In Silicon Valley, engineers are leaving big tech companies to chase blockchain dreams

Nov. 14, 2018


The best and competitive job opportunities in Silicon Valley?

Some may look at FAANG—that is, the five major tech companies including Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google.

While securing an engineer job at places like Facebook and Google is still the dream for many, more and more engineers are turning down the offers from the big names for what they deem a revolution happening in another world: the world of blockchain.

An Atypical Engineer

Maximilian Wang, or Max, turned 28 in August.

If asked to name one major life change in the past year, this former Facebook engineer would probably recount quitting his job as a software engineer at Facebook and explain how he became the CEO of a blockchain project.

Spoke on the phone from Palo Alto, California, Wang came across like any typical engineer in Silicon Valley. He talked so fast that you had to ask him to pause from time to time in order to keep up. His manner of speaking was straightforward and blunt—so much so at times you felt the urge to ask him if he was being serious.

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Referring to engineers who don’t believe and understand blockchain as “muggles”—a term used to describe people lacking magical ability that originated from the best-selling series of books, Harry Potter—Wang admitted that he too was once only human.

“You know engineers are very simple: you give us a task, and we find the solution to it,” the 28-year-old man explained about his past life, “[And] we spend all of our time on that. It’s hard to see what the world outside looks like and how that world functions and is making money.”

In early 2017, Wang first found out about blockchain technology and was immediately fascinated by its potential.

Naturally, he began devoting more of his time in deep exploration of the technology. During the day, Wang was the hardworking coder at Facebook who—using his own words—“can read a single pixel mistake from meters away.” At night, he was a diligent academic reading tons of white papers on blockchain projects.

Few people at work understood his fascination at the time.

During a happy hour on 2017’s Halloween at Facebook, as Wang recalled, he did a talk about blockchain technology but it was received with little enthusiasm from his co-workers.

“Everyone thought it was a scam,” Wang said. “Nobody believed me.”

But of course that all changed after Thanksgiving in 2017 when prices of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies began to surge.

At another similar work happy hour around New Year’s Day in 2018, all of a sudden, Wang said he noticed people were actually listening and talking about the fast-growing blockchain sector.

Quarter-life Crisis

At the height of bitcoin’s boom, Wang posits that he saw returns on his cryptocurrency investment portfolio increase by roughly the same amount as his total annual salary at Facebook. This, however, didn’t satisfy Wang. In fact, Wang recounts that in the midst of the market frenzy, he hit his “quarter-life crisis.”

“The hardest part was not when you saw an opportunity to make money and you needed to figure out how to get that opportunity,” Wang said. “What made it hard was that after seeing everything happened in the world outside, at the end of the day, you still had to come back to reality and try your best to focus on your work [at Facebook].”

It became even more challenging to focus on work when some of his colleagues already started to quit their jobs and launch their own blockchain projects—especially after an occasion where one of his friends ”showed off” his crypto wallet with about $1.2 billion in it, a successful outcome of this friend’s investment in a blockchain project.

The money looked too hard to say no, especially for a then 27-year-old young man. But still, Wang remained at his job at Facebook.

He gave himself a list of reasons why he needed to stay at Facebook and that list included the connections he could make through Facebook and resources offered at Facebook… And among them, most importantly, he said that even after reading countless white papers of projects, he was still waiting for that one blockchain project that would persuade him.

Ambition: the Bank of Future

Being the person who started the crypto syndicate at Facebook, when the social media giant had thoughts on expanding its business to the crypto space, Wang was also reached out to by his team leaders.

“I told Facebook if you really want to do business in crypto, just buy Coinbase,” Wang said, half jokingly, half seriously.

He was joking because he didn’t believe Facebook would buy Coinbase, a San Francisco-based cryptocurrency exchange; he was also serious because he said that he believed that crypto exchanges eventually would become the banks in future.

And that’s exactly why Bgogo, a blockchain project that claims to be the first digital asset exchange with supernode listing authority, stood out and led to his final decision to leave Facebook.

