In the past year, the price of bitcoin has fluctuated massively - jumping to a massive $20,000 last December. But whatever the current state of bitcoin is, interest in the underlying blockchain technology continues to grow outside of the crypto world.
Blockchain refers to a list of records or 'blocks' that are linked to one another and secured by cryptography. This takes the form of a distributed ledger that can be shared across many parties to create a system of record with no single point of failure.
One major use for blockchain is to authenticate cryptocurrency payments, but the common consensus is that blockchain systems can be adapted in 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.
What skills do blockchain developers need?
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.
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.
An awareness of modern technology tools such as Docker containers and microservice architectures is a plus too.
What qualifications do blockchain developers need?
Obvious, perhaps, but the first thing a developer needs is a background in computer science or engineering. From there it’s possible to do further training courses in blockchain specifically but these are scarce given how new the technology is.
Experience in a back-end developer role is crucial and in addition to strong back-end skills, blockchain developers need to have at least the fundamentals of cryptography.
Once a developer has those core pillars they can begin to learn more about the different blockchain platforms at which point it becomes more systematic, according to Gavin Pacini from Deloitte’s EMEA Blockchain Lab.
“The reason is that it’s a relatively new platform and pretty quick to set up and people in the blockchain industry are trying to stay on that track, they don’t want to use older technologies,” he said.
However, Polyglot software engineers - those able to code in a number of languages - seem to be preferred. Knowledge of Java and C++ appear as a requisite in many job listings, for instance.
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How much does a blockchain developer earn?
As with any emerging technology, the low supply and growing demand for expertise means that many businesses are willing to pay a premium.
The rate of pay for blockchain specialists varies considerably. Startups will typically pay somewhere between £40,000-60,000 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 £70,000 for a developer with five years experience or more, up to £150,000 in some cases.
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, permissionless 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.
Blockchain developer responsibilities
Most blockchain development roles expect developers to be responsible for research, design and testing of blockchain systems. However, these blockchain devs are expected to take ownership of a lot more as well.
Seeing as a blockchain developer will have experience or at least knowledge of cryptography and common algorithms and data structures, you'll most likely be in charge of large codebases and peer-to-peer (P2P) networks.
You'll have ongoing projects which will mean breaking down existing code and frameworks, and rebuilding them, as well as evaluating existing and proposed blockchain structures.
Additionally, most companies rely on the blockchain developer to design different blockchain technologies and implement them in their internal platforms, as well as maintaining the environments they are being built in.
Lots of companies are also looking for their blockchain developers to offer some business insights and logic. The blockchain developer will be responsible for integrations and will be asked for evaluations based on business metrics as well as IT-related ones.
From the job descriptions we've looked at, most roles will offer some form of training and ask that the candidates have knowledge in source control and agile tools, experience with large-scale, secured, distributed systems and have an interest in the way money can virtually travel through secure systems.
How to become a blockchain developer?
Computerworld UK spoke with Niamh O’Connell and Gavin Pacini from Deloitte’s EMEA Blockchain Lab, to gather their advice on becoming a blockchain developer.
Keep up with industry trends
In such a new and dynamic landscape, it’s important for developers to take responsibility for their own learning, particularly if they want to accelerate their career. Reach out to people in your network who can help you build your portfolio and attend events with speakers who you find interesting.
Pacini suggests using Reddit to keep up to date with relevant industry discussions and GitHub, a website for software development projects, to learn from your peers and share code. “Developing your own skills and knowledge is important. We’re lucky that the blockchain lab in Deloitte operates as a startup environment so it’s easier to share information but in other environments, it’s good to look to the online platforms,” he added.
If you’re looking to work in blockchain you need to be adaptable and willing to get stuck in. Given the new nature of the blockchain space, there’s not always documentation to rely on and developers need to be comfortable looking to open source code and learning on the job.
“It’s not an established platform so it’s a real learning curve. We’ve had cases where we’ve had to dig through the source code of open source projects which normally isn’t required when using existing technologies but with blockchain, we don’t have a choice. Tracks are being laid in front of us and our job is to make the best use of that,” Pacini said.
O’Connell predicts that from the business perspective too, self-education will become more and more prominent with non-techies beginning to learn the basics of code. “It’s adapt or die,” she said “even the more traditional industries are beginning to expand their tech abilities to stay relevant.”
Consider the business case
O’Connell believes that having an understanding of the business case as well as the technology is extremely important when working with blockchain.
One of the unique challenges of her role in the lab has been to educate clients on the unique properties of the technology and analyse whether or not it would be a good fit for the business.
“Blockchain was getting a lot of hype, particularly last year, and this meant that people were keen to use it without understanding how it should be used in comparison to a traditional database,” she said. “We found that clients were coming to us with use cases that they wanted to explore and after running workshops we found that blockchain actually didn’t make specific sense for their business,” she added.
Have a genuine interest
As with most other things in life, the more you put in the more you get out. Pacini says if you really want to succeed as a blockchain developer, it’s important to have a genuine interest in the field. Not only will you be more motivated to work harder and be willing to continue learning outside your working hours, you’ll also be more likely to excel at it.
“My previous experience was in payment authentication and working on payment systems mainly in the back-end but I had a personal interest in blockchain and when I joined Deloitte into the blockchain lab it was an extension to the back-end for me really which made it easier to adapt,” he said.
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 banks like Barclays and BBVA investigating the technology, while others have an understanding but are just testing the waters.
- Blockchain startups and consortiums: Startups hiring in 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 creating 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. Also, Dutch lender ABN Amro is investigating blockchain use. It is not just the banks either. Visa and Thomson Reuters have also been on the lookout for specialists, while Airbnb hired a team of blockchain and bitcoin developers in 2016.
- Government: A report published by the government’s former 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.
- 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 planned to have 100 specialists by the end 2016 and KPMG has been hiring too.
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