Bitcoin may have hit the headlines again recently with the controversy around the identify of creator Satoshi Nakamoto, but it is clear that - for many - interest has shifted towards the underlying blockchain technology.
A consensus appears to have formed that the distributed ledger system used to authenticate cryptocurrency payments can be adapted to a much wider range of processes.
And as businesses and even public sector bodies realise the potential of blockchain-based systems, demand for expertise to create pilot projects and launch products has grown swiftly.
“It's like any new technology - there is always huge demand for people with the right skills,” says Steve Webb, a partner at PwC who has been involved in the creation of its blockchain technology team in Belfast.
Webb says that last year saw many organisations beginning to understand what blockchain systems can do, and uptake is now accelerating.
“If 2016 is the year of the early adopters starting to come to market, that will create the wave that sees demand really start to build up through this year and into next,” he says.
Blockchain jobs: Who is hiring?
First let’s take a look at where the demand for jobs is coming from. There are indications that increased hiring is occurring in a variety of sectors and industry verticals. Some are more advanced in their blockchain strategies than others, with the likes of Barclays and BBVA having been investigating the technology for some time now, while others have an understanding but are just testing the waters.
- Blockchain startups and consortiums. Startups hiring in the this space are numerous – from those providing the foundation building blocks of the technology, such as Ethereum and Eris, to companies specialising in business applications, including Everledger. Also groups such as New York based R3, which is attempting to create blockchain standards in the financial sector.
- Large tech firms. IBM and Microsoft have been creating products to support blockchain development with ‘blockchain as a service’ tools built into their existing cloud portfolios. Others that have joined the open source Hyperledger project include Intel and Fujitsu.
- Banks and other private sector firms. Barclays has been particularly active in the blockchain space, alongside UBS, Santander and BBVA. Dutch lender ABN Amro recently announced it is building a 30-strong team to investigate blockchain use. However, most lenders have some level of interest. And it is not just the banks. Visa and Thomson Reuters have also been on the lookout for specialists, while Airbnb hired a team of blockchain and bitcoin specialists earlier this year.
- Government. A report published by the government’s chief science advisor, Sir Mark Walport, highlighted the potential in government and conversations have begun in the public sector around how blockchain can be used. A variety of use cases have been discussed, such as tracking student loan payments. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/digital-transformation-in-government-and-blockchain-technology
- Professional services firms. All of the big consulting firms are at some stage of building out blockchain teams to advise their clients on what is expected to be a hugely transformative technology. Deloitte acquired blockchain startup Rubix, PwC recruited a team from Bitnet and is continuing to expand, Capgemini plans to have 100 specialists by the end of the year and KPMG has been hiring too.
Blockchain jobs: You don’t have to be a cryptography expert
There a variety of blockchain related roles that businesses are hiring for. For some this means taking on leading experts with experience of creating and running distributed ledger systems in production.
But often a large corporate will build a team around a core of blockchain experts. In this case all that is needed in addition to strong software development or engineering skills is a solid understanding of the principles around blockchain systems.
“It is going to be a lot of the same skills you need for building more traditional technology,” says Nick Williamson, CEO of blockchain platform as a service startup, Credits, which has been working with public sector service provider Skyscape.
“It is just that, because you are building a cryptographic system, you are going to need to be that much more aware of the depth of technology.”
Of course, Blockchain is just one piece of a typical technology stack. Engineers that specialise in networking or security, for instance, play a vital part alongside those with core software development skills.
“You have also got people that are actually probably more conventionally thinking about how they get the services from the cloud, for example,” says PwC’s Webb. “If I am going to use cloud computing to get different parts of the way that I stand my blockchain up, how do I do that?”
He adds: “So you have the infrastructure part, the core deep coders and then you have people thinking about how does the UI work and what does the application look like.”
An awareness of modern technology tools such as Docker containers and microservice architectures are a plus too.
Williamson at Credits adds: “When you start looking at some of the more traditional skillsets that map well to building the infrastructure side of blockchain – anyone who has worked on distributed systems or who has worked extensively on large scale microservices architectures, those skillsets are going to come in very handy.”
Blockchain jobs: What skills do you need?
That said, there are certain specific skills that are beneficial.
Polyglot software engineers - those able to code in a number of languages - are preferred. Knowledge of Java and C++ appear as a requisite in many job listings, for instance.
Zeth Couceiro at specialist technology recruitment firm Opus says: “They are normally tech stack agnostic, they just need strong programming skills - ideally someone who has programmed in two languages in conjunction or is comfortable with multiple languages and large datasets.”
An understanding of cryptography is useful too. “Interestingly, people [who have worked for agencies such as] GCHQ or people with strong cryptography backgrounds make good [blockchain developers].”
Seamus Cushley, who joined PwC to lead the blockchain team as part of its Bitnet hire, says that knowledge of specific blockchain platforms is an advantage – though not essential.
“There is a demand for people with strong technical background, who are curious enough to want to understand this blockchain technology and can demonstrate that they understand at least the principles of bitcoin, possibly running an Eris node, having looked at Ethereum,” he explains.
At the same time, the ability to adapt to new technologies in such a fast evolving area of technology is valued highly.
“You can't just say 'I am a highly specialised blockchain guy' because that actually doesn't really mean anything, or say 'I am really good at Eris',” explains Cushley.
“Eris may not be here tomorrow: it may become the underpinnings of the globe or they may not. So it is the ability to change which is important.”
Blockchain jobs: Salary expectations
As with any emerging technology, the low supply and growing demand for expertise means that many businesses are willing to pay a premium.
According to Opus’ Zeth Couceiro, the rate of pay for blockchain specialists “varies considerably”. Startups will typically pay somewhere between £40-60k for someone without experience and then look to give them training. In some instances they may offer equity in the company too.
For large corporates such as banks this can be significantly higher, ranging from £100,000 for a developer with five years experience or more, up to £150,000 in some cases.
“There is definitely a premium,” says Zeth. “In order to get your head around the complexities of blockchain you have to be a pretty smart programmer anyway, it is not just like knocking a website together.”
From a business perspective, accessing skills can be a significant challenge. Some estimate that – in the UK specifically – there are in the region of 250 developers who truly ‘get’ blockchain.
Attracting potential employees from this small pool of experts is tough.
Many of those who first got to grips with blockchain in the form of bitcoin’s open, permisionless ledger, may have been attracted by the cryptocurrency’s libertarian ethos. So switching to building private ledgers for a multinational bank may not be their aim.
Furthermore, considering that blockchain technology remains fairly niche, even getting into contact with the right people can be tough.
“The really good ones start up their own businesses and there are quite a few that will go over to these organisations,” he says. “But the obstacle that employers have is that these guys don't widely publish themselves.
Couceiro says that attracting the right talent means attending blockchain meetups and conferences to see who is contributing code to blockchain projects on GitHub.
“When I find people I have to get them from GitHub,” he says. “I look at who uploaded open source code to the bitcoin core network or more applicably stuff like Doge or Litecoin.”
Blockchain jobs: How to get started
For those that are interested in pursuing a career, a good way to get started is to start submitting code to blockchain projects.
Couceiro says: “I would always recommend that anyone who wants to get into this space goes on one of the open source blockchain-type currencies or tools and uploads open source code to it.
“If that code then gets improved, then clients will look at that favourable and say that this person has done stuff in their own time, they are passionate about it, they have experience working with it and they have the aptitude to get code that is accepted, which means that they are at the level these sorts of companies are looking for.”