve or opportunity you’re trying to grasp. 

For people earlier in their career, I remember interviewing at a bunch of places, some of which were offering these huge salaries, and then other super-cool companies that are offering no money, but maybe little bit of equity, plus a bunch of companies somewhere along that spectrum. I advise not to “goal seek” for salary, per se. If there’s a company that you feel good about, take the opportunity. No decision you make is as permanent as you might feel it is today. For people in business and technology, that good feeling should include that you and the company are aligned on some values that don’t just equate to the bottom line. At Stern, we learned the triple-bottom-line concept, and the social impact core, which was really progressive of Stern to do at that time. Finding a company where it’s clear the values you have are reflected will make you happy. 

What’s your favorite Stern memory?

I relish some of the awesome classes I had, but my favorite Stern memories are definitely the events we had and the extracurricular activities hosted by student council. The School was split up into groups of 40 students, called Cohorts back then. We had meals together and unique experiences in the greatest city in the world. Yet probably my favorite memory is our trip to Singapore with the ISP program. I didn’t even realize how valuable and special it was at the time, in terms of the international experience and getting close with the people in your group. 

How do you stay connected to Stern?

I still have a handful of close best friends from Stern who I see—pre-Covid at least—on a regular basis. We keep each other in the loop on the other Stern people we know. We also try to go to the occasional alumni event. Really, though, Instagram and LinkedIn are both super useful for keeping up with other Stern folks, to get a quick update from them, drop them a note, or even just a like—sounds sappy but it makes you feel connected to them. 

Do you have any book/podcast recommendations you’d like to share?

Getting a history of what’s happened in businesses and industry in the past is really important, so I recommend The Master Switch by Tim Wu, and really any book by him. It’s a great way to catch up on what has happened and see a good business story unfold. For the startup folks, there are two books that I recommend—Play Bigger, about category definition, and Oversubscribed by Daniel Priestley. On the less business-y front, for the tech revolutionaries out there, the book Protocol by Alexander Galloway kind of changed my life, and A Thousand Plateaus, by these two French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, did too. And then one more, the most fun one, for the fantasy fiction people is The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, which is amazing and transported me away when I needed to be transported.