Inside the mtnDAO: Solana Devs Gather for a Month-Long Utah Retreat

Solana developers are looking to rebuild following a tough few months in the wake of FTX's downfall.

AccessTimeIconFeb 24, 2023 at 8:47 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 28, 2023 at 2:28 p.m. UTC
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Across from a seedy 7-Eleven and around the corner from a Victorian-style municipal hall in central Salt Lake City, Utah, Solana developers flock for a month-long coding retreat: mtnDAO.

“GM,” the builders crowed to each tired face that shuffled into The Shop – this hacker house’s upscale coworking space – on a recent Monday morning. “Are you skiing later today?” one arrival asked Barrett, the ringleader who rips Snowbird ski resort when he’s not building software to trade tokens that centralized exchanges don’t touch.

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“Nah,” Barrett replied. His team at Cypher had just launched version three of its on-chain trading software and the behind-the-scenes needed a little risk tuning. “We’ve got some degenerates on the platform already,” he said a little later to a passerby.

Besides, he said, the midweek snow forecast for Little Cottonwood Canyon looked absolutely delectable: 60 inches! Better to frontload the backend work to make room for powder heaven. “I have been known to get up there and get inverted from time to time,” he explained.

Getting inverted is what it’s all about at this code-hard-shred-harder crypto club. A record 250 people applied to attend this February’s self-proclaimed “notorious action-packed hacker house,” now in its third iteration. For some Solana devs, the community-run mtnDAO has become a seasonal tradition that began during the chain’s heady bull run. It continues today through the depths of the bear.

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MtnDAO version 3 (v3) is putting to the test whether Solana’s developer ecosystem can recapture its momentum after a dreadful 2022 bookended by chain halts and the collapse of FTX. Cracks are showing: MtnDAO, once a purely Solana event, is now co-sponsored by rival platform Aptos.

But mtnDAO founders Barrett and Edgar Pavlovsky, from another decentralized finance (DeFi) protocol called MarginFi, are just as committed to Solana as ever. They’ve turned a sponsor-backed budget near $100,000 into a one-month coworking bonanza where code regularly ships.

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The Shop

Barrett’s army of 24 computer monitors command the entire second floor of The Shop and on any given day most of his rented seats are filled. These hoodie-wearing twenty-somethings hail from as far away as South Korea and as close as down the street. They slam energy drinks well past last call, breaking only for lunch and also late night poker games. Many rip cigarettes, gnash nicotine gum, smash vapes.

Clickety-clack went their keyboards at 11:59 a.m. on this Monday as big-haired Barrett, dual-wielding Red Bulls, strode past three rows of hungry devs. Ambient alt-rock wafted down from The Shop’s third floor, where this coworking space’s non-crypto clientele mostly roamed, drawing out pre-lunch jitters. But after noon-time food delivery – today’s menu: chicken katsu and rice – the hacker house horde had started to rally and break into conversation.

Calling mtnDAO a “hacker house” is a bit of a misnomer. Sure, some of the attendees are hackers (though most are indeed coders and some such) but Edgar and Barrett haven’t hosted them in a house since the event’s precursor in 2021. That was when the former college roommates stuffed 25 “kids” into a six-bedroom house owned by a producer of the high-octane dirt bike TV show "Nitro Circus." It was called mtnCompound, and it was a lot.

One year later, Barrett wanted to throw his concept into “turbo mode” with paying sponsors who might thumb their noses at, say, the mansion of a guy best known for collaborating with Johnny Knoxville of "Jackass." So he asked The Shop, a boutique coworking space in central Salt Lake City where some 200 members pay for clean desks, natural lighting, speedy internet and subtle Union Pacific railroad motifs, if it would host his band of digital nomads for a month.

Anne Olsen, community manager at The Shop and member of mtnDAO’s Telegram group, said the company had never before worked with a month-long coworking event, but it jumped at the opportunity to bring people together.

“It’s one of the first times that a hacker house was brought to a place designed for productivity,” Olsen said.

The ambiance of mtnDAO is different from Solana’s roving armada of official hacker houses. Seemingly every month Solana Labs and market-making giant Jump Capital stage week-long coding extravaganzas in a different global city. Their guerrilla marketing campaign attempts to spread the gospel of Solana’s super-fast blockchain by appealing directly to its would-be converts.

But these collaborative ordeals trend more clubby than coworker, according to the partisans of mtnDAO. They’re not fans of the Solana hacker house’s blasting techno, or its seeming insistence on drenching desks in enough purple lights to turn Barney the Dinosaur colorblind. If you can hear your desk-mate amid the din, it must only be because the organizers are between panels.

“Here I feel people are not pressured to sit and listen to lectures. They can work on their stuff,” said Angelo Boskovic, head of business development for token management startup Streamflow. He’d flown from Belgrade for two weeks of mtnDAO.