In the blockchain lingo, “a node” is essentially the foundation of blockchain technology. It contains the transaction history of the blockchain. On Bgogo, the community gives the full power to the “supernodes” to list “the most high quality and promising digital assets.”

At the same time, Bgogo makes the names of all supernodes and the tokens they nominated available on their website for Bogogo’s community to supervise. Once a supernode is found to be violating any regulations or laws, Bgogo’s team has the right to delist its cryptocurrency and disqualify the supernode.

Compared to more traditional cryptocurrency exchanges, Bgogo, aims to solve at least four major problems in the existing crypto exchange ecosystem, including a ridiculously high token listing fee, low qualities of listed tokens, vulnerability to attacks and hacks, and terrible user experience, according to Wang.

Wang’s ambition with Bgogo is big: he want it to be the JP Morgan Chase in the future, the top “bank” in the blockchain space.

Not A Unique Phenomenon

And Wang is not alone on the path to a future empowered by blockchain.

Qi Zhou, who worked at both Facebook and Google, is another example of such engineers.

Asked on how experience at Facebook and Google has helped him with his blockchain project, QuarkChain, a high-capacity peer-to-peer transactional system, Zhou’s answer is, besides social connections he made thanks to his former employers, the core technologies he had learned at these tech giants were the essence of the ideas he is trying to bring to the blockchain space.

Zhou, who worked closely with high capacity and scalability, said it was Google’s Bigtable, a “compressed, high performance, and proprietary data storage system,” that has inspired his very own QuarkChain.

“When I see an opportunity there, why can’t I go after it?” He asked himself after he saw that sharding, the technology underlying Google’s Bigtable, can also be applied to blockchain.

A Win-win Situation

In fact, the trend of former big tech companies’ employees leaving their previous occupations for blockchain projects may also be a result of a mutual feeling: not only these engineers are seeing a better future with blockchain technology, the projects underlying this relatively new technology are, at the same time, constantly seeking those associated with big names, an effort to boost their projects and brands.

Yang Liu, a partner and the chief technologist of Spark Digital Capital, a New York-based family office, said that the “big names” matter to investors.

Liu’s company has been focusing on investing in blockchain projects in Silicon Valley since launched in 2017. When he and his team look at what blockchain projects to invest, Liu said that the leadership team is one of the priorities to be taken into consideration.

“You can have a billion-dollar worth of idea [with blockchain technology],” Liu said. “But if you can’t make it work, it’s worth nothing.”

If the core leadership members of a project are from companies with big names, it adds some amount of credibility to the project itself.

“It’s hard to get into these big companies,” Liu said. “[Therefore,] they(people coming from big tech companies) must be very good engineers.”

Also coming from an tech background, Liu said that engineers at tech companies, on average, are very young still, which makes it easier for them to accept new ideas such as blockchain.

Why Not Blockchain At Facebook?

For people like Wang and Zhou, who believe in blockchain, the problem for this technology to develop at places like Facebook, essentially, is a paradox how do you adapt a technology that has its core at a decentralized concept, to a well-established company that operates heavily in a centralized business model?

Zhou said that even though Facebook has already launched its own blockchain research team, it is hard for blockchain developers like him to really make a change.

“It [Facebook] is a very well-developed company,” he said. “ Compared to [startups], it has more restrictions.”

He then further explained with an example of so-called initial coin offerings (ICOs):

“It would be very sensitive If Facebook ever wanted to issue its own tokens. […] It is responsible to its shareholders, so it has to explain very well on why it had to issue the token under the context that the company is relying on an existing business model which has been working well.”

“One day in crypto, one year on earth,” both former Facebook employees used a phrase popular in China to give a big picture of how the fast growing blockchain and cryptocurrency sector is today compared to other traditional business sectors.

As it seems like timing plays a key role in the blockchain space, for people like Wang and Zhou, places like Facebook, which is known for its innovation and rapid growth, are already too slow.

Forbes has the complete article

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