From Volunteer Gardening to Building Next-Gen Distributed Web Apps: My Journey to Holochain App Development
A story about discovering community, a mind-warping internet paradigm and a global network of unconventional software engineers.
The past two years have been full of turmoil, adaptation and unavoidable uncertainty, for all of us. COVID has undoubtedly been the most intense acute crisis those of us privileged enough to live in the developed world have collectively faced in recent times. For all the ups and downs, when I look back at these turbulent years, the amount of change and opportunity that has found its way into my life is stunning — disorienting, even. For nearly the entirety of the last two years, I have found myself going down paths I never knew existed while meeting amazing people and ideas along the way. Ultimately, these series of events have led me into a career as a Holochain developer, something I never could have even imagined.
One of the most recent destinations in this mind-bending journey full of serendipity was the Holochain Developer Immersive, a two-week intensive developer education program that took place in Austria, which I had the great fortune of attending (I reflect separately on my experience here in both a blog and vlog).
Throughout this period, the ground beneath me felt like it was constantly shifting and I only ever had just enough time to stay balanced while moving along. However, the dev immersive certainly marks a key milestone in my journey of becoming a Holochain developer and I’d like to share some of the background story that led me here.
Seeding an Unexpected Career Shift
When people ask me how I got into my work as a Holochain developer, they’re often surprised to hear my response begin with, “I started volunteering at this garden…”. But, that’s the truth. It all started literally by planting seeds in the ground. When I began volunteer gardening, though, I had no idea that such a decision would snowball into a complete career pivot and the discovery of passion-driven work.
COVID Gap Year, Podcasts and Descending the Game B Rabbit Hole
For context, let’s go back to the spring of 2020. I had just graduated my electrical engineering degree at UNB and was preparing for a graduate program at ETH Zurich in Switzerland that I had been accepted into. I was beyond excited for this next step in my educational career and couldn’t wait to attend such a highly esteemed institution in such a beautiful country. Unfortunately, though, COVID continued to shut down the world that summer and the unbearable uncertainty of the whole situation blurred my hopes and plans. Eventually, ETH provided the option for international students to defer the start of their studies for a year, which I had reluctantly decided to do, hoping things would have gone back to “normal” by then. So, in the fall, I moved back to my hometown for several months (there are many fun stories to share from this time, and I do hope to write a few memoirs dedicated to the experiences from this period).
One of the main things I did during my free time, besides going deep into the PKM rabbit hole, was listen to a ton of podcasts. I have always been a dedicated podcast listener, but with so much more free time on my hands and a lack of social connection, podcasts became much more central and important in my life during this period.
My understanding of the world, the complex challenges our civilization faces, and what realistically can be done expanded immensely.
Of the many podcasts that I listened to, I found myself most intrigued by Rebel Wisdom, The Jim Rutt Show and Your Undivided Attention. They offered a healthy amount of clear-eyed heterodoxy while demonstrating epistemic humility and self-awareness. In short, they were articulating worldviews I felt genuinely informed by — ones that would help me contribute positively to society in a more holistic, non-delusional way. My understanding of the world, the complex challenges our civilization faces, and what realistically can be done expanded immensely.
It was deeply reassuring and motivating to know that there was a community of people in the world that were willing to engage with the complexity of our human predicament in an honest and humble manner. In fact, all three of these podcasts had efforts beyond their shows to build such communities and provide opportunities for the audience to connect with one another. For example, Rebel Wisdom organized frequent zoom discussions, which I attended a few times. Jim Rutt was also a community steward for multiple online spaces brought together around the highly aspirational idea of Game B, an approach to organizing our lives and societies in regenerative ways that provide higher quality of life while living within the biophysical constraints of Earth and the psychological constraints of our minds.
Most of these game B online communities existed on Facebook, but there was a transition to a new platform underway. I signed up right away, excited to see what kinds of connections I would make. One of the first threads was an introduce yourself thread, where I left a short intro.
I was reading through many of the other comments, when one in particular had caught my eye.
I checked out the Living Systems Network (LSN) website and was fascinated by what I saw. It seemed like a really neat organization to be involved with, and the timing was perfect as I was just about to move to Vancouver for the remainder of my gap year. I decided to reach out to Diane, letting her know that I would soon be nearby and was keen to get involved in any way that I could. A few weeks later, after I had moved to Vancouver, I met with Diane at LSN’s collaborative garden (one of their active projects) in Mount Pleasant. The rest, they say, is history.
Finding Community and Discovering a Passion
The garden lives on an undeveloped plot of land surrounded by residential buildings, with a beautiful variety of plants and neatly arranged array of beds. It truly felt like an urban oasis, which made my conversation with Diane all the more surreal. After so many months of online content consumption, of contemplating deep ideas mostly in solitude or behind a screen, I had made a real world connection. It was one of those moments where the magic of the internet felt so real. By the end of our conversation, she suggested that I come by the garden on Sundays, when they had their scheduled gardening “work parties”, a dedicated time to collaboratively work in the garden.
During these first few weeks of getting to know the other gardeners, I had ongoing discussions with Diane and Emily (another one of the core contributors within the LSN organization) about how exactly I could contribute to LSN beyond the garden. The timing was impeccable. I was looking for short term work until I left for Europe, and LSN had a funding program to support independent projects from within the community centred around the idea of regenerative social systems.
Never before had I encountered or even contemplated such a thoughtful and elegant software architecture which so fundamentally rethought our existing web application paradigm — and this was only the tip of the iceberg.
