How to address the blockchain skills shortage

How to address the blockchain skills shortage

Tipped as the “fifth evolution” of computing, everyone is talking about blockchain at the moment. The trouble is, whilst a lot of organisations want to get involved, most aren’t sure how to, and many are still confused as to what it all means in practice. Part of this comes down to general market education but another key concern is when it comes to putting a plan into action a clear lack of blockchain skills is a problem.  

It is probably not all that surprising there is such a skills deficit though. This is an issue across the entire spectrum of IT – especially when it comes to new technology – and blockchain is literally hot off the press. As Scott Driscoll, lead developer at Foundry 45 and Pluralsight author, points out “many of the platforms and tools are still in development or just barely released”. The Linux Foundation's Hyperledger blockchain platform, for example, only released version 1.0 this July.

“Combine that fact with the incredible surge in interest from 2016 and it's no wonder there's a shortage,” he adds. “On the training side, there are several online courses, boot camps, and consulting firms, but only a handful of university courses.”

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Anders Brownworth, chief evangelist at Circle, warns this shortfall might become even more pronounced in the next couple of years as the rate of adoption increases. “Hopefully it will then level out quickly,” he adds. “We are seeing related skillsets naturally developing to incorporate the blockchain, especially as employers and companies working on the blockchain train their teams to create their own in-house experts.”


What skills are needed to succeed at blockchain?

The real challenge with blockchain – aside from the complete disconnect as to what it actually means for many businesses – is that it requires a unique blend of skills. And many of these are not formalised yet.

Basic areas of competency would include traditional web skills, although these may not go far enough, as pioneers may need to develop blockchain libraries as well as use them. And the same is true of traditional coding skills. While these may form a necessary foundation, a willingness to learn at least one of the current blockchain platforms like Ethereum, Stellar, Ripple or Hyperledger is also likely to be crucial.

“Cryptography is a necessary skill in addition to general software engineering,” says Driscoll. “On the other end, developers of core blockchain functionality may need knowledge of distributed systems, networking, security and game theory in addition to cryptography. In the middle, developers of Smart Contracts will need knowledge in formal verification and testing.”

Brownworth highlights the need for a good understanding of Bitcoin or other crypto-currencies and knowledge of coding in distributed database environments including various distributed consensus methodologies. 

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While he stresses a solid computer science background is essential in any blockchain engineering role he too underlines the need for individuals to master Smart Contract languages such as Ethereum's Solidity. “Smart contract technologies are in their infancy and best practices are just starting to become established so a background in more traditional functional languages such as Lisp, Clojure, Haskell or Erlang is very helpful.”


What about the ability to create relevant commercial products?

These core technical competencies are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to developments in blockchain. As Tim Thurman, chief digital officer at Paysafe asks: Why, despite the hype, have we seen so few commercial products in the eight years since Bitcoin came to the world’s attention?  

“To date, we’ve seen countless pilot projects, from nearly every financial organisation of any size,” he says. “But very few of them have taken their proofs of concept to a marketable product. In many cases, these pilots have proved that the technology works but that there isn’t really a problem to solve, or a problem that businesses want to solve. In others, the limitations of current blockchain technology have proved too troublesome to build real products around.”

Simon Raymer, CIO at Fraedom, describes this as a shortage of technical entrepreneurs. “Businesses must have individuals that understand how they can use blockchain technology to solve real world commercial issues,” he says.

“To be able to successfully work with blockchain, you need technical experience in terms of being able to code, but you also require people that can dream and engineer a commercial solution, and there are very few people that can draw all of those strands of thought together.”


How can businesses tap into this unique skillset?

Blockchain may be overhyped and may not be the panacea for absolutely everything that some pundits like to imagine, but it is still likely to have a profound impact on future business one way or another. This means, as ever, those companies which get in early and start experimenting now are more likely to succeed. 

“In terms of finding talent, consider looking on Github for people already working with the technology as a hobby,” says Driscoll. “Training existing employees may be easier than finding outside experts, and those employees already have essential knowledge of their own business.

“The tools and platforms are rapidly evolving, I would look for a talented and experienced software engineer over someone that has experience in a specific tool or language, as any specific tool will likely become outdated quickly,” he adds.

“As expertise becomes more widespread, the few experts out there are in higher and higher demand,” concludes Brownworth. “We are already seeing larger organisations poaching skilled individuals as they can pay for them. Companies need to be creating their own in-house experts by investing in training and individuals should be educating themselves.”


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