Although experienced blockchain developers are in demand and command large salaries, the technology underlying blockchain is still in its infancy. The future for the digital asset platform looks bright—but it’s also unpredictable.
For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, “blockchain” is an interconnected series of records (known as “blocks”) that are resistant to alteration or hacking thanks to strong encryption. Because of that security, blockchain can serve as a transparent register of transactions, which means it can serve as the core of a digital currency such as bitcoin. A number of industries have begun adopting blockchain technology for other uses, from insurance to e-finance.
Ethan Heilman, a Ph.D. student at Boston University and co-founder of Commonwealth Crypto, thinks it’s possible that the blockchain space could enter something of a “winter,” to borrow a term from artificial intelligence. “Artificial intelligence went through several winters because people would make outrageous claims about how it was going to transform everything, and when those claims were not fulfilled, there would be a decline in the amount of money that was spent on artificial intelligence and the companies working on it,” Heilman told Dice.
Following each winter, it would take a while for AI’s reputation to recover—followed by another boom, then another winter. The very aggressive marketing within the blockchain space could potentially lead to a similar problem.
But blockchain is also very different from A.I., especially when it comes to practical uses. Heilman predicts that cryptography, distributed systems, and some of the work around smart contracts are unlikely to see any sort of winter, and that any skills blockchain developers gain will continue to be highly sought-after in other fields. “Blockchain is a great space to be in because it’s at the forefront of cryptography and security and distributed systems,” he explained. “The skills and expertise that people build in the industry would definitely transfer to other industries, at least from an engineering perspective.”
Because blockchain is pushing the envelope in terms of cryptography and secure protocols, he added, developers are more likely to get experience with cutting-edge technology that will later be adopted by other segments of the digital economy.
Laura Shin, a Forbes senior editor managing crypto and blockchain technology coverage, suggests that developers who want to work on blockchain can help implement the technology in existing industries. “For instance, the financial services industry is trying to incorporate it to make their backend processes more efficient,” she said, “and also to come up with new offerings that weren’t possible before with their own technology. That’s probably a safer way to go.”
It’s not just enterprise startups hiring blockchain developers, but also legacy financial institutions, including companies such as JP Morgan Chase, Visa, Citi, and NASDAQ. Other industries working on implementing blockchain technology include government and healthcare; IBM and Microsoft are hiring tech pros with a background in the technology.
Another major opportunity is to join one of many new centralized teams starting blockchain networks. These aren’t traditional jobs with salaries; rather, these are teams creating new crypto assets and devising networks that use those tokens. “If they work well, the demand for the tokens should rise, which should then increase the value of the token, and then the developers can retain a portion of those tokens and basically pay themselves that way,” Shin said. However, if the community isn’t happy with your developer team, they can fork the code and create a new community without your team (and without giving you all those tokens).
After applying for multiple jobs in the computer security space, software engineer Andrew Trainor ended up in a blockchain position for Cambridge Blockchain, a company building a product that targets the enterprise. He believes that working with companies developing enterprise-facing products, rather than consumer-facing tech, is a stable space in the industry.
In other industries, it sometimes makes sense to build quick and dirty prototypes; but Trainor has discovered that, in this space, there’s a lot of care placed on how systems work—and much more of an emphasis on well-written software.
Blockchain can also accelerate the deployment of cutting-edge cryptography that might otherwise gather dust in academic journals. For example, the cryptocurrency Zcash uses z-K SNARKs, a zero-knowledge proof system with well-designed libraries; thanks to all the people working on Zcash, z-K SNARKs could see adoption in other technology segments. Heilman is excited to work on a project that may build that sort of momentum.
Because the pool of candidates who fully understand blockchain is relatively small, blockchain companies often hire software engineers from tech firms that may not focus on the technology at all. Although a lack of expertise might not disqualify a job candidate, Heilman recommends brushing up on your credentials by plugging into open-source projects: “There’s an enormous opportunity for someone to take very well-known blockchain projects such as Bitcoin and spend some time getting some code in there, and have it be adopted by Bitcoin and run everywhere.”
Startups will be hard-pressed to find developers who have actually built blockchain products, but Trainor believes that learning how the Ethereum blockchain works and how blockchains in general are designed will give candidates a big leg up. “Blockchain for smart contract code is not very complicated, but not very many people understand it,” he pointed out. If you’re applying to work with companies that have to write that sort of code, he recommends researching and understanding it: “Being able to say you’ve written a solidity contract for the Ethereum blockchain is a really huge thing.”
Learn more about blockchain and keep up with news on sites such as Coindesk. Also, take the time to listen to podcasts such as Unchained (hosted by Laura Shin) and by watching technical talks online. And don’t forget local meetups for blockchain, bitcoin, Ethereum, or even blockstack.
Different developer teams for these decentralized networks have their own Slack or Telegram channels. Shin recommends plugging into these (and other) communication networks to get involved with the communities that interest you.
Finally, a word of caution: because there’s so much money involved in the industry, make sure to vet potential employers so you’re certain that you’re working for a company with values you believe in. Developers have an ethical responsibility to ensure that people are treated fairly and don’t have their money destroyed, so make sure to do due diligence before signing on for a project or accepting a position.