Are you letting the blockchain’s huge opportunities pass you by because you don’t know where to start? Elias Haase, the founder of B9Lab, is working to solve this problem. He is educating future blockchain developers everyday. Elias told us about how top blockchain courses are designed, how to land a job in the blockchain space, and what platforms to focus on to become a successful developer!
Hello Elias! Can you tell us a little about how you got interested in cryptocurrencies and blockchain and how the B9Lab was started?
I think I first heard about Bitcoin in 2011 or 2012. I was running a software development company at that time, and in 2014 we started looking into Ethereum more from a development perspective. So we started setting up internal trainings for the people we were working with at the time, and then we just kind of put the materials out there. There was a lot of demand because no one was doing similar things then. And this was how we got our first training ready.
That must have been around 2015, so this was just before Frontier came out. We were nearly the first ones with an online training out, and we were definitely the first ones with such an in-depth online training on the market, and that’s pretty much how it took off.
What were you doing before you got interested in blockchain?
I’m a developer by training, and I ran a software development agency for eight years. I started with Turbo Pascal and things like that, and then I spent some time working in alternative finance and some fintech things. We built platforms for crowdfunding startups like crowd-investment, crowd-equity, and crowd-lending. It was basically development on demand.
What do you want to achieve at B9Lab right now?
That’s a good question. What is most important to us is that the blockchain developers we educate know what they’re doing.
So they should have really good technical skills, be able to ask themselves the right technical questions, and also have an idea about the potential impacts their projects might have on people’s lives.
We are looking to educate as many people as possible, but rather than saying, “We want X number of developers in the market by then,” we focus on making sure that the developers who come into the market are really good and that they know what questions to ask.
You currently have courses only for developers. Do you plan to add some non-development courses as well?
Yes. We already have a course for technical executives and analysts, and we’re going to launch three more courses for non-developers within the next two months. They will be more general, but we are trying to keep them as focused as possible because the reason why we think it is valuable for people to take our course is because we have a team of experts.
We try to make sure that whatever course we offer, we can support it properly and that we can provide good answers to our students.
From previous experiences with more general non-technical courses we learned that they become really broad very quickly, and that is less valuable for students. So we are introducing non-technical courses, but we’re trying to keep them focused. Now we are preparing one general introduction course, and the others will be more specific.
You just mentioned that you ensure the expertise of the instructors. How do you actually find and choose them?
The first instructor who joined the company, and who’s been with us for a while now, was actually a student in one of the experimental courses that I made back in 2015. So he was one of our first students and he then joined the company as an instructor. Now he is also the head of content.
Actually, the story is quite similar with other instructors. For example, another instructor, Rob, was one of our very best students. He had one of the highest exam results. So we asked him, “Hey, you’re really good, do you want to join us?”
And that’s kind of how it happens. We look at the people in our courses, we talk to them, and when we think that a person is really good and will fit well into the company. We just offer them to work with us.
Not too long ago we had an interview with an alumnus of your academy who now is successfully working as a developer. Can you give us some more examples of people who got jobs in blockchain development after completing B9Lab courses?
Yes, I read the interview that you did, which was very cool. There are a lot people who have joined some of the biggest companies in the industry and are now building really cool stuff. I can’t give you any names though as not all of our graduates want the publicity.
What I can tell you about the employment opportunities for our graduates is that we have a special Academy program. It works like this: A big company comes to us and says “Look, we need to hire 50 people, and we need to do it quickly. Can you help us?” Then we advertise the seats in our courses paid for by the company in terms of this Academy program and we say, “Look, you can go through the course paid for by this company, but you’re going to have to take a test first.” And then we accept the applications for these free seats. There can be around 1,500 applications for 150 seats, so we choose the best ones.
After the people who were selected go through our course, they participate in a hackathon we organize together with the client company. Based on their performance in the hackathon and some interviews, the client company then makes offers for the best ones.
In terms of this Academy program we have, for example, partnered with Сonsensys last year. You can also find people on Reddit talking about this. So a lot of really good people participated in our course through the Academy program and then went on to work with Consensys.
That sounds like a great opportunity for B9Lab students to get a job with a big company. Would you say that the majority of your graduates try to find jobs in big companies or maybe they tend to focus on launching their own projects?
