“The industry as a whole needs to ramp up efforts on education initiatives around blockchain – going beyond crypto conferences to reach out to a wider audience of users and developers”
Edison is a Blockchain Application Lead at Zilliqa, where he heads the development of in-house blockchain applications in the advertising and financial industry. Edison believes that blockchain is an internet of value, and is interested to explore various use-cases of blockchain and accelerate the world’s transition to decentralization. Edison holds an M.Sc from Carnegie Mellon University, where he conducted research on blockchain security.
In an exclusive interview with People Matters, Edison talks about his journey as a blockchain developer, the current state of the blockchain ecosystem in Asia, challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
How do you see the rise of blockchain technology and its impact on businesses?
As someone coming from within the blockchain industry itself, it’s easy to see blockchain’s ability to deliver strategic business value for enterprises across a variety of industries. In the case of decentralized public blockchain platforms, the use of blockchain could enable companies to uphold a better standard of transparency in their business processes. Moreover, the use of smart contracts could also potentially result in greater efficiencies, leading to further streamlined, automated business operations. As blockchains are immutable by nature and cannot be altered, they also provide critical security assurances in low-trust environments where multiple participants are unable to trade directly or would like to bypass the need for an intermediary.
Like most technologies, blockchain’s value lies in its ability to provide greater cost-efficiencies and opportunities for automation. In the long-term, enterprises can continue to explore the technology’s potential in order to create transformative revenue models in their own respective sectors.
How did you get into the blockchain space? What made you choose a career in this next-gen technology?
My initial foray into the blockchain space began while I was attending graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. At the time, I began by trying to create simple decentralized applications on Ethereum in my own personal time. Back then, Ethereum’s developer experience was poor and it was difficult to create anything.
Following that, I didn’t think about blockchain much until I chanced upon a graduate seminar on Advanced Cryptography taught by Professor Vipul Goyal during the fall semester of 2017. This seminar touched upon how clever applications of cryptography can enable new use-cases in the blockchain industry. I found myself intrigued by the subject, so much so that it ultimately resulted in blockchain being the topic of my graduate thesis. Throughout the course of my research, I further enhanced my understanding of fundamental concepts such as consensus algorithms and the role of mathematical proofs in the technology. While these topics were interesting to me, what I found most fascinating was the fact that the application layer of a blockchain platform is especially vulnerable and more work needs to be done when it comes to mitigating potential attacks. Coupled with my previous experience of building on Ethereum, I also felt that more attention should be directed towards streamlining user and developer experience on these platforms.
During the time I spent working on my thesis, I felt compelled to pursue a career in blockchain, not only to further build on my work but to also contribute to this exciting and emergent industry.
How does the life of a blockchain developer look like? What sort of challenges do you face and what keeps you motivated?
The life of a blockchain developer shares many similarities with software developers. If you think of blockchain as a database, rather than working with data manipulation languages like SQL, you’re working with smart contract languages instead. Arguably, there are risks that blockchain developers have to contend with that other software developers are not exposed to. Their inherent complexity notwithstanding, smart contracts are also where business logic is codified and as such, it is absolutely critical that they are properly written and properly secured with a strong codebase. Blockchain is an Internet of Value, which facilitates greater ease in the transfer of assets with real-world value and therefore with real-world ramifications should things go wrong.
With that in mind, as a fundamentally nascent technology, the challenges in this field are extremely new. At Zilliqa, we created a public blockchain platform that is first in the world to address the industry’s perennial scalability problem by leveraging sharding technology. Given some of the existing shortcomings in today’s smart contract programming languages, we also took it upon ourselves to create a new secure-by-design smart contract language, Scilla, that is amenable to formal (mathematical) verification and therefore able to provide greater security guarantees. Within a relatively young industry, you have an amazing opportunity to make critical contributions that can radically change the course of the industry’s development and that fact alone is incredibly rewarding. That being said, with blockchain, technological milestones are being met every day and it can be challenging to keep up with the rapid rate of development.
Beyond that, I have had the opportunity of working with a talented team that is incredibly passionate about what we do on a daily basis. Through our frequent internal knowledge sessions, you can learn more about what other members are working on and what areas of blockchain technology they’re most excited about. As a whole, coupled with our company’s open culture, it is intellectually fulfilling to work at Zilliqa as everyone on the team is encouraged to work on areas of the technology that we care about.
What does it take to pursue a career in blockchain in terms of education, skill sets, and mindset?
