We all have one thing in common. None of us knows how much time we have, and so for all of us time is our most precious resource. So the question is, what will you do with your precious time?
All great achievements take time. So, if you’re a developer who aspires to build something that’s going to have an impact on an industry or on the world, it’s going to take years of your time. It’s important to be intentional about what kind of impact you want to have.
I would submit to you that, right now, building for crypto, web3 and DeFi is probably the most impactful opportunity of our lifetimes. And it is starting right now. You can be part of the beginning of the financial system revolution.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work on a lot of high impact products. I joined Netscape just as the Internet–web 1–was being born. I quickly became an expert in the inner workings of the Internet and its protocols, and it changed everything in my career. Fast forward a few years and a few great start-ups later, and I was one of the first ten engineers on the project that would become Google Chrome, the web development platform that enabled web 2. Now, with BitGo, I’m building for web 3.
But I got lucky. When I was starting my career, I didn’t think intentionally about where I could make an impact. To be honest, I was probably too young to realize that is what I wanted.
My first job was at Hewlett Packard. At the time I joined in the 1990s, it was still a great company, but probably past its peak. My job was fixing bugs within their MPE operating system on their legacy minicomputer line. It was a good place to start to learn. But I was a piece within a piece of a piece of the company. I don’t look back at that time as well spent.
Around the same time, the foundations of the Internet were being invented. Tim Berners-Lee had published his paper on the World Wide Web. At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), Marc Andreessen and his team were building a browser called Mosaic, and later would form the core development team that brought us Netscape.
An enormous amount of engineering talent was focused on building the capability to connect people to information. I applied for a job at Netscape and joined just before they went public. My parents thought I was crazy. But of course, Netscape soon became a global phenomenon and changed the world. And their minds.
Netscape was a 180 degree turn away from what I’d been doing at HP. It was pure chaos, but for an ambitious developer, it opened my eyes to the unlimited potential of software. I had my official role, but I also spent a lot of time researching and prototyping ways to make web servers better and faster.
The work we did at Netscape was fast and furious. Many of the original UIUC team were now at Netscape, and all of us were in our 20s. The code they had written as college students, and now as first time professional software engineers, was beginning to have an impact on mainstream culture and continues to do so to this day. I recall driving on highway 101 in Silicon Valley with some of the team around that time, and we drove past one of the first ever billboards with an “http://” URL on it. It was a profound moment – these young engineers were seeing their work taking root in the mainstream for the first time.It was inspiring.
The impact of Netscape and the speed of innovation would eventually lead Marc, the co-founder and visionary behind Netscape to say, “software is eating the world,” a remark which has proven to be prophetic to this day. It’s software that gives us the ability to change an industry, and to improve over time. Netscape was one of the first pure software companies driving that kind of upheaval.
I was really fortunate to get in on the ground floor of something that had such an impact. It set me on a completely different trajectory to love startup companies and continue to try to build new things.
The Internet was already about 12 years old when I started at Netscape and we started to build software for the web–about the same age that Bitcoin is now–and its impact has changed the world. The impact of Bitcoin, crypto, and web3 will be even greater because it intersects with money. It’s no coincidence that Marc and Ben Horowitz, co-founder of Andressen Horowitz, run the largest web3 & crypto venture funds in the world.
It’s going to take longer to build because unlike the movement of information, the movement of money brings regulation with it. We are still in the first inning.
Crypto projects stand at just under a trillion dollars in global market cap, and yet it has the opportunity to encompass all of finance. Every major bank, custodian, and exchange on the planet is talking about how ultimately all of finance will be digital assets. But it’s unlikely that the incumbent players are going to win this market.
It’s a classic case of the Innovator’s Dilemma. This is the phenomenon where the big companies, with all of the resources eventually lose to small companies with not much more than an idea and grit. We see this pattern over and over again. Software reduces the cost of development so that small, creative, and fast moving teams can iterate quickly, using their software to eat their much larger rivals’ lunches.
The early iterations from these small innovators are usually ground breaking. But the early markets for them are small. Market leaders, with their massive distribution channels and seemingly infinite resources, invariably dismiss these early markets as too small to be a threat. They pan the innovators as immature, inexperienced neophytes. Unfazed, the innovators continue to iterate and iterate, and eventually become a substantial force.
