The Chicago businesswoman parlayed a phenomenal gift for numbers into a successful computer-forensics firm called TeamWerks.
Alison Chung: I have friends who call me the inspector, the detective. My family members will not allow me to be in the presence of their digital devices. When I visit, everybody locks everything up.
Colleen DeBaise: Welcome to The Story Exchange, featuring the stories and strategies of entrepreneurial women around the world. I’m Colleen DeBaise, an editor at The Story Exchange, and we’ll be joined later by our co-founder, Sue Williams.
Colleen DeBaise: All of us have special gifts that we bring this world, some more useful than others….For instance, I know how to juggle (as in, three balls up in the air, all at the same time) but that doesn’t particularly help me in my career as a journalist.
Today we are looking at Alison Chung, an entrepreneur in Chicago who has not just a special gift, but an incredible gift — she has superb numerical recall, the type of thing that could get her in a lot of trouble, say, in Las Vegas, where she could probably make a tidy sum if she were to try her hand at counting cards, which of course, is frowned upon. Instead, Alison Chung has funneled her phenomenal talent for numbers into her own successful business, called TeamWerks. She’s hired by big companies to dig for digital evidence in cases that involve fraud, theft or corruption. That often entails searching through thousands of pages of dense computer code, filled with numbers, symbols and characters. And then she uses her remarkable memory to testify in court as an expert witness. Here’s how Alison describes it…
Alison Chung: Teamwerks is a full-service technology consulting firm with a particular focus in computer forensics…So anytime somebody asks a question, “Who did what when?” it is probably on some digital device, ready for somebody like me to dig and find what exactly happened, and to tell the truth about it.
Colleen DeBaise: Now, the flip side of having an incredible gift (especially something like numeric recall) is that it often makes one stand out — and sometimes, not in a good way. As we’ll hear later, Alison is not wired like most people. She is funny, she is exceptionally smart...but she sometimes behaves in ways that are different or eccentric or just plain odd. But somehow she has managed to turn all of that into a competitive advantage.
We wanted to find out more, so we headed to the Windy City. If you go to our website, TheStoryExchange.org, you can watch a video we produced, which shows Alison at work. Today, we are going to share snippets of that conversation. This is a good story to listen to if you yourself have an unusual gift, or maybe you know someone who does, or you’re simply interested in the stories of people with exceptional talent. Sometimes, being different is an asset…and we hope Alison’s story inspires others who are “different” to find their own successful paths in life.
Colleen DeBaise: Our story begins in Hong Kong, where Alison was born and raised. She was a quiet kid, always inspecting and investigating…
Alison Chung: When I was naughty and my mother would say, “Go to your room,” I was thrilled because behind closed doors I would be doing puzzles and…I really liked that. I mean, I always liked to work on puzzles and pretend to solve crimes and things of that nature. I read every detective novel in English and Chinese that was available. All of them were female sleuths.
Colleen DeBaise: You could say that Nancy Drew was one of Alison’s earliest role models. It was during those childhood days that she noticed her head was just full of numbers.
Alison Chung: As a child, I used to scan people’s license plates and then I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I mean, at this point, I still remember a license plate that I saw in Hong Kong. It was AF4052. It’s useless. It’s not particularly…I mean, it serves no purpose and to me is like holding a space in my brain for no reason and I can’t purge it. It’s terrible.
Colleen DeBaise: Eventually, Alison’s parents sent her to a boarding school in England, and from there, she went on to Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
Alison Chung: I went from being extremely structured in a very programmed environment starting at 6am to 10pm, to complete freedom. It was very, very different. I felt a little bit lost in the beginning. I felt a little bit lost at the beginning...but I adjusted, and I found my games.
Colleen DeBaise: Now, the games she’s referring to involve numbers, of course. Or at least...numeric strategy.
Alison Chung: Every weekend I would take the bus to MIT, and I would participate in three-dimensional tic-tac-toe tournaments. Whilst other people were going on dates I could not wait for the week to end, so that I could get into the competitive games.
Colleen DeBaise: So, competitive tic tac toe….that’s probably not what most people remember about their college years, but then we already told you, Alison isn’t like most people. She went on to Stanford, where she got a master’s in math, and then she began her career at IBM. By that time - it was around 1984 - computers had become the next big thing.