In my experience, it largely depends on the particular economic situation of a student. For instance, there are more students from the US who are thinking about building their own things because they have the economic means to experiment and don’t have to worry about having no income for a while.
We also see a few people who’ve made some money with crypto who are kind of moving into that.
At the same time, there is a large number of developers who work as contractors. And they see our courses as an opportunity to move up into another income bracket, which it basically is because there’s still a huge gap in terms of how many developers there are and how much work needs to be done. So blockchain developers can get really good day rates. There is a lot of interest in that, for instance, from India and from the Philippines.
That’s very interesting. Another question I have is about the advisory services that B9Lab provides. Can you elaborate a bit more on this part of your work?
I can’t obviously give you any specific examples, but our work in this realm is really limited. We mostly focus on education. But sometimes we also provide feedback on specific projects for larger clients. For example, we’ve given advice on projects in finance, in the automotive industry, and in insurance.
Our main role as advisors is to be the critical voices at the table. The point is that blockchain is not as revolutionary as people want it to be. It really isn’t. Because on the public chain side, everything comes with a massive caveat. Decentralizing doesn’t guarantee a good governance structure or that people will get along. People tend to confuse decentralization and culture, and that is a huge problem.
There is a reason why we haven’t seen many “killer” apps with public blockchains or private blockchains yet. People misunderstand the value of a blockchain. So when we work as advisors we mainly go in and say, “Well, you know, I don’t think that makes sense. I don’t think you should spend money on this, maybe you should run a limited experimentation on that.”
So we tend to be the skeptical voices, not in terms of the design of the projects, but in terms of their nature. And in our experience, people appreciate that. Even though it might be nicer to hear the hype, but there are so many cheerleaders that I think it’s definitely valuable to have some critical voices.
In the 90s everyone mostly used local networks (intranets), but now they lost their popularity and we have one global network – the Internet. Currently with the blockchain we see something similar to intranets happening – everyone tries to create their own private blockchain. Do you think that the situation in this aspect will repeat itself and that in the near future we will only have a couple of public blockchains used on a global scale?
I think the most important parallel between the blockchain now and the Internet in the 90s is the condition of the ecosystem and the amount of money going into it. In the beginning of the Internet there was this boundless enthusiasm and lots of people were working very hard to try and figure things out and build applications.
In terms of capital expenditure and the creation of the community, there are probably parallels, but I would say that’s it.
I wouldn’t make any predictions about the larger technical side because there are some fundamental differences between the blockchain and the Internet. With the Internet, if you throw more money at the network, at the physical infrastructure, then you can get more throughput. You can get fiber and all of these things, and you’re solving some of the problems. But with the public blockchains, just throwing more money into research doesn’t solve the problems. So I think there are some differences between the two.
The most apt comparison between the Internet and the blockchain is that right now there are some very interesting blockchain applications being developed. But it’s a bit like in the early days of the Internet: you come up with something innovative in the 90s, but no one can pay for it because there is no credit card processing or something like this. If the ecosystem isn’t there to support your individual application, then it can be really innovative, but it’s not going to take off. I believe this is what’s happening now. But over the next few years, the ecosystem might slowly grow and different integral problems and legal challenges will be solved.
As you said, we have to be skeptical about some blockchain solutions. Referring to the development of the Internet, some skeptical opinions about it that existed in the 90s are now irrelevant. Our lives have tremendously changed because of the Internet, and we might think “Who could even be sceptical about it?” In this respect, do you think the same will happen with the blockchain?
I believe the most interesting part of this are the unknowns.
In the beginning of the Internet, there were lots of things that we didn’t think of that in the end became integral to the further development of it. These things might seem obvious now, but they did not back in the days. And I think this is similar with the blockchain. We can’t imagine yet what will happen when a lot of people will get access to various blockchains.
A critical look from this point of view is something that is not really happening or is very limited. We are actually working on that and collaborating with other people. If you are interested in a critical look on the blockchain then I suggest reading Klara Jaya Brekke writing, as we’ve done some work with her on that matter.
What do you believe would be the biggest trends in blockchain development in the near future?
I like to look at the fundamentals. I think there are two key things that are important when looking at the blockchain and why people are interested in it.
First of all, payments. They have already been implemented, they are done right, and people are using them.
The other thing people like to talk about are the public blockchains. But I think it is important to keep an eye on semi-public or private functions of consortium chains, or management blockchains, however you want to call them.
