Why investment in Blockchain training makes sense

From internships to blockchain schools, blockchain training seeks to address growing skills gap

When tech firm PO8 and the Caribbean Blockchain Alliance (CBA) announced they were running a blockchain internship to find five coders who would intern with PO8 in the Bahamas, it was just one of a range of strategies that the sector were investigating to help address the skills needs of an increasingly sought-after industry. As demand for blockchain continues to grow, particularly in the financial services sector, the need for appropriate skills has highlighted the skills gap in this area. Companies and government institutions are looking for innovative ways to address the training needs to ensure that the right skills are available to tackle the deployment of blockchain in a variety of different ways.

Sarah-Diane Eck, Co-founder & CEO of Sandblock, a French start-up blockchain that completed an ICO in 2018, says France is taking a lead in this area. She says that, aware of the thriving climate of creativity around blockchain, France, in particular, is investing in training initiatives, with many schools and universities now starting to offer courses in blockchain and distributed ledger technologies.

Vive La French Tech!

As of this year in France, leading universities, including HEC and Polytechnique, now offer 50-hour courses on "Blockchain and Crypto-assets". France has also started establishing schools solely dedicated to teaching blockchain, such as Alyra - demonstrating the country's investment in building the infrastructure of the emerging "token economy".

"In addition to the investment in training initiatives, the La French Tech ecosystem has also unveiled a complete overhaul of the French Tech Visa for employees working for a tech company - making it easier for the best in blockchain talent to come work and teach the next generation of blockchain talent in France, as well as The Pacte law, which provides an optional visa for ICOs - increasing the level of confidence in crypto-economy, so that traditional companies increasingly turn to this promising technology," Eck adds.

These initiatives all speak to a growing awareness of the need for blockchain expertise to meet the demands of the sector.

Blockchain ranked joint fifth in Harvey Nash's Tech Survey of new technologies that are having a commercial impact on organisations, behind Software as a Service (SaaS), which claims top spot with 52%, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, and robotics. The survey found that the use of blockchain is most prolific in financial services, where over one third of organisations are putting it to commercial use. Given its potential for much wider application though, Harvey Nash expects greater usage elsewhere.

Differing needs, Differing sectors

In areas beyond finance, application of blockchain faces additional challenges. According to a survey by The Pistoia Alliance, a global not-for-profit working to lower barriers to innovation in life science and healthcare R&D, the biggest barriers identified to adoption in the life science industry are access to skilled blockchain personnel (55%), and blockchain being too difficult to understand (16%).

When the research was released, Dr Steve Arlington, President of The Pistoia Alliance commented: "We must ensure that the life science industry has access to the right skills and staff to bring their blockchain projects to fruition, particularly looking to the technology industry to fill the blockchain talent gap. This knowledge will be particularly useful for the 18 percent of life science professionals who admitted to knowing nothing about blockchain. The potential to enhance collaboration and, therefore, innovation is huge."

Matt Barclay, product director at Global Knowledge, a company that trains over 300,000 students a year worldwide, including those developing skills needed to use blockchain, says: "Globally, the technology investment area where IT decision-makers see the biggest skills gap is blockchain and, according to our survey, it is also the area where CIOs and IT directors believe their teams are the weakest."

Global Knowledge is the company behind the annual IT Skills and Salary Survey, a worldwide report on IT staff and decision-maker trends. Barclay sees a scarcity of learning resources as a key issue that has resulted in a skills shortage and a high premium for much in-demand blockchain skills.

"Unfortunately, skills development in this area has not kept up with demand and that was initially hindered by a lack of understanding about the technology and the secrecy which seemed to surround the technology," he says. He adds that there were minimal available resources for professionals, particularly developers, to learn more about blockchain and this led to an increase in the fees charged by those in the know.

"However, that has changed over the last couple of years with online, virtual courses, instructor-led courses and workshops appearing at an impressive rate. There is still a way to go before the gap between supply and demand for blockchain professionals shrinks and this currently places blockchain developers among some of the highest paid developers in any professional field," Barclay says.