Alison Chung: Those were the days of the mainframes, and the 360s. The computers were massive, they took over, like, entire rooms. During my lunch hour, I would go into the computer room and just look at these magnificent machines in awe. Some people might have gone out to the yard, to the garden and smelled the flowers, and I was just looking at the machines, thinking, ‘“Wow, I wonder who created and designed all of this.” I loved it. I really loved it.
Colleen DeBaise: Computers -- Alison had found her calling. She was good at working with computer systems, and headhunters soon heard about her reputation. She went to work at PriceWaterhouse Coopers, her first big assignment was installing computer systems in Illinois prisons, to manage how inmates were paid for prison jobs. She didn’t interact with inmates but…
Alison Chung: I did get all their Social Security numbers. That was exciting. I had all of their Social Security numbers. I was like in Social Security heaven.
Colleen DeBaise: And after that, she was recruited by a big Chicago law firm.
Alison Chung: The managing partner of the law firm approached me and said, “We like you. Why don’t you come join us?” And I said, “And what would I be doing here?” And he said, “You would be creating and running all the computers that we’re gonna buy.” I got really excited about that. I said, “That sounds interesting. I think I’d like that.” So I joined the law firm and I was there for almost ten years.
Colleen DeBaise: Alison loved the job -- but after a while, the stress of working for a law firm took its toll.
Alison Chung: They were very very billing oriented. That’s fine. It is a business. But the litigators were very challenging to work with. I mean, they’re very temperamental. There were people who would throw things around; I mean literally throw phones at you because they were so stressed out. And that environment to me was not a positive environment.
Colleen DeBaise: By 1997….she was ready to start her own consulting firm. And that’s when TeamWerks was born.
Alison Chung: I’d like to say that I had a business model, but I didn’t have anything that formal. I just didn’t. I mean, I knew that what I wanted, which was I wanted a firm that had the core values that matched my personal and professional values. And that was a time during the tech boom, so there was a lot of business to be had. So I knew that we could get business, and I just thought that we would start small and see what happens.
Colleen DeBaise: So that’s the first part of Alison’s story, and we’ll continue in just a bit with how she got into computer forensics...by the way, she’s been hired by dozens of clients at this point, and while she wouldn’t disclose annual revenue, we do know that she typically bills $300 - $500 an hour...so she’s making a very good living as a digital detective.
But first, let’s take a step back and look at Alison’s unusual gift for numbers. At the Story Exchange, we always look at the unique pieces of a woman’s background that make her an exceptional entrepreneur. If you’ve never checked out our site, please do so….It’s TheStoryExchange.org. We’re a nonprofit media company and we produce articles and videos about women business owners .I am being joined now by Sue Williams, co-founder of The Story Exchange, who spent a day with Alison in Chicago and produced a video profile of her for our site. Hi, Sue.
Sue Williams: Hi Colleen.
Colleen DeBaise: So, Sue, I’m so curious, what’s Alison like in person?
Sue Williams: Well, Alison is fascinating and Alison is complicated. I first met her a number of years ago at a business lunch and I- I was just completely fascinated by her. She told me about her obsession with numbers and how they stayed in her head and that at times it was distracting, almost painful. But there is more to Alison than numbers, she is very focused and centered. She meditates for a couple of hours every morning, she’s a Buddhist, and when we went to film her at her home she played the piano for us and she is very gifted- it was quite beautiful. It’s a way for her to relax. And she also sees that she is a bit different and she’s actually very funny about it and she certainly doesn’t try to hide it.
Colleen DeBaise: Yeah and you know, some of the music that we’re hearing in this podcast is actually Alison playing her piano. So, when we were talking about her working in the Illinois prisons, I was so struck that she said she was in “social security heaven”....
Sue Williams: Well it’s even worst than that. So, listen to what she told me about meeting new people.
Alison Chung: I do like to ask people what their Social Security numbers are because I tend to forget their names. And so during social events, I’ll say “I’m sorry I’ve forgotten your name, would you mind if I just had your Social Security number?” And I tend to remember numbers a lot easier than I do people’s names.
Sue Williams: So then you’d be at a cocktail party, and you would say, ‘Hello, 1-1-2-9-7-4-1”?
Alison Chung: I used to. It got a lot of attention. It was just easy for me.
Colleen DeBaise: Wow, I could never do that.
