Q&A: Chicago Region Lead at ConsenSys on his role, the Chicago blockchain ecosystem, and scalability issues
by Brooke Walter, bloXroute Labs
When we heard ConsenSys, a blockchain venture production studio that aims to harness the power of Ethereum, was coming to Chicago we were ecstatic. Aside from solving the blockchain scalability bottleneck, one of our goals at bloXroute is to contribute to the quickly growing Chicago blockchain scene. The more pockets of robust blockchain ecosystems, the better for the entire global blockchain community.
We recently caught up with Donnie Benjamin, Chicago Region Lead at ConsenSys, who spearheaded the opening of the ConsenSys presence in Chicago. Our conversation highlights the role ConsenSys plans on playing in the Chicago blockchain scene, the inner workings of the world’s largest blockchain company, and how the current strategy to scale Ethereum involves optimizing multiple layers of the blockchain structure.
Brooke Walter: Tell me a little bit about ConsenSys and your role.
Donnie Benjamin: ConsenSys is a global technology company focused on bringing Ethereum to the world. We have almost 1,200 employees in over 30 countries, and many of those countries have offices. Joe Lubin founded ConsenSys. He’s one of the cofounders of Ethereum and started ConsenSys to help build out the Ethereum ecosystem. We have four major prongs.
One piece is our product and developer tools. Within ConsenSys there’s about 50 projects that are incubated and are in various stages of maturity. Some of them were built out of necessity to develop on the Ethereum ecosystem:
● Metamask, which is a huge ConsenSys project, is a browser based wallet. They will have a mobile app coming out next year with a wallet that most people use to trade or hold their ERC20 tokens. They passed a million downloads sometime last year I believe.
● Another one is Truffle Suite, which are developer tools to build on Ethereum that passed 1 million downloads last week.
● Another huge one is Infura, which allows people to connect to Ethereum without having to run a node themselves. They have billions of daily requests that go through their network, which is huge.
Those are big pieces of the ecosystem that were built within ConsenSys, and we have tons of other projects ranging from decentralized music streaming, real estate tokenization, distributed company management stuff, you name it.
The second piece is the Solutions side, such as government and enterprise consulting. We consult with Fortune 500 companies, businesses, and governments to think about how to adopt and implement Ethereum into their businesses. We are one of the leaders of the Dubai Smart City 2020 project, we are the Program Manager for the Blockchain Observatory Program to help the EU think about how they should be implementing blockchain, and we have tons of other partnerships with large businesses.
Another part of ConsenSys, the third piece, is Academy. We realized we need to be proactive in training developers and business people on what Ethereum is and how to develop on and implement on it. We have popular blockchain 101 developer courses through sites like Coursera. Our developer course has significantly more applications than we can seat or fill, so we are working on expanding that.
Then the fourth piece is ConsenSys Capital. Under that arm we have a venture fund based out of San Francisco that has an accelerator program attached to it. And we also have Token Foundry, which is the gold standard in being legally compliant.
BW: Why Chicago?
DB: I had an amazing opportunity to see the growth of the ecosystem and work with Joe to help him build, align and scale ConsenSys. Then I pitched opening a ConsenSys office in Chicago because I wanted to start to have a presence in the fourth largest city in the US. I’m a big fan of Chicago. There’s lots of talent coming out of the University system and lots of industry. They will have a huge advantage by building Ethereum into their processes so we want to be well positioned here for those meetings.
BW: Coming from the blockchain scene in New York to Chicago, are there any differences that you’ve noticed? What makes Chicago unique?
DB: Chicago has such a diverse economy. I feel like in San Francisco people know about blockchain because it’s tech focused, and New York people know about it because of the finance side of the cryptocurrency scene. Here, outside of the trading space, I find there’s not as much knowledge or as much information. To me that’s a great opportunity for us to be a resource. There’s a lot of education that should be happening and a lot of businesses that should be thinking about adopting that probably don’t even know the difference between Bitcoin and blockchain, let alone Bitcoin and Ethereum.
BW: What is the value of having an actual physical location for ConsenSys? Do you invite teams to work out of your offices?
DB: We are actually still thinking about it. I do believe there’s value in spaces where people can go, learn, and work out problems with each other. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s just ConsenSys people, it can be multiple teams and groups that meet. To me, while we are a remote first culture, there’s always value in (especially with a lot of legacy businesses that are a little more old school) having places to meet and discuss ideas. I think great ideas are incubated when people are trying to solve problems or think about ideas, and that happens face to face. So it’s bigger. It’s not like we’re just a company going to get a space and staffing it with ConsenSys employees. I think there’s something a lot bigger we can do to support the growth of an entire ecosystem for an entire city.
BW: I want to circle back to ask about the second piece, the solutions side, of ConsenSys. What are typically the problems that enterprises are looking to solve through blockchain when they come to ConsenSys?
