Blockchain is about a new kind of talent

Companies may not have the necessary in-house expertise to fulfil their blockchain ambitions

Blockchain is changing the way we think about business and technology. Cryptocurrencies continue to take investors on a wild ride, networks like Bitcoin and Ethereum flood headlines, and journalists and financial analysts continuously speculate about when the 'cryptocurrency bubble' might burst.

Blockchain technology isn’t just changing industries and fuelling financial speculation; it’s forging a new kind of engineer. Obscured in most cryptocurrency and blockchain discussions are many crucial issues related to the importance of blockchain engineering talent. Clarifying these issues will allow a better understanding of what it takes for companies to launch and scale blockchain initiatives beyond the initial dabbling with the technology that we see currently.

First, journalists and others tend to write about blockchain technology and the blockchain ecosystem as a homogeneous phenomenon. In reality blockchain technology includes a diverse range of underlying technologies, technical competencies, and applications. With different underlying functions come different competencies required of engineers. A given blockchain engineer might need expertise in core open-sourced blockchains (e.g. Bitcoin), creating business networks using the Hyperledger family (an open source collection of blockchain tools), or creating public smart contracts using Solidity (a programming language designed specifically for building smart contracts).

It is not enough to have programming expertise in one particular field. Becoming a top blockchain engineer requires a significant time investment in gaining competency and familiarity with a broad set of tools and related technologies.

These factors carry significant implications for large companies seeking to implement blockchain. Despite housing large engineering teams companies may not have the necessary in-house expertise to fulfil their blockchain ambitions. Such was the case with Visa, for example, when it initially launched B2B Connect, a platform built with blockchain technology designed to quickly and securely process cross-border payments. To build B2B Connect, Visa had to hire numerous blockchain engineers from outside the company. Though it reported no setbacks publicly, the process of finding engineers with the right blockchain skillset proved lengthy.

The relative nascency of blockchain technology and the time required to gain blockchain expertise raises the question of how companies can best set themselves up for hiring the talent needed to successfully scale their blockchain projects into the future. At Toptal we have seen an increase in client demand for blockchain expertise by more than 700% since January 2017. There is currently a wide gap between the demand for blockchain talent and the availability of such talent.

For blockchain technology to succeed in the long term there needs to be a sustainable, accessible pool of skilled candidates to meet this demand. Just as the blockchain ecosystem is broad and diverse, so too are the skills blockchain engineers bring to the table.

From Visa’s B2B Connect to Walmart and IBM partnering on a blockchain initiative aimed at improving food safety, to JPMorgan Chase launching the Blockchain Center for Excellence, the projects companies are working on are varied. As the technologies and applications that underlie and comprise the blockchain ecosystem continue to develop the needs of organisations investing in blockchain technology will naturally evolve as well.

The future success of blockchain depends not only on supporting today’s engineers but fostering infrastructure that enables future blockchain engineers to improve on what has already been built. Our ability to equip engineers with blockchain skills and expertise may ultimately determine whether the technology is a transient fad or sustained revolution.

Luka Horvat is head of talent operations at Toptal