As the innovators start to reach critical mass, the incumbent firms take interest. But it’s too late. They’re starting from zero, they’re not very nimble, and they just can’t catch up.
Microsoft beating Netscape in the “browser wars” was a brief exception to this rule. Microsoft would have missed the internet era had it not been for Bill Gates’ technical leadership and vision. He penned his famous “Internet Tidal Wave” memo in May, 1995, and it was a seminal moment for Microsoft. Gates immediately deployed Microsoft’s vast resources, its software engineering expertise, and its operating system monopoly to build a “Netscape killer”. It seemed like it was already too late for Microsoft. But Netscape faltered. They didn’t know how to manage large teams and their software development lifecycle was atrocious. Microsoft, by contrast, had been building software in the large for decades and they knew exactly what to do. Internet Explorer soon became the dominant product in the market by 1999. Microsoft escaped the innovator’s dilemma for a moment, but they stopped innovating and eventually Chrome rose and clobbered IE.
You could fairly argue that Microsoft beat Netscape because they had the second mover advantage. They were quickly able to replicate the product and then put all of their marketing muscle behind it.
But that’s unlikely to happen in crypto. It is true that all of the big banks and brokerage houses have taken notice of crypto and web3, But Microsoft was a software company, and it’s software that eats the world. Banks don’t have strong software teams. They’re not product builders. They’ve built fragile markets based on marketing and relationships that have a tendency to fail spectacularly – as we saw during the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. Relationships don’t scale like software. So these incumbents are unlikely to be successful second movers.
Additionally, today’s software engineers stand on the shoulders of giants like never before. These giants built open source software, git, github, front-end frameworks, continuous integration systems, and more. Netscape struggled to scale with the tools we had at the time. Today, any good computer science graduate can run circles around Netscape’s neanderthal development processes.
This is why the crypto industry is the best place to be a developer noq. We are at a once-in–a-lifetime point in time where “software eats the financial system”. This is going to be the =fastest and most innovative change in any system, ever.
There are three reasons why:
- First, it is well known that the financial services sector has seen little technology and innovation for years. This is due to institutions building regulatory moats rather than competing with service and technology. As a result, we now have decades of pent-up demand for better technology and software capabilities in the banking and financial services sector;
- Second, the advent of Bitcoin and blockchain technologies has enabled software change to finally cross the regulatory moat that has enabled banks to stagnate for so long;
- Third, change is occuring at a global scale. We’ve spent the last 25 years connecting every corner of the globe to build communications and communities everywhere. The change in the financial sector is not just in the United States, it is everywhere.
This confluence of trends makes crypto and web3 the most innovative space in software ever. If you’re a developer thinking about what your career is going to look like five, ten, or twenty years from now, it’s going to include this technology. You have the same opportunity that I stumbled into back in 1993: the creation of a whole new system!
But our industry is not without flaws.
Think again about how you spend the time in your life and the impact you want to have.
For the first 20 years of my career, I never was interested in finance. Traditional finance builds nothing. The entire finance industry makes money off the productivity of others.it It has almost no direct impact on GDP. What little “service” it does provide could be easily replaced by software that can do it better, faster, and without lying, cheating or stealing.
What got me excited initially about Bitcoin, and eventually digital assets in general, is that we can make a more fair financial system. We can bring safe money to places in the world that don’t have it today. We can expose fraud. We can enable privacy so that everyone can be safer and freer. These are worthy of my time. This is what I’m here to build. I could do this for a decade, or I could do it for a lifetime.
Think about how you’ll reflect on your time on this earth when you’re at the end of your career. Wealth is great, if you can get it. But will you have built something of substance or value? Or will you have merely garnered riches by enabling speculators and gamblers?
As software developers, you have power. You have power that bankers don’t have. You have the power to build. You get to decide what you build, and how you build it. Further, most software developers I know are mission driven. They are here to create and have impact.
Thus, because we are dealing with money, we have a greater responsibility as developers than most other sectors. We need to think about how our mistakes could impact people. Could it hurt their security? Could it hurt their savings? Could it enable governments to oppress or harm people?
We know about cyber security breaches. We know about privacy concerns. We know about threat models and secure coding practices. But do we employ them? Or are we here to make a quick buck?
We can and will move quickly. But we must also move responsibly. The opportunity is huge. Our fortunes, and the fortunes of the world hinge on our next few iterations in all things crypto and all things web3.