How to excite computer science majors who are new to blockchain

Recently I participated in a Career Fair at the St. Mary’s College of Maryland to recruit students studying Computer Science and related disciplines. Along the way I found variable degrees of awareness of blockchain, Ethereum, and ConsenSys. How do you spark interest in technology and paradigm shift that’s still so abstract for many people?

Scene: College gymnasium. Companies are lined up along the perimeter of the arena and the center of the court. Employers are lined up behind their tables with company info on display. Students unsteadily walk into the unfamiliar territory…

A student is approaching a ConsenSys table. I stepped out to the front to greet Alice.

Me: Hi.

Alice: Hi.

Me: What are you majoring in?

Alice: Computer Science with a minor in Social Studies.

Me: Neat. I studied Computer Science too. Have you heard of ConsenSys?

Alice: No.

Me: Have you heard of Ethereum?

Alice: No.

Me: Have you heard of blockchain?

Alice: No.

Me: Have you heard of Bitcoin?

Alice: Yes.

Me: Alright! What do you know about Bitcoin?

Alice: It’s a cryptocurrency, and it’s been going up and down recently.

Me: Yes, and blockchain is the technology that powers Bitcoin. In your Database Systems or Distributed Systems coursework you may have come across the Byzantine Generals Problem that poses a challenge for establishing trust between unrelated parties without an intermediary. Nine years ago there was a breakthrough in computer science that solved this problem, and now it’s possible to transfer digital assets (such as Bitcoin) securely without a third party.

Alice: OK.

Me: Let me ask you this. Do you think you own your personal information?

Pause

Alice: Yes. Well, it depends.

Me: Exactly. The terms of services for Google, Facebook, and even your credit card, bank account, your driver’s license, your passport, give a company or a government entity the right to use the data without your control. They can delete the data and your accounts without your consent. Your data is centralized and is really controlled by a single entity even if they are using distributed architectures for storage and computation (like AWS or Azure). With decentralized blockchain technology you control your data.

Alice: So what do you do?

Me: At ConsenSys we’re building decentralized future. This means creating the infrastructure, applications, developer tools, and practices that enable a decentralized world where a human being is in control of their information without relying on a third party. For example, we have a sovereign identity solution called uPort that enables you to securely store your identity information.

Alice: On a blockchain?

Me: Yes. On the Ethereum blockchain. About three years ago a new Turing-complete blockchain, Ethereum, was created. Have you studied Turing machines?

Alice: Yes.

Me: Great! Ethereum is a Turing-complete blockchain, which means you can create and run any program on it given sufficient time and resources. It’s implemented as a virtual machine and you can run more sophisticated logic (e.g., loops) than what you can do with Bitcoin blockchain.

Alice: Looks a bit puzzled.

Me: In essence, we now have a decentralized distributed database that can run programs, known as smart contracts, across thousands of nodes that compose Ethereum. This offers immutability, security, redundancy, accountability and transparency that previously was not possible with the database structures and software offerings you studied at school.

Alice: Wow.

Me: We’re in the early stages of building the next Internet. To quote Andrew Keys: “2018 in blockchain years is the equivalent of 1994 to the 1996 boom of the Internet”.

Alice: This is so exciting. I don’t know much about this, but this is so interesting. Give me a week and I’ll read-up everything I can on this. I’d love to continue the conversation.

Me: We’d love to talk with you as well. I will send you an email with a copy of the article I wrote about how I came up to speed on this. When you’re ready — let’s talk! Thanks for stopping by.

With some students I went into deeper conversations about building multi-participant platforms, and the role Ether plays in fueling smart contracts to prevent spamming, reduce the impact of denial of service, and address the halting problem. With non-computer science majors I discussed the impacts of the game theory and building out new economies with reduced roles for intermediaries.

The moral of the story is that students get very excited about blockchain when they relate to the problem the decentralization movement is attempting to solve. They use the FANG-like services every hour and upon reflection students realize how deeply entrenched they are in the the centralized ecosystems. And when you relate Ethereum to the topics they studied in school (i.e., distributed systems, databases, Turing machine, cryptography) they quickly realize how big and different this is. You can almost see the spark in their eyes when they get it.

Did this resonate with you? Got a different approach that works? Leave a comment. Thanks for a 👏🏼 to spread the word. Follow me on Twitter at @iFirebrand to continue the conversation.

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