So You Want to Be a Bitcoin Developer?
Brink co-founder Mike Schmidt and Bitcoin Core developer Larry Ruane discuss the ins and outs of funding Bitcoin research and development. This post is part of CoinDesk's Future of Work Week.
Bill Gates was still in high school when Richard Stallman was busy hacking computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1971. Stallman went on to launch the free software movement, and Gates gladly assumed the role of corporate software antihero.
I was watching "Revolution OS," a history of open-source computing, the other day and couldn’t help but chuckle when the narrator read Gates’ scathing “Open Letter to Hobbyists.” Microsoft had released software for the very early Altair 8800 and was accusing PC hobbyists of illegally copying and distributing that software. Gates wrote:
“Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who work on it get paid? Is this fair?”
Stallman was on a different trajectory. In 1984, he quit his job at MIT to focus on building a free and open operating system. The goal was to create an alternative to proprietary systems like Unix. His project was aptly named GNU, a recursive acronym for “Gnu’s not Unix.”
This article is part of CoinDesk's Future of Work Week.
Stallman was all too familiar with Gates’ assertion that developers couldn’t make money from free and open software. In 1985, he released his famous GNU Manifesto and countered Gates’ argument head-on. Under the section “Programmers need to make a living somehow,” Stallman wrote:
“People with new ideas could distribute programs as freeware, asking for donations from satisfied users.”
How to become a Bitcoin developer – pay it forward
Mike Schmidt, co-founder and executive director of Brink, an organization that funds Bitcoin development, explains that Bitcoin developers don’t just crank out code. They test, review and contribute in many other ways. In fact, a deep passion for contributing is pivotal if you want to join the Bitcoin family.
Schmidt compares the process of becoming a Bitcoin developer to a funnel. At the top, you have acclimatization. This is where one becomes intimately familiar with key areas current developers are working on. A great starting point is subscribing to the weekly Bitcoin Optech newsletter, which aggregates information from developer mailings lists, pull requests and key discussions.
Next, you have education. Schmidt recommends Bitcoin coding boot camps like Jimmy Song’s Programming Blockchain seminars, or Lisa Neigut’s Base58 course. There’s also something called the PR Review Club where budding developers can sharpen their pull request reviewing skills.
The bottom of the funnel is where developers become comfortable with the inner workings of the Bitcoin Core codebase. To be clear, there’s no magical line separating each stage, and this funnel concept is only an analogy. In fact, some developers like Larry Ruane entered the funnel at an intermediate stage. Ruane is a Bitcoin Core developer on a full-time Brink grant. He graduated with a master of science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois.
“When I first heard of Bitcoin in 2013, I was mostly fascinated by the trustless consensus mechanism. I didn't think such a thing was possible, especially so simply," Ruane said.
Ruane had already worked on consensus protocols like Paxos, but something about Bitcoin's proof-of-work consensus was alluring to him. In fact, he went on a brief foray into hobbyist bitcoin mining before getting hired to work on Zcash.
“I got a job at the Electric Coin Company, creators of Zcash, which is a code fork of Bitcoin Core. I happened to find a minor bug in Zcash and discovered it also existed ‘upstream.’ So I opened my first Bitcoin Core pull request to fix the bug. It merged quickly, so I assumed it was pretty easy to get changes into Bitcoin Core. (This belief was naive.),” Ruane said.
That pull request triggered a flywheel effect. Ruane gradually increased his contributions until Brink awarded him a small grant to work on Bitcoin Core one 10-hour day a week.
“I proposed to help with pull request review because that's a critical need right now. It also helps to show your enthusiasm and dedication. You're much more likely to succeed if you've already put in the effort and built a reputation," he said.
After proving himself and paying it forward, he was awarded a full-time grant. I got the sense that Brink's grant application process is both challenging and competitive, so I asked Ruane what made his grant application stand out.
“I was lucky to have help from more experienced developers. I revised my application many times. I think it helps to be as specific as possible and to emphasize how your work will advance Bitcoin," he said.
Funding Bitcoin development
“There's Chaincode [Labs] that employs a bunch of Bitcoin developers. They’re in New York, and they have a nice office up there. There's Blockstream that has a bunch of folks specializing in crypto. So ‘crypto’ meaning cryptography. They fund a lot of the cryptographers and mathematicians doing research and development in the space.”
Those funding efforts are global in scale. Schmidt gave the example of Qala, a Bitcoin funding program supporting the next wave of Bitcoin and Lightning developers in Africa. Qala is funded by some of the same organizations that donate to Brink. In fact, prior to the current bear market, many companies in the sector were increasing their funding activities.
“A lot of exchanges are trying to spin up or have spun up their own developer funding divisions, the first of which is BitMEX. They’ve funded different developers over the years, and they do all of that in-house. There’s someone there whose job is to vet applications and go through them to make sure the right people are getting funded," Schmidt said.
Back in 2020, Coinbase started its Crypto Community Fund with the initial goal of funding Bitcoin Core development. Gemini recently announced Superlunar, which provides grants and sponsorships to contributors in the market.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) has donated over $750,000 to more than 20 Bitcoin-related projects via its Bitcoin Development Fund. HRF’s vision is to promote the use of Bitcoin as a financial tool for human rights activists.
“It's a much richer landscape than it has been in years past, which is good, but there's still a lot to do," Schmidt said.
Career advice from a Bitcoin Core developer
Stallman famously said: “Free software is a matter of freedom, not price.” That’s my favorite Stallman quote. I bring up that quote because I sensed a similar ethos when I asked Ruane for his advice to aspiring developers.
“The most important piece of advice I have is to first look inward,” he said.
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