Plenty of Money and No One to Pay: Crypto Teams at ETHDenver Face Hiring Crunch

Recruiters at ETHDenver say a shortage of developer talent is inflating salaries and brewing up competition in the industry building Web 3.

Feb 24, 2022 at 10:02 p.m. UTC
Updated Mar 1, 2022 at 4:54 a.m. UTC

Danny is CoinDesk's deputy business editor. He owns BTC, ETH and SOL.

Across four chaotic days last week, a sweaty mass of coders and HODLers wandered through Denver’s Sports Castle for a glimpse of the Web 3 future that Ethereum developers are racing to build.

They came hungry for alpha, for merch, for parties, for meetups with old friends and new at ETHDenver’s first in-person conference since COVID-19 took control. Some in the crowd of 12,000+ might have even come searching for jobs.

It’s hard to say how many. But according to the projects CoinDesk interviewed for this article, it was clearly not enough.

“We’re hiring” could have been the catchphrase for this year’s ETHDenver, the largest gathering of Ethereum talent anywhere in the world. Turn a corner, spot a recruiter. Pick up a sticker, find a QR-coded jobs board.

Nearly two-dozen protocol founders, product managers, engineers and other stakeholders interviewed for this article told CoinDesk that demand for blockchain developers has far outstripped the supply of experienced, increasingly expensive hands.

Consider it Ethereum’s version of the post-pandemic hiring crunch. Empowered by the Great Resignation, workers everywhere are commanding higher wages from short-staffed employers trying to stay afloat.

Nobody’s investing eight-figure sums in the neighborhood sandwich shop, though. But that kind of cash is flowing into every corner of crypto. Projects hawking the future of finance can amass millions in their seed round alone.

“There’s just so much capital. Everybody’s hiring and everybody’s funding,” said John Shutt, a senior engineer at the gamified data oracle service UMA. The team has four engineering slots to fill.

That an industry bulging with venture cash would struggle to fill its most important seats might seem rather odd. After all, Ethereum has given rise to multibillion-dollar crypto movements like non-fungible tokens (NFT) and decentralized finance (DeFi).

Part of the problem is the space’s nascent status. It was only seven years ago that Solidity, the programming language powering Ethereum smart contracts, and thus its many decentralized apps, debuted.

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Hiring pitches were everywhere. (Danny Nelson/CoinDesk)

Developer growth

Venture firm Electric Capital estimated in a recent report that there were 18,000 monthly active developers committing code to open-source crypto and Web 3 projects in December 2021. The rate of Web 3 developer growth in 2021 was record-breaking, the report found, but the raw numbers are still small.

For example: “Less than 1,000 full-time developers are responsible for over $100 billion in total value locked in smart contracts,” Electric wrote.

And though the growth is certainly good, new devs aren’t necessarily the experienced devs that protocols want building sensitive financial rails.

“It’s almost like you’re looking for a unicorn: someone who has Web 3 experience but no job,” said Mihai Cosma, DeFi strategist at ElementFi, a fixed-rate lending protocol looking for two engineers.

One of the issues is that Web 3 veterans have plenty of money-making opportunities beyond traditional jobs, according to Blocknative CEO Matt Cutler, who is hiring seven engineers. He said many “talented folks” are sitting out of the hiring frenzy, choosing instead to lever their knowledge as day traders.

Pressure from the venture capitalists is also shrinking the talent pool. Many top-tier candidates spin up their own project before joining someone else’s. And why not?

“People that are good candidates to hire are also good people to invest in,” said Shutt of UMA.

Schutt said he’s also noticed a conversion trend: from founder to angel investor. “A lot of people take that path.”

Companies have deployed creative solutions to fill in the gaps of this talent brain drain. ConsenSys, the Ethereum-centric crypto conglomerate, uses its “Solidity bootcamp” to train enterprising devs in smart-contract development and also identify standouts for hire.

This has produced “a handful” of ConsenSys team members, said Mei Chan, the firm’s product marketing lead for developer tools.

“There’s always a learning curve. We created a fantastic suite to help take Web 2 developers from zero to hero,” said Austin Baggio, product manager at NEAR, which has its own training course.

Let’s talk numbers

There’s plenty of demand for such onboarding experiences. Multiple project founders told CoinDesk of a “mass migration” of Web 2 talent into Web 3, where base salaries sparkle like nothing else.

A handful of founders ballparked a junior-level Solidity developer’s salary around $150,000. Mid-levels can make as much as double, and “gigabrains” can rake in $400,000 or more. One founder who asked not to be named said he’d heard of someone earning $700,000 as a developer.

But the real opportunity comes in the token allocations, multiple projects told CoinDesk. It’s like stock options on hyperdrive: a liquid, loosely restricted, highly lucrative hiring incentive that gives developers a say in the project’s direction.

So important are token allocations to this new economy that one founder who asked not to be named offered the following advice: If you’re not sure about the token package then don’t take the job.

Some developers look toward the flow of eager Web 2 talent with a wary eye. Sure, it’s easy enough for experienced coders to pick up Solidity. But mastering the thought processes crucial to developing on distributed systems is another animal entirely.

“There are not enough developers that understand the weight of coding in Solidity,” said Isaac Patka, a serial DAO contributor who has worked in crypto through multiple market cycles.

Nevertheless, the unrelenting march of venture capital into an industry brimming with ideas means hiring managers have no choice but to make concessions.

“I might just go downstairs and hold up a sign that says, ‘I need a developer,’” said Jake McCarthy, a contributor to the financial news outlet Raging Bull. He’d been fruitlessly trying to fill a developer role for three months.

Correction: (2/28/22 11:58 PM UTC): Corrects spelling of John Shutt's last name.

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Danny is CoinDesk's deputy business editor. He owns BTC, ETH and SOL.

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Danny is CoinDesk's deputy business editor. He owns BTC, ETH and SOL.

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