Pivoting to the Future

A developer’s journey to the blockchain

After spending the last several years avoiding the Bitcoin buzz, I have finally seen the light. Sadly, I wrote the technology off as nerd-money with no future beyond a few enthusiasts in their mom’s basement.

But why now? Isn’t it too late to get into Bitcoin now, and isn’t the US dollar the only thing that matters? After all, I have a bank account full of the stuff right? Or maybe it’s the Yuan that matters? Euro? Yen? So why would we need a new currency anyway?

In short, because Bitcoin (or more broadly the blockchain) enables a new form of currency that exists outside the boundaries of any economy we have seen to date and is ran by vast and diverse communities eliminating the need for a single point of failure; i.e., a central authority. In other words, it completely does away with the banks and various other institutions while still providing all of the facilities they offer, and it’s sustained by anyone willing to contribute the system. No more asking a third party to look after your money.

Blockchain technology has a genuine chance to disrupt many industries as we know them today, and potentially even the economy itself. The blockchain will also provide us with a plethora of new industries yet to be thought of and allow us to organize in new and exciting ways.

If this is the first time you’ve heard about blockchain technology, then I would completely understand if you think I have been hitting the pipe a little too hard. Over time I hope to explain my reasoning in much clearer detail through contributions in writing and development. For today, I would like to start by taking you on my journey to find the blockchain.

Early life through college

I grew up with the All American ideals of the 90s. Capitalism firmly fixated to the blood cells coursing through my veins. The idea that the only thing holding you back from your dreams was hard work and if you failed, you have only yourself to blame. I never stopped to questioned why companies looked like totalitarian regimes or why democracy only existed for those who can pay the highest price for admission.

Upon maturing into a young adult and with a profound sense of duty in the air, I set out to find where I could be the most productive contributor in society. I already had years of practice taking apart random gadgets from around the house and putting them back together again. For me, this easily translated to engineering. The only question now; what discipline?

I began to knock out my prerequisites at my local community college and before long I found myself enrolled in my first computer science class, and in that semester my life’s trajectory was forever changed. Everything I learned just made sense to me and my teacher helped fill me with wonder and encouragement. It left me wanting more, and in short order, I was a full fledged software engineering student.

I found myself playing in an immensely diverse sandbox made up of complex sequences of 1s and 0s in which I could build any castle imaginable. From complex virtual worlds to algorithms that control cars. From the brains of our satellites to the brains of our refrigerator.

At the time, there seemed to be no limit to the possibility of software, and the ecosystem was constantly growing. This exciting, seemingly inexhaustible world had me instantly hooked. I was on my way to fulfilling my civic duties and becoming a productive member of society.

Forging my path

While eager to join the workforce and start contributing my creativity to the world I didn’t want to wait to hold that piece of paper given to me upon graduation. I decided it was high time to find an internship and get an early start to my new future. Before I knew it, I found myself working for Honeywell in their flight control systems division where I helped to test code and write requirements. I felt like I had made it. I was now a contributing member of society.

I quickly developed the belief that I would spend the rest of my life working for Honeywell. Much like my first relationship, I thought there was nothing that could separate us and I was blind to all the glaring flaws. This starry eyed perspective came to a quick end when my boss pulled me into his office to inform me that they were disbanding their internship program. Just like that, after two years of loyal service, I no longer had a place within the organization.

At the time, this felt like a devastating blow; a sucker punch to the solar plexus which left me breathless. How could a company I gave so much energy to and planned to retire at so readily throw me out the front door? Not only was I a dedicated hard worker who often went outside the boundaries of my responsibilities but I was also cheap labor compared to the full-time employees who worked beside me.

My experience at Honeywell was a wake-up call and would forever change my perspective of the corporate world.

Detour through the defense industry

My sense of pride was too overwhelming to give up, and I quickly moved on to the next venture. After transferring to the closest state university, I was able to find a new internship with Lockheed Martin over eight hundred miles away in Colorado Springs.

While this was a fun experience, I quickly found myself bored since I did not possess the necessary clearance needed to do anything of value. In essence, I spent my summer getting the IT staff coffee in an environment where men and women armed with M16s patrolled the halls, and security pads graced every door. The closest I came to software was designing a database to help the IT staff maintain tickets, but it didn’t get approved in time for me to implement it.

Despite the fact that Lockheed Martin invited me back and offered me a full-time position upon the successful completion of my degree, I decided it was time to part ways. I learned my lesson from Honeywell, and I no longer felt that sense of obligation towards my employer. The next semester I set out to find something more exciting where I could contribute my skills in a more meaningful way.

