It’s clear that tech pros in a variety of industries are examining the implications of blockchain. After all, the technology can be leveraged not only for cryptocurrency (i.e., Bitcoin), but everything from “smart” contracts to secure, distributed ledgers. Can developers prove that they have the skills to work with this technology?
(In case you’re joining this tech-industry craze a bit late, here’s a very quick breakdown of how it works. A blockchain is a distributed database that maintains a chain of “blocks,” or records with a timestamp and a link to the previous block. It’s extremely difficult (if not impossible) for a user to retroactively alter the data within a block without someone noticing; in theory, this makes blockchains secure by design, and ideal for everything from transaction processing to identity confirmation.)
Arran James Stewart, co-owner of the Singapore-based blockchain recruitment platform Job.com, claims that his firm has seen a “huge surge in demand for blockchain capabilities” over the past year. “I would have said it’s quite niche, but now it is so mainstream that I think it would be foolish not to educate yourself in it, because of the danger that you might get left behind,” he said.
Luka Horvat, Head of Talent Operations at Toptal, holds a similar view. An international talent network for people in tech and design, Toptal has no physical offices at all. In response to the increasing demand for blockchain talent, the company recently launched a program called Blockchain Academy.
Blockchain Academy is an attempt to create a certification framework. In doing so, however, it has necessarily set its own standards for what is essential for a blockchain developer. There are obvious drawbacks to this approach: its standards might not align with another organization’s needs, for example. Nevertheless, there is agreement on the fact that the field is still new and subject to change, but will grow more entrenched over time.
As Horvat explained, the academy is meant to bridge the “gap between what clients are looking for and what talent can offer” in terms of blockchain skills. The course takes about six weeks to complete: roughly a month to cover the lecture component, followed by an additional two weeks for completing the core project. The dozen lectures, designed by a single expert, take an hour to 90 minutes each, and cover topics ranging from cryptography and distributed systems to public and private blockchains, smart contracts, bitcoin, and Ethereum.
Horvat explained that the central idea is to cover the technologies that are “pretty common across all blockchain implementations.” Upon successful completion, participants are given an “internal” certification for the Toptal network.
Blockchain Academy isn’t the only effort in the space: B9lab is a London-based protocol-agnostic research and development lab that offers blockchain education and certification. Elias Haase, the founder, claims that over 10,000 students have signed on for the paid and free courses.
The B9Lab Academy has 12 courses online, the first three of which are free; there’s access to real-time support five days a week in a few time zones. The courses are designed for experienced developers and managers with some technical ability who want to build up their understanding of blockchain. Nor are the courses “industry-specific,” according to Haase; the goal “is to train competent blockchain developers who can build decentralized applications for whatever context they choose to work in.”
Those who meet the course requirements can earn a Certified Ethereum Developer and/or Certified Hyperledger Developer certificate, which isn’t a mere piece of paper but digitally set in the Ethereum blockchain. The value of that credential is built on the “decent reputation” B9lab has built by entering the game “early” and striving to do “everything properly,” Haase said.
In Haase’s view, blockchain is coming into its own as a specialty because it entails a fundamentally different attitude to development. The goal of a blockchain project is ensuring that the end product “hasn’t been tampered with,” which necessitates a “different approach” than other projects, which necessarily might go through a number of changes and additions from lots of contributors as time goes by. With blockchain, anything with “serious consequences” (i.e., building some critical bit of infrastructure such as a nuclear reactor) could be set up in such a way to prevent an individual from “going to play with it.”
“We do help with job placement as well as connect our students to open-source projects they might be interested in or that need developers,” Haase added. Formal job-placement services are something he hopes to add in the future, however.
Employers also have different expectations when it comes to blockchain-related skills. For example, Stewart stressed that one of the key skills for blockchain developers is Hakell, something Haase said is not in their curriculum.
Haase said that which languages come into play “depends on if people want to work on blockchain applications and use it as backend” or if they want to “go more deeply in applied development.” For smart contracts, for example, there’s Solidity. Other potential languages include C, C++, Go, and Serpent.
What about the value of a blockchain certificate? Stewart expressed some doubt about how much stock employers would put in such a thing. Based on what he’s seen from “experienced, successful blockchain developers, the only test you need to pass is” the one offered by the company that hires you; and even if no formal test is part of the hiring process, he suggested “it won’t take very long” to determine whether a new hire has the required ability.
So how can one best plan for a blockchain career? For the already skilled and self-motivated, take a look at what’s available. Newbies will want to build experience as fast as possible; in addition to the courses mentioned above, those interested in exploring this technology in an academic context can also take courses from Stanford and MIT.