Broad range of skills

Ashley Kemball-Cook, Head of Business Development at Qadre and a faculty member of LIBF's Centre for Digital Banking and Finance agrees, adding: "Blockchain has been marked as playing a leading role in the innovation and success of the businesses of tomorrow. We see a number of small and large firms prioritising blockchain education to spur innovation, streamline processes and diversify revenue streams."

Eck says that the four core skills that are in demand, include:

  • Blockchain engineering: Skills in cryptography, distributed ledger, various high-level programming languages, consensus methods, decentralised technologies and P2P network
  • Tokenomics: Ability to understand and to build new tokenomics models, requiring a serious background in finance and economics
  • Legal: Adaptation to the lack of regulation and to the new laws
  • Design & Marketing: Ability to explain the technology, making it easy to understand and use amongst individuals across various backgrounds

According to a recent report, there have been about 20,600 new IT jobs created in the first three months of 2019, but due to the skills shortage, some projects are missing key early benchmark dates due to lack of staffing. Eck adds: "Many blockchain and ERP positions remain unfilled and some organisations are seeing an increase in attrition rates for these positions.

"In addition to the demand for blockchain developers, there is also an important need for UI/UX designers to spread the use of blockchain beyond its technology-oriented community. Finally, there is a need for strong experts in tokenomics, so as to create, test and improve the new business and economic models, that blockchain technology makes possible," she says.

Dave Uhryniak of Crowe LLP says that the ability to develop the actual blockchain requires skillsets in the code used by the specific platform being developed. For example, if a solution is being developed that is built on Ethereum, then obviously the development team must be able to use Solidity. Hyperledger requires developers know another set of coding languages.

He adds that, though blockchain is an innovative technology, projects must be evaluated as any other corporate undertaking. "Developing the business case, the associated financial metrics, and being able to effectively communicate the case are also all critical factors," Uhryniak says.

"It is critical that blockchain application developers be able to understand and transfer complicated business processes into simple, modular pieces that can be used as smart contracts. Doing this requires multiple skillsets, including strategy, process transformation, and creativity."

Jennifer Fernick, head of Research at NCC Group, a security consultancy, believes that the most important thing for people to know is when not to use the blockchain, which is most of the time. "Architects who can discern when it is worth it to leverage properties of the blockchain - such as irreversibility, decentralisation, verifiability, programmability, and auditability - compared to something like permissioned database, will have lasting value for their organisations, not least in saved electricity bills and exposure to privacy risk," she says.

"Security and privacy experts with cryptographic expertise should be on every blockchain development team. They will appreciate the potential privacy risk in handing everyone a copy of a decentralised ledger. They will understand common flaws in cryptographic implementations. They know that hashing is not encryption."

Fernick adds that there are a million subtle mistakes that blockchain teams can make and deploy to largely irreversible, public-facing, automated systems, such as smart contracts, and it is really only security experts empowered all the way from the design and data governance through to systems architecture and code review that can de-risk these experiments."

Differing approaches

Crowe are developing a comprehensive digital credentialing programme for its people that includes blockchain, artificial intelligence, internet of things, and other emerging technologies. "These are rigorous programs that enable those interested in the technologies to develop the skillsets that can enhance and evolve client business models," Uhryniak says.

Avani Desai, President of Schellman & Company, LLC, a global independent security and privacy compliance assessor, says that, although she is seeing an increase of certification training courses in blockchain, she is uncertain whether that is the right context of training that is needed for blockchain. 

"The best training that I have seen are people who go to places like GitHub and begin working with code and the actual open source for blockchain, like the Ethereum block. Blockchain development reminds me of when people would write code and compile it to see if it would work. We need to go back to that era where you had trial and error.  You need real work experience and a multiple choice test isn't going to provide you that," she adds.

Desai says that the challenges for the right training are that there are very different technologies and platforms. "It isn't like cloud which has a public, private, and hybrid cloud to learn," she says.

"‎I think the best training is going to train within. Taking technology and business employees and setting up a blockchain task force and bringing in external experts in security, private, legal, and compliance to round out the team."