Interview with Steve Ngok, Partner at DoraHacks
Supporting over 4,000 projects to get more than $30 million fundings in nine years, DoraHacks has made its mark as a global hackathon organizer and one of the world's most active multi-chain Web3 developer platforms.
The CoinDesk team got the opportunity to speak with Steve Ngok, a partner at DoraHacks, to talk about how he got involved in hacker culture and Web3 developer platforms. We also get to hear about how DoraHacks is advancing frontier technology and Web3 development, and how it builds an open-source “bazaar” for global developers and startups.
How did DoraHacks get started?
The story of Dora traced back to 2014 when our founder, Eric Zhang, graduated from Oxford University and previously organized a successful Webfest Hackathon at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research where the Web was born. At Oxford, Eric researched natural language structure using a quantum physics-inspired approach invented by his thesis advisors. Having studied computer science and engineering, Eric was regularly participating in hackathons. Very often, he’d participate in or help organize small-scale hackathons with university students and junior researchers to hack on a very specific product or topic.
In hackathons, you just create a product that you really want to build and you use 24 to 48 hours to really work it out. Usually, during those hackathons, you don't actually sleep; you pull an all-nighter or two and just hack on your project. Some of it is just for fun, but there can be competitions as well.
After traveling back to Asia, Eric visited some local communities and met some friends at Tsinghua University and just realized nobody there really cared about this hackathon culture. Few people knew about the hacker movement back then in Asia. So, he thought, why don't we do something about it?
In November 2014, Eric worked with the co-founder of the University of Michigan Hacks along with a few others, to host the very first college hackathon at Tsinghua University called THacks. After THacks, Eric wanted to build a lasting hacker community for everyone in Asia, he went on to found DoraHacks.
At the time, DoraHacks was a small hackathon hacker community with a focus on hosting weekend meetups and workshops on not just blockchain, but other frontier technologies back then, including cloud computing, IoT and space tech.
From 2014 to 2017, DoraHacks expanded its activities and started organizing hackathons all across Asia, becoming one of the largest hackathon organizers and hacker communities in the world.
And this is when I actually joined.
How did you end up at DoraHacks? Was hacking and Web3 something you were involved in before you joined?
So, my personal story is I actually studied economics and finance in college. When I joined Dora, I was actually finishing my last year of college and wanted to become a lawyer. I studied for this JD program, took the LSATs, was admitted by a few universities and was ready to go to the States to study for my JD.
And then I just bumped into DoraHacks. They were hosting this blockchain hackathon in January 2018 in Beijing. I was fascinated by what DoraHacks was doing, basically.
I started to talk with all of the hackers there and really engaged with this group that I had never really known before. They can really just do things like write a smart contract in 24 hours. Some hackers were turning an iPhone into a joystick and playing games on their computers with it. Others were using AI and computer vision to monitor and identify criminals through their body gestures on a camera. They can just code these programs in 24 hours. I was really amazed by what they were doing.
I also learned about the bigger vision of Dora, how they were really trying to connect hackers with other hackers and how they were actively contributing to the hacker movement and furthering the development of frontier technology.
I believe that frontier technology can change everyone's lives. It's pretty much like how crypto has changed so many people's lives in developing countries globally. In the same way, imagine how quantum, space and fusion could also change our lives in the near future?
So, I deferred my JD program and eventually rejected all my offers to stay at DoraHacks full-time. And it has been six years.
Since joining, I have also grown from an operations specialist, to a marketing specialist, to our COO, and am now a partner leading most of our partnership efforts, investments, etc. It has been an amazing journey.
And Dora also has grown a lot too. From a very, very small hacker organization to one of the largest and most active hackathon organizers in 2017 to 2018, and one of the most influential developer incentive platforms, hosting more than half of the Web3 hackathons today.
I’ve found that many of the people in this space, like you, start off interested in hacking and end up really getting involved in it. Even when their background isn’t necessarily technical. It seems hard not to want to get involved in the hacking culture.
Yeah, exactly. I do believe the reason I actually joined DoraHacks is that I personally believe in
this culture, the hacker culture or the hacker movement.
It's been a very fulfilling journey.
What makes hacker culture so appealing over traditional development? And why are hackers building on Web3 over Web2?
There's this book by Eric Raymond, who is one of the early advocates of the free software movement, called “The Cathedral and the Bazaars.” He's pretty much comparing larger companies – which are closed-source, building all of the core development in-house – as cathedrals. So they have a lot of capital to develop their products and they also monetize software and products that they build.
Hacker communities, or open-source developer communities, are like bazaars. It's a little bit chaotic, but everyone can come from grassroot backgrounds and everyone can actually contribute to their product, and their product can be iterated with the contributions of other developers.