The point is that the value for companies lies in ledger integrity. A lot of companies have problems with that. For example, they don’t know whether legers have been tampered with or not. So ultimately, I think that there will be a lot of money going into that sphere. And there are companies who are hoping that in 10 years they can shave off a big part of the IT bill by improving ledger integrity. I believe that is a major trend that I think is often overlooked but definitely worth looking into.
For a beginning developer, what is the most promising platform to start with?
That’s a good question. I mean, I’m biased in some way, but we really are not associated or affiliated with any platform. We are entirely self-funded and independent. I just wanted to say that first.
I would recommend that people first make a decision about the job they want to get in the future. If a person wants to work in a startup or do some experimental stuff, I would suggest looking at Ethereum because it’s great in terms of developer tooling, how accessible and approachable it is, and also how much advice and help one can get. Though I’m not saying that it’s the best thing or anything like that, I’m just saying it’s relatively easy to get into because the documentation is accessible and there are a lot of people in that sphere.
If one wants to have a more stable career and maybe work in a big company, then I would say it’s worth to look at the Hyperledger project. It is slightly different, and I would say Hyperledger has big potential. The project is part of the Linux Foundation and it is run by very capable people, and it seems to be growing. There are going to be a lot of projects based on the Hyperledger, and big companies are investing in it. For example, Intel and IBM are quite deeply involved. So I would say Hyperledger is definitely worth looking at. Because if you get in now, you’re going to be one of the first in it.
So I would say these are the two major options right now. But obviously there are a lot of crossovers between them. And if you start with one platform and then decide to switch to another, that should not be a very big problem because you will already know the basics, and then you will be able apply lots of the skills that you’ve learned on one platform to a different one as well.
Okay, I want to ask another question about B9Lab. The information on the blockchain gets outdated quickly as new protocols are introduced each week. How do you keep up with this pace?
Through lots of sweat and tears, and a lot of work.
Of the main things we do is update content. We do this all the time, and it’s a lot of work. We have people who create videos and make images, people who write content, people who write new courses, people who provide support. To stay up to date with all the changes we are on a whole bunch of mailing lists, we’re watching a bunch of the core developers of different platforms of different protocols.
If something doesn’t work, people can communicate with our instructors in real time. So we know very quickly when the ground has shifted under us and we have to adapt.
Still, we are always lagging a little bit behind because, whenever there is a major release, like when Truffle is out, we have to sit down and change all of the content. And sometimes we have to reshoot the videos as some of the stuff that we were talking about is not up to date anymore. So we change things on a rolling basis.
Moving into the last section, do you read any blogs or websites for your personal development in your free time?
I’m personally very interested in the kind of social and ethical realm, as well as the impact of the blockchain.
Of course, I keep up to date with technical developments. But I think that at this point most of the technical developments are kind of marginal improvements, which is important to keep track of, but what I’m really interested in is who is building what, and what impact does that have. I find we don’t tend to think about this a lot. Still, the Internet has shown us how it works. It was developed by a few people for the things they needed, and it has become a large part of the lives of many people.
What I’m personally quite interested in is people looking critically at the intersection between humanity and technology. Another thing that I find interesting are projects like the Decode project. It is not entirely about the blockchain, but it is focused on data ownership and making sure that people can keep more control of their data. I think projects like that are quite important.
Do you think there are any other courses that may also be useful for developers? Can you give us some names, maybe some courses that address things that you don’t cover in B9Lab courses?
I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. To be honest, obviously I don’t spend a lot of time tracking courses from other companies. What I think is worthwhile is looking at meetups in your area and going to them, especially if there are people talking about the stuff that interests you.
Some of the Foundation people and core developers travel around a lot, so through meetups you can have direct access to people who’ve built some of the stuff that you might have been reading about.
I think it’s definitely worthwhile going to workshops and lectures with them, and I believe it’s definitely worthwhile to look at coding groups or building coding groups. For example, Makoto, who you interviewed before, was running a coding group for quite a while.
We obviously provide online training, and we provide instructions and support through real-time chat, but there is still something very important about working with other people to code and sit with them. I recommend something like that. Because I think the community aspect, discussions, and seeing that you’re not alone are super valuable. In terms of learning, I would certainly recommend visiting more meetups to engage with the community.