Republished with permission by Boston Speaks Up, a multi-platform storytelling series from Fabric Media documenting the civic leaders, entrepreneurs, creators, innovators and artists with connections to Boston.
In October, Fabric Media Executive Producer Zach Servideo and Janeiro Digital CTO Justin Bingham sat down to unpack Justin’s background, the history of Janeiro Digital, and how we’re helping to decentralize the web by bringing Solid to the enterprise.
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A condensed version of the podcast discussion follows. For questions or more information, contact us today.
Janeiro Digital co-founder and chief technology officer Justin Bingham is not an average Boston entrepreneur. The engineering and business design expert has worked at technology companies since he was 16, foregoing college in favor of pursuing a career in Boston’s innovation economy straight out of high school. His background includes nearly two decades of experience building sophisticated technology solutions and bringing them to market.
Bingham is fluent in numerous programming languages, has extensive knowledge of enterprise application architecture, network infrastructure and protocols, distributed systems, and large-scale data processing. Bingham invented one of the first systems to passively detect and identify sophisticated covert channels over a network. He is also an editor of the Solid specification. Bingham oversees both the technology and creative divisions at Janeiro Digital, which he co-founded with his brother Jonathan Bingham (CEO). The Binghams are working with inventor of the World Wide Web Sir Tim Berners-Lee and his startup Inrupt to define the commercial market, ecosystem, and enterprise platforms for Solid, which aims to decentralize the business model of the Web.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Lynnfield (north of Boston). My family has been in this area for generations. You can actually see the street in the North End where my grandfather grew up from our office.
When did you first fall in love with technology?
We got our first computer when I was three or four. I grew up in the mid-eighties, and personal computers were just arriving in households. As soon as we got ours, I was hooked.
When I was in elementary school, we got our first modem, and I was able to connect to the infant stages of the Internet. I started poking around, finding bulletin boards of various kinds. Of course, as a kid, you gravitate toward the more mischievous ones. Then the Web came along, which was a whole new way to get information.
I was fascinated with what you could do and what you could make, so I never stopped doing it.
What were some of the early programs you made?
All of my coding and programming is self-taught. One of the first database programs I made was to manage my music – this was still the days of cassette tapes and CDs. I also made a lot of programs to poke holes in other programs, or gather information about different networks.
Looking back, my day-to-day hasn’t changed much. I’m still making cool things, but now they’re mission critical systems at global scale.
You began working in technology when you were 16 years old. What was the company and your role?
When I was in my early teens my mom told me to get a full-time job to stay out of trouble. I found an opening at a regional ISP called Shore.Net. They were unique because they hired a lot of young people they believed had good potential and some workable skills, even if they were in high school. I started in tech support. I’d leave school and go straight to work. I loved it, and I was able to take some of the skills I was developing on my own and hone them in the real world.
I eventually was moved into the systems engineering group. I was building tools to support the work we were doing. We had a few security issues, and through the tools I developed, I was able to provide insight into how it happened, and how we could prevent it from happening again.
Is that where your passion for security got started?
No one, except for a small group of people, really knew about cybersecurity back then. There were no chief security officers, and the idea of application security was almost non-existent.
I had to come up with ideas on how to track people who were already in the network, and make sure that they didn’t get into the mission-critical areas that we were trying to protect.
I made some primitive tools and called my brother who was working at Forrester Research to see if anyone else was solving this internal issue. They weren’t. Everyone’s focused on building up the gates, but no one’s tracking what’s happening inside. We both quit our jobs and co-founded Intrusic, which we ran for seven years.
Before we jump into your first start-up, tell me about your decision to continue your career, and not attend college.
I grew up thinking college is just what you have to do after high school. I even went to St. John’s Preparatory School, which is designed to set you up for college. In my case, their program was instrumental in preparing me to be confident enough to skip it.
On my mom’s advice, I did try a semester at Northeastern, but I was still working full-time hours. I was always itching to get back to work, and after six weeks I left for good.
Now, I want to caveat this that I think college is amazing. For the vast majority of people, it’s absolutely the right choice. I was in a unique position at a unique time.
Awesome. Let’s talk about Intrusic.
We had an amazing mousetrap. We could do things no one else could do and could find things that no one else could find. We were a bit of a victim of our own ingenuity, because we were too far ahead of the curve. The cybersecurity industry was in its infancy. Most of our prospects hadn’t rolled out antivirus software yet, and we were selling advanced counter-intelligence tools. We spent an enormous amount of time educating the market and analysts. We had lots of success with the Fortune 50, but it was hard to move down market. After seven years on the grind, we decided to move on and try some new things.