Sue Williams: Me neither. Actually, Alison says she doesn’t do it anymore either, because people now are so worried about identify theft. So more recently, when she meets people, she starts to imagine in her head what’s on their digital device -- what files, or photos or music. Although that can be problematic, too.
Alison Chung: I’ve since stopped that. I mean, it got in the way. I mean the look kind of got in the way. People said, “Wow. Why are you staring at me with bulging, penetrating eyes?” I said, “Oh no reason. It’s because you’re dressed so well.” They said, “No, you’re staring.” I said, “All right.”
Colleen DeBaise: Well she’s very funny and seems, uh, self-aware. Is there a name for what she has?
Sue Williams: No, uh, not that she knows of.
Alison Chung: Somebody asked me and said, ‘Wow, you’re really kind of eccentric and different,” I said. ‘Well, remember that movie, ‘The Rain Main,’ the autism. ‘There’s a little bit of analogy there. I just, I’m in a different world.” I think differently. I look at things differently.
Sue Williams: She’s never actually been diagnosed with any sort of autism and she certainly functions very well and she’s very successful.
Colleen DeBaise: Yeah I’m wondering, how does this help her in her line of work?
Sue Williams: Well, she’s hired to do things like dig through hard drives for deleted files, or to pour over boxes of printed documents with source code. The average person might not enjoy doing that, but for Alison, it’s a complete joy. She also uses her amazing memory to testify as an expert witness...that’s where it really comes in handy. TeamWorks has been hired in more than 35 cases, and her clients have won all but one.
Colleen DeBaise: Wow, well that’s impressive. And she likes to testify in court?
Sue Williams: Not really, no. At first she was very intimidated by it. She’s not an extrovert. But -- much like at parties -- she likes to show off her mathematical recall. Plus, she is addicted to the judicial process…let’s listen.
Alison Chung: The thrill and the ecstasy affiliated with being able to tell the truth, being able to be helpful, being able to tell the story, and being able to be of service to the clients to me was like when people go to Las Vegas and they win the games.
Colleen DeBaise: Well, sounds like she is in the right line of work. Any last thoughts?
Sue Williams: Yeah, yeah, um, Alison has a strong moral compass. Often when she takes on a case she won’t know what she’s going to find and she’s stumbled into cases of pornography and organized crime and as soon as that happens, she backs out, she refuses to work with that client.
Colleen DeBaise: Good for her. Thanks for joining us, Sue.
Sue Williams: Always a pleasure.
Alison Chung: Sometime people ask me, you know, ‘when does it get busy?’ And I say, you know, ‘whenever there’s lying, cheating and dishonesty, it’s busy. And I’m sorry to say, we’re a little bit on the busy side.’
Colleen DeBaise: We’ve been sharing the story of Alison Chung, who started TeamWerks, back in 1997. We wanted to take a look now at how -- a few years back -- she began to specialize in computer forensics. These days, when crime is committed, chances are - you can find evidence of it on an iPhone or an Android, a tablet or laptop or a desktop computer. It turns out that Alison Chung, with her love of computers and her years of experience at a law firm, was a natural fit for the field.
Alison Chung: We fell into the forensics. I received a call from some law-firm partners I had known and they said “we need somebody to go through more than 20 boxes of computer code. The client had written a one line $50 million write-off and the IRS is questioning whether or not that one line item write-off is valid.”
Colleen DeBaise: Needless to say, Alison was happy to take on the project.
Alison Chung: I was really excited. And all the team members, we pored over it and looked at box after box after box. And after three weeks, I called the partner back and I said, ‘OK, I have the answer.’ And I told him what I thought had happened and he said, ‘Oh, that sounds really good, Alison, and what are you doing tomorrow?
Colleen DeBaise: Much to Alison Chung’s surprise - and dismay - the partner asked her to testify as an expert witness in the case.
Alison Chung: I said, ‘whoa, whoa, whoa. You’re talking to a woman who doesn’t talk very much. I don’t market well. I’m not glib. I am not smooth.’ I said, ‘I don’t know what this is about, but this is sounding a little bit on the unpleasant side. What if something goes wrong?’ ‘Don’t worry, we’re not going to blame you.’” Now, 15 years later I know better than that but that was like my first case. I said, ‘Alright, I’ll try my best.’
Colleen DeBaise: The next day, Alison hopped on a plane, and prepared to testify for the very first time.