DB: I don’t think it’s just about coming to ConsenSys, I think it’s about this idea of you have a lot of different rails that companies are using to connect. Globalized supply chains are just massively complicated. Different pieces are not using the same rails and you don’t really have good data fidelity or integrity of data. They’re trying to solve this problem of how to make sure they have the right data real time, and that they can trust the system. I think that’s a problem every large company tries to solve. Think about different proprietary databases and how difficult they are to connect. Every time an airline merges you hear about how you can’t get two different airline systems to be compatible, even though they are trying to do the same thing I’m assuming. But if the world is running on the same rails that is public and global, like the Ethereum blockchain or even a private permissioned Ethereum blockchain that connects to the public one, it makes building platforms on top much simpler. Not only do you get a magnitude and order of increase in efficiency, but it also drive down cost. So I think a lot of businesses and governments want higher efficiency, better data, lower cost, and secure data.
BW: The applications are really neverending it seems. I’m always surprised finding a new application for blockchain that I haven’t thought of before.
DB: Yeah. One of my colleagues was asked what project he was most excited about on Ethereum and his answer was “I think I’m most excited about the one I haven’t thought of yet, but someone’s going to come one day and it’s going to blow my mind.” I probably would agree with him on that. There’s many things out there that we haven’t really thought of yet that could be huge. That’s what I’m also most excited to see. Especially as scalability increases.
BW: Speaking of scalability, what are you currently doing to address the scalability concerns of projects that come to you and need a lot of scale?
DB: There’s two different ways of looking at it. In a private permissioned Ethereum blockchain, you can relax certain rules because you just have a certain number of users, and throughput is not really a concern. But when we are talking about issues on the public Ethereum blockchain we are doing a bunch of things at ConsenSys. We have a core engineering group working at ConsenSys. A group called Pegasys just released a Java based client so businesses can actually connect via this client to Ethereum. That might be a more business to business friendly language to use. PegaSys is also working on helping with what’s sometimes called Ethereum 2.0. Vitalik just came out and introduced this idea of calling it Serenity. Basically it’s a multi-layered approach to making Ethereum much faster while being just as secure.There’s a lot of people working on solving this and it’s going to be really exciting to see where it’s at in the next couple years.
BW: In your opinion, what do you think the timeline is on seeing significant scalability increases?
DB: It depends on what you’re using, because there are certain technologies like State Channels for one-on-one transactions or Plasma Cash for group transactions, like in casino games, that are already being tested in prime time sooner rather than later. If we’re talking about addressing the throughput of the main chain there’s something you learn in the software world; everything takes longer than you think it will. From what I understand most of the theoretical problems have been worked out so now it’s just a matter of building and testing and building and testing. So hopefully within the next couple years. Definitely sooner for certain things, but for the global computer that Ethereum is trying to be, probably a couple years.
BW: Next year will be an exciting time for Ethereum with the Proof of Stake rollout with Casper. What improvements do you think we’ll see with Casper?
DB: I think there are a couple of things. One, it reduces the energy intensity thats required from a Proof of Work mechanism. I know that’s a big thing Bitcoin critics have on Bitcoin; it requires a significant amount of energy. So we created a system that actually lowers that by orders of magnitude. Then this idea of reducing volatility with the cryptocurrency, because people are incentivized to stake large pieces of Ether to make sure the protocol advances the right block. Off the top of my head those are two huge things, and because of them you get speed increases and a whole bunch of other things.
BW: Switching topics I wanted to ask your opinion on DApps, specifically killer DApps. Do you think one is coming to us in 2019 and what do you think it might be?
DB: A line I’ve heard being blurted around recently, which I probably agree with, is maybe we shouldn’t be on the lookout for one killer DApp. I’ve got to think of a better way to phrase this, but I’ve heard “death by a thousand paper cuts.” There’s so much stuff being worked on in so many niches that it might not be just one thing. I think when we apply the current web scenario to this new trustless transaction database it is not necessarily the best way of looking at it. That’s why I tend to agree with this idea that certain issues are going to find certain things that will slowly overtake, because there’s so much development going on in the DApp space and there’s so many different companies. That’s my best guess. My sense is there always needs to be some need, there needs to be some drive, so we’ll see what happens that causes people to adopt the technology. You know, maybe we’ll see interest rates stay too low for a lot of people and there’s a great way to get compounded interest on cryptocurrency and that becomes a huge thing and who knows?
BW: What can you say about the direction ConsenSys is heading in, specifically in the Chicago area?
DB: We will hopefully have a broad plan to involve many of the major players in the Chicago space that have a more integrated ecosystem. We’re still kind of working through the details and trying to understand demand, but when the next big wave of this hits we want to be there to ride it and want to make sure Chicago has the right knowledge. We want to make sure there is a sustained and trustworthy ecosystem in place so people can join in and not worry about getting scammed or any sort of nonsense or noise being an issue. People can really come to learn and grow and help with these teams. I imagine sometime early next year we’ll have a little more information on what we’re thinking with that and hopefully get a lot of these great teams to come on board.
BW: Last question, what excites you the most overall in the blockchain space right now?
DB: I think it’s addressing all of the scalability issues. I’m so excited to think of a world where we have this trustless system where we can build amazing products and we don’t have to worry about the speed or throughput issues we have right now. That’s at the core of what I get really excited to work on and I’m excited to see how it plays out.
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About us: We believe blockchains like Ethereum have can immense technology value revolutionize the world but we need scale to realize blockchain’s full potential. We are looking forward to unlocking the potential of this new technology with the upcoming Version 1 release of the Blockchain Distribution Network (BDN) which removes the scalability bottleneck. For a primer on how the BDN scales all blockchains, read our previous blog post here.
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