I would say that the two most important traits are intellectual curiosity and a clear conviction. A developer needs to be curious and keen to acquire new knowledge while at the same time demonstrating the ability to apply these learnings to blockchain. While the technology is still in its nascency, there are certain parallels that can be drawn with other existing, established technical fields. As such, a blockchain developer should be exposed to other realms of the software industry in order to tap into this expertise to build better products for the blockchain ecosystem.
Building applications on a blockchain is also far more difficult by several orders of magnitude than doing so on a traditional database, and one has to be steered by a conviction on the importance and meaning of the work. You have to truly believe in the idea of blockchain. In the absence of a strong personal belief that your work has true value, it’s quite easy to become disillusioned and disappointed, and developers may often give up during the process before work can actually bear fruition.
What is the current state of blockchain ecosystem in Asia including talents and what factors come into play (e.g. regulation, institutional support, and mainstream acceptance of the technology)?
It is encouraging that many companies have been actively experimenting with, and testing blockchain technology at an enterprise level. In Singapore, especially, we’ve seen that regulations have been open and supportive, with the government making a concerted effort to work and collaborate with companies in the private sphere to discuss and implement blockchain solutions.
How are innovations in Distributed Ledger Technology driving synergies with other technologies such as AI and IoT?
I am personally not that optimistic that blockchain can disrupt AI in the near future. While blockchain in simplified terms can be understood as a database, it is an extremely expensive one. Developers will likely want to minimize the amount of data placed on the blockchain as the computational power required to perform machine learning tasks, such as constructing a neural network, can be prohibitively expensive. The high cost of storage and computation themselves would effectively deter most AI use cases from fully materializing.
I believe that there is more potential with the Internet of Things (IOTs) as I’ve also witnessed ideas surrounding supply chains and the enhancement of transparency. In this case, IOT can create immutable proofs that indicate that some objects or products have been validated by participants along a supply chain. By enabling verifiability, this creates a traceable trail back to the source––this has greater synergies with what blockchain equally aims to do.
What are the top popular misconceptions people hold about blockchain as an industry, as well as the roadblocks en route to legitimization?
One of the biggest misconceptions frequently held by the public is in equating blockchain with cryptocurrency. While it is true that blockchain was born out of decentralized cash, the initial phase of blockchain adoption will instead be driven by the concepts of efficacy and productivity, resulting in more streamlined business processes. At this point in time, the world is perhaps still not ready to embrace the idea of disruption through the radical separation of money from the state, though enterprise adoption admittedly provides a soft entry for blockchain to gain prominence and in turn, popularity.
As countries around the globe seek to clarify their stance and push forth different sets of regulatory frameworks in introducing structure to the nascent industry, there is yet to be a uniform standard for what constitutes legitimization. As it is, legitimization will occur when regulators possess a better awareness of the capabilities of blockchain and are equipped with the knowledge to regulate critical areas, and this will come only in time.
What do we have to do to actually build blockchain as a sustainable, mass-adopted technology?
The key to achieving mainstream success lies in multiple paths: the first pertains to widespread education, and the second in the development and spearheading of what we refer to as “killer applications”. For the former, the industry as a whole needs to ramp up efforts on education initiatives, going beyond crypto conferences to reach out to a wider audience of users and developers. This can be in the form of developer workshops, university competitions, or even online courses to promote the agenda of blockchain within a budding community. In the same vein, the creation of killer applications necessarily implies the creation of great value by blockchain for particular industries which can in turn quickly help to catalyze and accelerate blockchain adoption.
At the same time, progress cannot be neglected on the technological front, and the industry needs to focus on robust infrastructure layer support including, but not limited to, user-friendly wallets, layer two solutions, and stable coins, for example, for the above factors to come into play.
Why is finding blockchain talent hard and what can we do to mitigate this difficulty?
The biggest challenge in finding blockchain talent ultimately boils down to the simple fact that the sample size that we are engaging with is a small one. To date, there remains a distinct lack of academic institutions that are teaching or offering blockchain-related courses, and when it so happens that they do, the technical skills learned during the course tends to be limited in scope and transferability to a real-world context. Moreover, with developments taking place each day on the technological front, the theoretical course curricula can quickly become outdated. As projects look to hire developers, seeking candidates with “years of experience” in blockchain can also significantly reduce one’s pool of talent to choose from.
Instead of focusing purely on a technical aptitude, try to look out for signs that indicate that a candidate is a self-starter and is able to pick-up knowledge quickly. Beyond years of experience, the onus is to companies to identify people who are clever problem-solvers, unafraid to try out new ideas and are willing to put in the hard work to build things. These are skills that will put a person in good stead to tackle the eventual learning marathon that is blockchain.