According to Eric Raymond and a lot of other hackers, bazaars are a model to iterate products and make a very robust product compared to if you developed it in-house. We actually got a really interesting look at the open-source versus in-house models in the early days of crypto, when IBM started to build Hyperledger and Vitalik Buterin and the rest of the team started to build Ethereum.
I would definitely say Ethereum, along with many other open-source blockchains, has become much more successful compared to Hyperledger. There's an open ecosystem that every developer can build on top of. Ethereum thrived because it was open-source. This is what makes Web3 or blockchain such a great tech stack that's very suitable for this hacker culture. We have been trying to host hackathons over other tech stacks, like cloud technologies, IoT and AI and I have to say most of them are not great for this kind of bizarre style of development because the barrier of entry is just too high for anyone to be able to build a very innovative product on top of.
It's actually very difficult to build in other areas, because the innovations in non-Web3 ecosystems require capital-intensive hardware and a lot of other factors to make their product more successful compared with the products built by large companies. But blockchain is essentially the most open-source tech stack and the most developer-friendly so far.
When I joined DoraHacks we decided to really pivot to crypto and blockchain because first we observed this trend in our hackathons when we hosted multi-purpose, multi-sector hackathons where developers were unrestricted to a particular stack. Still, 90% of them would build some sort of blockchain because it was easy for them to learn languages like Solidity or Rust. They could quickly build a product in less than 20 to 40 hours, and the product could instantly host millions, if not billions, of dollars.
If the core of this hacker culture and Web3 is open-source, how is DoraHacks furthering the open-source movement?
A lot of the partners that we run into when we work with crypto or blockchain ecosystems like Ethereum and Cosmos are built open-source from the ground up. When you look at these ecosystems, nearly all of the applications are built by community developers – you won't find very many big organizations contributing to the networks.
Ethereum and Cosmos, as well as other similarly open-sourced blockchains, create an environment in which we’re more likely to provide value and receive community support. From a partnership standpoint, we’re leaning toward working with these open-source ecosystems.
From the developer side, we don't actually require our developers to open-source their code. It's not mandatory, but we usually find that those who do make their code visible – for not just the judges of the hackathons or ourselves but for other developers and the community – we also find that these open-sourced projects have a bigger chance of winning those hackathons and receiving grants from us or the various foundations that we work with.
I also find that it's easier for community developers to iterate on open-source projects because the community often provides really good feedback, both during the hackathon itself and afterwards. The whole experience can really improve the code and the product being built. The developers who are so interested in building a particular project are also able to learn from previous hackathons and potentially build an even stronger team that can lead in a category.
As the positive feedback loop between open-source code gets better, more of these hackers are building on it, and these hacker communities are growing bigger because of the availability of open source.
In this positive feedback loop, it seems like things would continue to improve over time, where each hackathon continues to bring newer and better projects.
A core ethos in the hacker movement is that we hate to reinvent the wheel, so this is, I guess, one of the reasons why we are the leading platform of the hacker movement. We also don't want there to be, for instance, ten iterations of the same product in one ecosystem. We want developers to build new products.
In 2020 to 2021, there were around 15 lending protocols in the Solana hackathon, and I believe there are only two or three of them that eventually survived and have become really important to Solana. We strongly support open-source code because you actually see what other developers are building and can choose to build something that's not completely the same or can be 10 times better than existing solutions.
We recently supported a startup that is essentially building a smart contract library, where you can just search for open-sourced code for anything from an NFT marketplace to a GMX-like derivative trading platform. It lets you just search for a code base, download it and see if it’s something that works for your project. The project fits firmly within our values of open-source and forward development, so we ultimately decided to support it with a small grant from our grant pool.
Fighting against reinventing the wheel is a really great philosophy because – especially when you're doing these big sort of contest formats where everyone is building something new – you don't have to start from scratch every time. You could iterate on an idea or see other ideas that exist and build something new, and you get some pretty wild ideas built on the basis of some already interesting projects.
Is this consistent across hackathons in same or similar ecosystems, or do you see this feedback loop spreading interoperably?
We’ve been working with a lot of different Web3 ecosystems since alt L1s started taking off in 2017 to 2018, and the existing mental model at the time was, “How we can compete with ethereum?” This war of the L1s continued between monolithic blockchains like Ethereum, Solana, Avalanche and all the way to the latest batch of monolithic networks like Aptos, Sui and Monad. The brilliant infrastructure for appchains has made ecosystems more accessible and apps more diverse than ever before.