Work-from-office

Even as some tech companies slowly reel their workforces back for part-time in-person workweeks, in crypto – especially DeFi, with its emphasis on decentralization – brick and mortar simply doesn’t exist. Many of the teams at mtnDAO scatter across time zones and Telegram chats, some employees have never before met their own coworkers in person. Work in an office? Monday through Friday? Fuggetaboutit.

At mtnDAO, they work on Saturday and Sunday, too.

“Every night I’ve been here late,” said Lee Tirrell, a full-time data scientist who flew in from Oregon to work on his crypto side hustle, a Solana-based analytics product called Spire. Never before a crypto conference attendee, he recognizes fellow developers by their “monkey JPEGs on the internet,” not their faces. He decided to come after hearing about mtnDAO on Twitter.

Most everyone at this winter’s mtnDAO heard about it on Twitter or through word of mouth. Barrett and Edgar spend nothing on marketing (beyond paying a trio of interns to organize events, take photos and push out promotional tweets).

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“My strategy here is memes and s**tposts,” said Harry Swales, mtnDAO’s tweeter-in-chief, who said his job is “to get people to show up and engage and build.” It's not a hard sell for the hired marketing gun: “I’m selling the experience, but the experience is free.”

There’s no cost to attend mtnDAO. It's one month of unlimited free coffee, ski lift tickets, tables at clubs, mountains of swag and enough Red Bull to kill Cocaine Bear. There are several sponsors, including Solana.

Community conversations

It’s the kind of place where dinner conversations spiral between the quixotic futility of crypto idealism and breathless speculation of when the next bull run will hit.

“Everyone is trying to do democracy through DAOs and democracy is [damned] retarded – you need to have a chain of command,” said one mtnDAO developer at a recent taco Thursday, referring to decentralized autonomous organizations. He later described his project’s slightly questionable tokenomics: It grew in value by accruing value generated by newcomers for the benefit of the first-in token-holders.

Over meals and between meetings, builders shared their life-hacks for getting work done faster. A common refrain was the limitless potential of ChatGPT, the generative artificial intelligence (AI) program that can be prompted to produce tailored poetry, essays, film treatments, restaurant reviews – and also much of the front-end code for one’s Web app.

The meme-laden internet-speak these builders tout online leaked into their time IRL. For example, if something goes awry, “you got rugged.” It was as if their text-based conversations had never stopped.

Not all attendees were taken by the energy of mtnDAO, however. One visitor told CoinDesk the entire affair felt rather muted, a feeling they chalked up to the slightly depressed state of Solana overall.

The current crypto bear market hit the chain harder than most others, manifesting in falling network usage statistics and the battered price of SOL, one of the worst major token performers of 2022 (the asset is down roughly 38% since the FTX crypto exchange’s collapse in November). Still, Solana’s developer scene remains the largest and most vibrant of any outside the Ethereum community.

MtnDAO began as a Solana-only event and the vast majority of this rendition’s members were building in Rust, the chain’s base coding language. But a handful are focused on Aptos. The up-and-coming network notably co-sponsored mtnDAO v3; it sent representatives to run workshops with attendees and swag for them to rep during “Aptos week,” which included a free trip to Snowbird.

“The only thing we changed is we opened up to it being multichain,” Barrett said.

The success has emboldened Barrett and co-founder Edgar to take mtnDAO corporate – literally. On Feb. 6, mtnDAO LLC was registered in Delaware, state records show. Barrett hinted mtnDAO “may go multi-location” in future iterations, and v3 will certainly not be the last. He’s not stopping at The Shop.

But The Shop is as eager as ever to host his strange and scrambled band of globetrotting hackers, Anne Olsen, the community manager, said. She presumes mtnDAO will keep happening with the changing of the seasons – winter, summer and winter again. It’s not like she or the Shop gets early warning of the coming swarm.

She found out v3 was happening via Twitter.

Barrett says he remains committed to building Cypher on Solana, even if his event money comes from a chain some see as its rival. He framed the decision as one that makes mtnDAO more inclusive of crypto builders; after all, some Solana builders have left for Aptos in recent months.

MtnDAO’s model has spilled out to the wider Solana ecosystem. In Greece, Solana developer Dean Pappas is organizing his second annual “AthensDAO” hacker house inspired by mtnDAO. Pappas said AthensDAO adheres to a set of “environment” guidelines from the Solana Foundation – “being open, lighting, seating and desks” – in exchange for funding, merchandise and the Foundation’s stamp of approval.

When asked if mtnDAO was interested in seeking Solana leadership’s “hacker house X” designation, Barrett scoffed. The brand is too “valuable,” he said, clearly proud of mtnDAO’s independence.

A handful of teams who formed here or built here have gone on to win hackathon prizes, or get funding from venture firms.

“It’s cool to see what we’ve done inspire other people to take the initiative and not wait for Solana to host a hacker house in their city, and just do it themselves,” Barrett said.

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Danny Nelson

Danny is CoinDesk's Managing Editor for Data & Tokens. He owns BTC, ETH and SOL.


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