Alison Chung: And then we all marched over to the IRS offices, and then the door opened and I’ll never forget this. There were five men in half glasses and they looked very stern. And they said to our legal team, ‘Good morning. Who is that girl?’ And our legal team, one of the attorneys said, ‘Oh that’s our expert.” The five IRS lawyers started laughing and they said, ‘How much do you wanna bet that we can break her down in one hour or two hours?”
Colleen DeBaise: Now, Alison says she heard this comment -- but she didn’t really register it because her brain was more focused on the boxes of computer code she needed to testify about.
Alison Chung: Well, of course I was in my numbers glory. And so the interrogation started and the first half glasses looked at me and said, ‘Yes, Ms. Chung, our expert witness here, would you care to explain to use what happened in box number 78?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I would be delighted to.’ And so the inquiry went on and on. It carried for several hours. And box after box, they would flip from 73, to 121, to, you know, back to number four. I think it was the end of the fourth hour there was a question: ‘What happened to 97?’ I said, ‘Oh that was an exciting time. 97 was a good box. 97 was when there was a change in the federal rules and regulations and the entire three modules had to be reprogrammed.’ And then he said, ‘Thank you.’ I said, ‘But you failed to ask me about box number 162, because that’s the same thing.’ And at that point I smiled to myself. I knew I had them.
Colleen DeBaise: About a month later, the ruling came down and Alison Chung’s client was victorious.
Alison Chung: And then when they said we won, I was screaming for joy and I said, “Give me another one. Give me another one.” So, that’s how it all started. I mean, it’s...I’m not sure that I can even paint it in words as to what the thrill is.
Colleen DeBaise: Alison still does IT consulting -- this past year, she was hired by the City of Chicago for a long-term project involving traffic violations -- but computer forensics is truly her passion (plus, it pays more). Remember, she always wanted to be a detective...
Alison Chung: I just didn’t know that I was gonna be a digital detective. I kind of thought that I was gonna solve mysteries, the missing bonnet. Then it became digital. It’s a lot of fun. I wouldn’t trade this for anything.
Colleen DeBaise: Since the recession, many of TeamWerks’ cases have involved corporate clients who fear that top-level executives have stolen company secrets when they’re fired or laid off. The first thing she advises clients: Keep every device that the executive has ever touched.
Alison Chung: We investigate phones, smart phones. We can tell you the text messages that were sent and when they were sent, even if they’re erased at times. iTouches, Macs, IBM Pcs, I mean everything that has a digital storage device.
Colleen DeBaise: While business has been good, there are of course some drawbacks. TeamWerks took a hit after the financial crisis, when clients dragged their feet about paying bills. But far worse, Alison says her identity has been stolen, and her home burglarized…it goes without saying, a lot of people don’t like her prying eyes.
Alison Chung: I have thought that I might be in physical danger doing this job, only because of the robberies. But I’m going to continue doing what I do, and I think when it is my time, that’s when it will be. I’m not fearful. No. I have taken the necessary precautions and I think that’s enough.
Colleen DeBaise: Alison now has 22 employees working for her -- and she likes to hire people who remind her of herself. In fact, she told me about one of her more recent hires, a young man who showed up 20 minutes late and shaky, nervous and sweaty. Against the advice of her team, he got the job. And, he’s been one of her top performers.
Colleen DeBaise: So remember how we told you, back at the beginning, that Alison Chung loves competitive games? Well, she still does. A few years ago, she briefly became addicted to an international computer game, where she became No. 1 in only 3 days. She had to remind herself that she had a company to run. And Vegas? She does not go there. Too tempting. Fortunately….she can get her kicks out of her work.
Alison Chung: I mean, sometimes we’re on a case and we find the evidence and our client the attorney says, ‘OK, Ok, Alison. That’s more than enough. We have more than enough. We have the smoking gun. Please stop.’ And I’ll say, ‘OK.’ And I’ll stop billing them but I won’t stop in the office. In the end I say, ‘You know what? There’s this missing piece. I wanna know what happened here’ and I will dig into it in the middle of the night, just for my own satisfaction.
Colleen DeBaise: Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or…maybe you would. This has been The Story Exchange. If you like what you’ve heard, visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. I’m Colleen DeBaise. Editing help provided by Nusha Balyan. Production coordinator is Michelle Ciotta. Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.