I ended up landing a gig at General Dynamics where I worked on communication devices by writing C/C++ code for specialized cryptographic processors. I quickly found my stride and began to contribute to the software ecosphere, and I loved it. As an intern, I learned a lot, was given a considerable amount of responsibility and I had amazing mentors to help guide me along the way.

The fall to the private sector

I finally obtained my price of admission in the form of a certificate issued by the Arizona State University which indicated to the world that I was now a bonafide software systems engineer.

Now I had undoubtedly made it… Right?

Within a short amount of time reality reared its ugly head and the truth was revealed. I realized that I had little to no input in the implementation of the product I was helping to create. To fit in, I would need to give up my dream of owning my creativity. I would have to keep my head down and simply do what my superiors asked of me. Luckily my direct manager understood this and taught me to fight hard for my convictions regardless. He helped me find the courage to step outside my comfort zone and stand up for myself, and he encouraged me to move on and experience other companies.

I now had over five years of experience under my belt and was already beginning to feel a bit jaded towards the industry; I felt as if I had fallen through the cracks of irreverence. The only solution in sight was to move on and the private tech industry sounded like a good place to start. I found GoDaddy, and I couldn’t have been more excited. They were an up and coming company and even made the Forbes 100 Best Places to Work 2012 list. Life was going to be great.

Only, instead, I would spend the next two years stuffed in a corner cubicle where I would spend my time contributing very little. My coworkers rarely engaged with me and sometimes I would go a whole week without seeing or talking to a single one of them. I would sit there bored out of my mind waiting for my boss to respond with the next tidbit of work. I felt like a gerbil trapped in a cage waiting for the next pellet of food to nibble on only to find out that it was bland, flavorless and unsatisfying once I finally got it.

Once I realized how little I was valued, I would spend most my work time hung over from the night before and most of my free time was spent partying with friends. Some days I would work from home and set a shot glass on my keyboard so it would look like I was active. I was losing all desire to contribute to the world of software, and all of the passion I once had was slowly dissolving into nothingness.

Finding my footing

Despite being miserable and loathing the thought of going into work every day, I stuck it out because I only had to hit a small bar to stay relevant and continue to get a paycheck.

That is until one summer day when the director of my department pulled his entire team into a room and informed us that we would be breaking into smaller teams and we were to start following the SCRUM methodology. While I was familiar with Agile practices, I was unfamiliar with the particulars of SCRUM. At that point it was all Kanban and Waterfalls for me.

Before I knew it, our cubicle walls fell, and I was now working in an entirely open environment.

Our teams began to self-assemble around our products of responsibility, and I volunteered myself to be SCRUM master. I would then spend some time studying the SCRUM methodology, and before I knew it, I was celebrating all things SCRUM. I was now a Srcumafarian.

The methodology behind SCRUM promised a more bottom up structure and threatened to replace the whim of the managers with the consensus of the team. I instantly saw and felt the benefits of a self-empowered team making day to day decisions and hoped it might free us of our code monkey mentality. Now instead of sitting alone in a corner, I had an entire team of support. Together we were able to have sway in the overall design, architecture and technology choices. In theory, once a consensus is formed, we could even have the power to overturn a manager’s decision.

To me, SCRUM was a marvelous paradigm switch, and it helped to once again free that passion locked deep inside. Sure it had its flaws, but it introduced a concept I had yet to see in my career up to that point.

Democracy.

The battle for control

This system became increasingly frustrating, and the demand for me to work overtime began to pile up. I wanted my team to set a precedent for how a SCRUM team could operate, so I dedicated a huge portion of myself to my team. Work and life began to blur together, and after two years of dedicating myself to the cause, I realized my path at GoDaddy was not sustainable.

The novelty wore off as soon as I realized the sense of democracy SCRUM provided was mostly illusory and bogged down by the clout of unnecessary process. In the end, the team was given very little respect, and even less autonomy and the daily battle to get anything done was wearing on me.

I had convinced myself that the problem I was facing was size. Godaddy had become so top heavy that there was no way to flatten the structure and give the developers the autonomy they deserve. If only I could find a company that didn’t have an overbearing organizational structure. Something young and fresh and not yet tainted. I thought I found the answer.

The start-up life

Enter Carvana.

Right out of the gate I came into my new position with a new found passion and vigor and was excited to direct all my creative energy towards this seemingly fast paced and innovative company. I finally found the job where I would receive the respect I deserved and where I could grow into an appropriate role.