Tell me how Janeiro Digital got its start.
Janeiro Digital actually kicked off through our second startup, Surrge, a bootstrapped viral music discovery and distribution service. We launched it at SXSW at the Dirty Dog with an open bar and six live bands. We got into it enough to have a viable product, a real site, and users, but we also found that the model for selling music was too convoluted to be successful.
We wanted to bring in more money but didn’t want to go the traditional route of investment because we weren’t fully confident the business model would work. We figured that we were very good at making complex technology that solved real-world problems. We decided to see if there were organizations in our network that might find some value in that.
Within a month, we had over $1 million in bookings. It showed us there was a real market fit for the work we were doing. We’ve been doing that now for the last decade or so, though the brands we work with today are quite a bit bigger.
Tell me what Janeiro Digital does today.
We are a professional services firm that designs and builds custom digital transformation solutions that solve real problems. For the past 10 years, we’ve worked with countries and companies to change the way they do business.
We don’t necessarily focus on vertical industries. Instead, we focus on the types of problems that need to be solved. Our business is built on solving multi-faceted, complicated problems that others might run from.
We have over 80 accomplished engineers, architects, and visionaries, all of whom work side by side to solve some of the most complicated digital transformation problems out there.
Frankly, our team is amazing, and to be able to knock out some of the extraordinary work that we do is awesome.
Tell me about one of your favorite projects.
That’s like asking me to choose my favorite kid!
One project that stands out in my mind is a diagnostic and monitoring platform we created for a major energy company. The users of this platform are 30-year veterans of the business. Unfortunately, they were spending an inordinate amount of time dealing with inefficiencies from five or six different systems. Our platform was built as an antidote to the inefficiencies to help make better use of the data to support quick decision-making.
Anyone who builds anything knows how hard it is to build something well. After we rolled out the system, a few members of the team visited the company, and actually got a standing ovation from the diagnostics team. When you’re building a system for people who need to continually measure the temperature of cooling pipes in a nuclear plant, and you get that kind of response, you know you’ve done well.
How do these applause-worthy projects get started?
Early on at Janeiro, we developed a process called RADD, which stands for Rapid Alignment, Design Development.
When we engage with an organization, they often know what the business problem is, but they don’t quite have their finger on the solution. Rather than jumping right in to solve the problem they think they have, we spend some time in Rapid Alignment really getting to know the business. We dive into the problem, get alignment on what success means, build a hypothesis, and then spend the time either proving or invalidating that hypothesis.
In the first few weeks, we’re not talking about technology – we’re talking about the business problem and what it would take to solve that problem. By the end of this phase, we know exactly what the solution needs to look like, what the first big iteration of the product will be, and what the future roadmap will be.
In our Design and Development phase, we get to work building up the product. How long it takes depends on the complexity of the product, but our success rate on delivering products on time and on budget is staggeringly high.
Let’s get into what you’re building with the Inventor of the Web.
For over 30 years, we have traded our personal information for free services on the Web. Email, physical addresses, sensitive data, and more, have been handed over in order to access the products, services, and connections that are offered by service providers.
However, innovation and privacy have finally collided with each other, and it’s time to rethink the business model of the Web. We’re working with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and his startup, inrupt, to define the commercial market, ecosystem, and enterprise platforms for Solid, a revolution that will decentralize the business model of the Web.
We have created the first-ever commercial solutions leveraging Solid, as well as the ecosystem of enterprises, countries, technology vendors and system integrators, and developers that will remodel the Web for us all.
What sort of problems does Solid solve?
Solid opens up a whole new world of trusted engagements between enterprises and customers. With express consent from customers, enterprises will now have access to a whole new field of data that they haven’t been able to access previously, as well as answer regulations such as GDPR and others. From this data, they can build new value and innovative applications that are just not possible in today’s environment.
Going further, these applications can create a valuable ecosystem of services with other providers, which opens new markets and opportunities that haven’t even been imagined yet.
It’s one of those rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where the enterprise and customers both win. We’re honored to be working Sir Tim and the team and cannot wait to start sharing some of the great work we’ve been building behind the scenes for the past year.
What sort of applications will we see from Solid in the next year?
We’re working on some really exciting stuff that speaks to our roots of solving unsolvable problems. While we can’t name names just yet, some of our initial POCs are being built to increase the quality and outcomes of healthcare for millions of citizens, speed clinical trials to deliver life-saving drugs faster to the market, and personalize wellness programs for the better health of millions, just to name a few.
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