Through these conversations, they introduced me to a new internet technology I had never heard of before, Holochain. Because I had a technical background, they strongly encouraged me to learn more about it, even suggesting that I could propose a funded project related to it in some way. And so, without expecting much, I began reading through the technical documentation of Holochain, trying to understand what it was and how it worked. It didn’t take long for me to realize just how ground-breaking a technology it was. I had some experience with blockchain tech in university and I could tell right away that Holochain was in a completely different class of distributed software systems technology. Never before had I encountered or even contemplated such a thoughtful and elegant software architecture which so fundamentally rethought our existing web application paradigm — and this was only the tip of the iceberg.
As I continued to read about Holochain, I discovered a whole body of thought around cryptocurrencies, developed by The MetaCurrency Project, and an even deeper rethinking of what the internet is and can become from the mind-warping project called Ceptr. Compared to many other “crypto” projects or ideas, this space felt different. The people clearly had integrity with deep values, wanting to build technology which empowered communities from the ground up. Needless to say, it was quickly becoming a bottomless rabbit hole in which I couldn’t resist exploring.
Eventually, we decided that I would take an online course about currency design by The MetaCurrency Project as well as do some initial Holochain application design as the LSN funded project for the remainder of the summer (which I would do alongside my part-time videography job with West Coast Kids Cancer Foundation).
A Career Pivot
As the project continued and I learned more about Holochain and its surrounding context, a passion was beginning to develop. I was quickly realizing that this was exactly the kind of technology I wanted to work with, but had never known existed. Never before had I thought I could become a software developer (I quite enjoyed programming) and work on projects with such profound and values-aligned goals. By this point, my intention was still to go to school in Switzerland in September 2021. At first, I thought I could somehow manage to involve Holochain in the graduate program. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that by attending ETH, I would likely have little time to work with or think about Holochain for two years, being preoccupied with the curriculum of the program. Holochain was too new a technology to be something that you could learn about at university. If I truly wanted to pursue Holochain development, I was going to have to venture down a much less conventional path.
ETH needed a confirmation by mid-summer, giving me just a few weeks to make a highly consequential decision. On top of that, I had no concrete opportunities to pursue if I declined ETH, only a growing passion and a supportive community to catch me if I fell. After much deliberation, I decided to take the risk and decline the graduate program. I told myself I’d figure something out by the fall, not knowing exactly what that would be. I had vague ideas of doing something entrepreneurial, mentally preparing myself to convince people with money about the value of Holochain.
LSN provided me with a safety net to pursue my interests and seriously consider an alternative career path. Looking back, I was experiencing the power of supportive community.
As I continued to work on the LSN funded project, which culminated in an article series about currency design, I had a consistent nagging sense in the background as I approached the uncertainty of my future pursuits. Without the support of LSN and my newly-made garden friends, I would have never even considered declining the graduate program. LSN provided me with a safety net to pursue my interests and seriously consider an alternative career path. Looking back, I was experiencing the power of supportive community.
Then, as though this unbelievable streak of serendipity hadn’t already completely changed my life, I was presented with an opportunity to work as a Holochain developer through a series of unplanned mutual connections. In short, a friend that I had recently met, unrelated to the garden, connected me to a non-profit organization, 221A, which did some work in web3. To my surprise, someone at 221A knew about Holochain, and mentioned that Sprillow, a software design studio which was deeply involved in the Holochain ecosystem (I had already known about them because of a Holochain ecosystem session video), had just relocated to BC. We got connected and, unbelievably, they were looking for a Holochain developer — exactly at the time I was looking for work as one. Talk about coincidence!
Since then, I have been working with Sprillow as an independent contractor, having been able to work on a number of incredible software projects, like Acorn and hREA. Along the way, I have established rich connections with many other Holochain developers and supporters, and have also gotten involved in another related project, AD4M, a whole other technological can of worms to be expanded on another time.
Holochain & the True Value of Community
As I continued to get more involved in the Holochain ecosystem, I also became part of a global community comprised of all sorts of interesting and brilliant folks from all over the world — aligned by their shared passion for a better internet. It was exactly the kind of network I was hoping to find for so long: technologists and software engineers with an eye towards deep social systems change. A network of people who weren’t naive techno-optimists, yet aware of the immense opportunity internet technologies presented for enabling new patterns of social organization. These folks think deeply about some of the complex political, cultural, economic and ecological challenges we face.
In other words, it was the tech industry I didn’t know existed, but that I was yearning to discover. I want to pause on this point for a minute. For all the excitement and potential change Holochain can enable, it’s also important to focus on the less grandiose aspects, like the small scale, yet essential, psychological benefits of feeling a sense of community and belonging.
In many ways, this is so much more important than the actual work itself. Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly excited about Holochain and think it has immense potential to change certain aspects of culture and society in unpredictable and significant ways. Yet, I’m also aware that we like to delude ourselves by grand narratives of changing the world. Sometimes, we attach our lives’ purpose and meaning to such narratives, when in reality, it is the much simpler things which bring all the colour to life; like a sense of belonging within a community of like-minded peers.
A Moment of Gratitude
The truth is, I never imagined myself in this position: working as a self-employed software developer building next-gen web3 applications with amazing people around the world. I am forever grateful to have found my “tribe” and a space where I can bring my full and authentic self.
I have no idea what the next decades will bring but all I hope is that I continue to have great people to ride the waves with. If we’re lucky, maybe some of our crazy ideas will end up making a difference on a bigger scale.
To all those that have supported me along the way, I sincerely thank you.