I was going to be able to make a significant impact and help drive technology decisions. I was going to help implement SCRUM and make the world a better place. I was going to prove to my coworkers that I would be a crucial cog in the system that keeps the gears moving and a force to be reckoned with.

Unfortunately, this is not the reality I found myself in.

The coding environment was a mess, and security was dismal. The backend infrastructure was a deformed creature conceived from the incestual relationship between Carvana and its parent company Drivetime. The overall architecture was barely hanging on by a thread and development was often slowed to a crawling pace for weeks and sometimes months.

I learned that way to get respect was through social interaction and not merit; you are better off drinking a beer with a manager then writing a line of code. You could get away with just about anything as long as you had the right connects. If you didn’t have those connects then you better just fall in line and work hard to avoid being the next one to get the chopping block. Everyone focused on jockeying for position rather than fixing the problems at hand, and if you were actually doing development, you were the last to get recognition for it.

Meanwhile, everyone was afraid to push back on the CEO and if he said jump everyone would ask how high. Projects would become jeopardized by the impulse of senior leadership, and failure was often blamed on those at the bottom. I began to feel like I had entered crazy town and was the only one who noticed what was going on. Those who did notice simply put on a mask and turned a blind eye everyday. Once I began feening for the days “good ol’ days” of Godaddy, I knew it was time to move on.

Freeing myself from corporate shackles

For the sake of my sanity, it was time for me to gather up some strength and figure out how to leave and get a fresh start, this time working for myself. Luckily, I was able to find myself a great support system and a wonderful girlfriend willing to stand by and help me create my own path to freedom.

I spent some time gathering up savings, minimalizing my life and downsizing my home to prepare for my new endeavor. For the first time since college, I felt like I was about to take my fate into my own hands.

I was even considering a radical change in my profession by moving away from software altogether. Writing, politics, bar tending, ride-sharing, if it was outside the box I thought about it.

I spent the first few months of freedom lying low and pondering my future prospects. Even though nothing was coming to me I held on to the hope that I would find a cause that to focus my energy on once again. I began to wonder if I could mix different passions such as technology, writing and activism but I questioned if I could make ends meet.

Meanwhile, I was beginning to focus a lot of thought and energy on my flirtation with democracy in the work place and how empowering it had felt to be a part of. I began to image if that experience had been truly democratic and we didn’t have the thick clot of bureaucracy looming over us. I began to question if this could be scaled out to other industries and how that might look. Could we have a fully democratic company that shared its profits more fairly instead of funneling the profits to the top?

Ultimately these questions led me to the blockchain.

The seeds had been planted deep inside my psyche throughout my life, but it wasn’t until I had a few months of freedom that they receive the nourishment needed to sprout. And once they did, it was unmistakable that this is where I need to be.

The Blockchain

While this technology is still in its infancy, it has the potential to reshape the way we think of the internet and the function it has within our society. It has the potential to break the top down cultures that all too often plague companies and could allows us to fundamentally change the way organizations are structured.

It allows for a more democratic organization with little need for the management bloat. It can be censorship proof, transparent, and the profits shared more equitably. In short, my experience with the software industry can become a thing of the past and a radical new experience can be forged.

On the flip side, it could also be used to continue the status quo. It could still suffer from the tragedy of the commons and like everything else it is susceptible to a massive array of attacks. However, the power of the blockchain is that it has an army of smart people working to protect, grow and strengthen its integrity and is now nearly unstoppable.

There are countless exciting projects already coming out of the blockchain and currencies like Bitcoin are just the tip of the iceberg. For me, some of the most compelling experiments are working towards implementing revolutionary new governance systems to help guide the development of the projects and ensure no one group has full authority over what gets implemented and what doesn’t. There are people working to expand these systems to scale out to other industries as well and could potentially create new forms of corporations.

My future

I realize that for a developer with experience in cryptography I am probably a little late to the game, so I am attempting to make up for lost time through research, development, and writing. I wanted to start by writing about my journey to the blockchain because I believe it gives good insight into my motives. While my tardiness is inexcusable, I am incredibly grateful for the experience I had up to this point and look forward to using it in my future contributions.

I hope you will join me on my journey through the blockchain. In the weeks, months and years to come. I will continue writing more about my adventures as well as providing technical reviews and code contributions. I hope someone will find this useful and together we can help shape the future of the blockchain to the prosperity of all humanity.

The blockchain is as relevant to computer science as the discovery of Calculus is to math. Let’s use it to re-architect a better tomorrow.