To get into a Dora hackathon, you need to draft an idea list so that your team, other hackers and the judges can see your vision for building on a particular ecosystem. We actually like to build this list together with them because one of the core things we want to make sure is that these newer ecosystems are growing the existing infrastructure that’s needed, like PancakeSwap for BNB Chain or Trade Joe on Avalanche, and that new ideas are building on the specialized features enabled by the ecosystems.
Overall, the biggest thing that we tell our partners is that they actually need to differentiate. If you have a matching order book already on Solana like Serum, and there’s already a DEX, building the same thing in a different ecosystem doesn’t make you better.
One way I see L1s differentiating and promoting differentiation in their ecosystem is through gaming. To be honest, the previous gaming hype in crypto was driven by play-to-earn as a bull market thing and it's not very sustainable. This is why most of the games that used to be very big in 2021 are no longer relevant right now – their model wasn't sustainable.
So a lot of our partners are working with really great gaming studios or larger gaming companies to either create AAA games that focus on game experience over tokens. There are still in-game purchases and blockchain technology, but the user experience is hundreds of times better on monolithic, game-focused blockchains.
What are some of these interesting projects being built at hackathons that we haven’t really seen on the market today?
This is ongoing, and there are a lot. Many participated in hackathons on DoraHacks.io.
One immediate example I can think of is hackers building better ways to do multi-chain treasury management. Currently you can either put your money in Metamask or Gnosis, but it's not very user friendly or intuitive, meaning new crypto users are going to find it impossible to understand how to move assets across different chains. Bridges are also very difficult to use and needless to say, have not been very safe for the average user or new adopter.
I think in general the whole crypto industry is moving towards better UI, better user experience and more use cases catering to the social needs of the average user.
Overall, what do you think is one of the biggest opportunities that DoraHacks provides for the hacker movement?
I think our biggest mission in the hacker and open source movement is to connect hackers and developers with crucial resources so that they can better focus on building their product. Like other OGs in the space, I believe that the most important thing in crypto isn’t the token, but the products and the teams that are building them. So we want to break this down in a direct way that can best support developers.
We want to ensure that developers don’t worry about how to raise money, receive grants or recruit great teammates. So we built this hackathon and developer incentive platform, DoraHacks.io, with every feature a team needs, plus a hackathon platform that allows all types of developers to participate in hackathons right now. There are currently 15 to 20 hackathons going on at the same time, and it's pretty incredible to see participants receiving funding even in a bear market.
DoraHacks is literally giving out hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, every month to a global network of developers and their projects without any barriers to entry.
They just need to participate, and if they have a really good idea and a really good project, they can build something on a small scale that can become even bigger with the grant infrastructure we’ve created.
We’ve built out robust funding and community governance mechanisms, such as but not limited to quadratic funding, similar to the concept proposed by Vitalik in 2019, but in a way that is natively supported in multi-chain ecosystems like Aptos, Solana, Polygon and many more. We solved many problems with quadratic funding, making it much more robust and effective. At the same time, on-chain bounties on Dora are creating opportunities for foundational support in a more general sense, offering rewards for creating translated documentation or finding a bug.
In the past few years, we have distributed around $30 million in grants and hackathon prizes – not investments, just pure grants – to more than 4,000 teams in Web3 that are playing very important roles in ecosystems right now.
At its core, we provide infrastructure and means for not just building on new ideas, but also creating them. We’ve really devoted a lot of our time and thinking towards DoraHacks.io and there’s a really great feature I want to highlight: “Ideas.” Based on the key concept of "Inspire to Build,” we have this cool feature that anyone can just share ideas with the community and openly discuss them with other interested developers and hackers. We want to help everyone inspire each other to build the most groundbreaking ideas.
Let’s say you’re a frontier tech hacker and you have an idea about how to fly from New York to Paris in 10 minutes. You might not know of anyone who’s close to figuring it out, but you have access to hackers looking to come up with a solution to the same or a similar problem. There are also great Web3 discussions about how to decentralize existing systems, like how to launch a roll-up that’s more decentralized than the sequencers that we have today.
I would love to say, DoraHacks is the bazaar, and it’s really important to have a great, global bazaar so that everyone who wants to become a hacker has the chance to. Hackers and BUIDLers, we've got your back! DoraHacks is committed to supporting the global open-source movement and working with everyone in the space to advance frontier technology development now and in the future.
As a global hackathon organizer and Web3 developer platform, DoraHacks is committed to supporting the hacker movement worldwide. Their goal is to create an open-source bazaar for frontier technology, in contrast to corporations that use a closed-source "cathedral" approach. DoraHacks connects developers across various frontier technology fields and provides resources for product development, enabling them to focus on technology and growth. DoraHacks’ commitment to hacker culture and Web3 is helping to shape the future of innovation.