Sometimes a technology is invented to serve one purpose, but ends up used for another. Such is the case with blockchain, which started life as a way to guarantee the veracity of Bitcoin transactions, before companies noticed that the technology could be used to enable online transactions in any industry: banking, insurance, online commerce, and so on.
How blockchain works is simple: a buyer and seller engage in a transaction, registered as a “block,” a data structure that holds a timestamp and a link to a previous block. Data within the block is protected by encryption.
These blocks are compiled chronologically into a transparent ledger, known as a blockchain. The blockchain ledger is public and distributed through a shared registry; there is no clearinghouse to match parties in any transaction. Data management is simple and security inherent.
Finding enough technology professionals who know what they are doing with blockchain is now a challenge. That creates a lot of new opportunity for those with the right combination of skills and experience.
Nine Week Wonders
B9lab, a European firm dedicated to blockchain-related services, has emerged as a “structured supplier” of blockchain practitioners, according to Elias Haase, the firm’s founder.
“We noticed [blockchain] was difficult for companies and individuals to figure out how it works,” Haase said. “It is not that difficult.” With blockchain, he added, users are interacting with an immature ecosystem with global reach: “Anyone can access it and interact with it.”
To supply the demand for blockchain programmers, b9lab began offering classes in June. The nine-week course is punctuated by a midterm quiz designed to gauge whether students understand the basics of blockchain and how to interact with it.
The second part of the course delves into practical study, tasking students with building a small application. Following a final quiz and certification, the student should emerge proficient at understanding the ecosystem and building apps with the blockchain toolset.
What kind of previous experience helps a student understand blockchain? “Experience in web development is helpful in general,” Haase said, as is a background with object-oriented programming and troubleshooting.
“We set the bar fairly high,” Haase continued. Out of a cohort of 50 students, 10 might defer to a later cohort if the class is too difficult. Another 20 will attempt to pass the final, but only 15 will make it. “A lot of the people signing up don’t have the time to finish it.”
B9 started its third cohort last week and hope to sign up one cohort of 50 students per month. Within the next two to three months, it may scale up to 400 per cohort.
Learning to Learn
Holberton School of Software Engineering in San Francisco incorporates blockchain training into its general curriculum, and relies on meetups to transmit knowledge from mentors to students, according to co-founder Sylvain Kalache.
The school’s initial lecture covers the topography of blockchain, followed by a workshop and an opportunity to push a first app. “We don’t have a class or lecture or formal teacher,” Kalache said. The number of students attending the meetup will run from 30 to 60.
“Every six months, we organize an event where we invite mentors to discuss courses,” Kalache added. “Depending on their arguments, we decide to keep some topics.” Students are “learning how to learn. Nobody knows what the next thing is in the next two months or three years.”
Holberton School looks for students who are motivated, talented and have the ability to collaborate. Its programming curriculum takes nine months of 10-hour days to complete. The goal is to transform students into full-stack engineers who understand every layer of a system.
Do It Yourself
European IT consulting firm Capgemini can’t wait for schools to churn out more blockchain engineers. The firm needs them now. It wants to field a team of 100 specialists by year’s end, ready to apply blockchain to projects in financial services.
There may be only 100 people in the world who have back-end expertise in blockchain, noted Bart Cant, principal for financial services at Capgemini and the firm’s blockchain community leader. Cant met some of them while attending blockchain meetups in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“I saw this was something that will be transformative for financial services,” Cant said. But he was the only financial industry consultant at the blockchain meetup—and dressed like one, too. At a second meetup, he traded in his suit for a pair of jeans.
Capgemni’s first blockchain hires came out of those meetups; the first few hires were all self-taught. Looking for them was a challenge, Cant recalled, that required him to scan blogs and open-source Websites, looking for people who made contributions to the technology. Some were programmers with previous experience handling freelance work via Github, or were involved in developing blockchain’s knowledge base via Twitter, Reddit or other branches of social media.
Those initial blockchain hires will train newer additions to Capgemini’s blockchain team. Cant wants people who specialize in the technology, but who can also function as generalists who grasp the concept and can explain it to others: “The intersection of people with those skill sets are of value to me.”
But how many more specialists will Cant need in the near future? “We went through the top of the hype cycle a few months ago,” he explained. Demand will be “up for short-term need and will go down again… You will see over-estimation in the short-term and under-estimation in the long term.”
One thing’s for certain, though: this is a technology of substantial interest to a number of industries.