“If you or your engineer friend is bored at BigTechCo, get in touch.”
The tweet, sent out by Coinbase vice president and general manager Dan Romero, represented a rare request from the San Francisco-based exchange. Despite building on various cryptocurrency protocols for years, it was perhaps the first time the company had signaled it would offer financial support to someone working directly on open-source code.
As such, the tweet drew its fair share of confusion among bitcoin and ethereum’s largely volunteer developers.
That’s not to say that they aren’t interested in taking sponsorship from companies in an effort to make money from their passions – they are. But the trouble is many developers see larger industry startups like Coinbase, which made more than $1 billion in revenue last year, as a prime example of the “big tech companies” that Romero positioned as antagonists.
In fact, some would go so far as to say there’s a quiet struggle being waged in the blockchain industry between the coders who develop these open-source protocols and those who mainly sell related products or services for commercial interest from their corner offices in Silicon Valley.
This was on full display when Bitcoin Core developer Luke Dashjr tweeted a disgruntled reply to Romero after private conversations clarified that the role wouldn’t focus exclusively bitcoin or ethereum, nor would it give developers autonomy to focus on projects they see as beneficial.
Instead, Coinbase executives would be directing the work, potentially requiring the developers work on cryptocurrencies that might run afoul of their own personal tastes. (As an example, in the case of Dashjr, the long-time bitcoin coder, was loathe to devote time to rival bitcoin cash).
Coinbase acknowledges a kind of disconnect, yet thinks the lines between industry and open-source will continue to blur.
“At a high level, we want to invest in supporting open-source communities, because we believe that the future of this industry will be defined more by open source than by enterprises,” Jori Lallo, a software engineer at Coinbase told CoinDesk. “That said, as a fast-growing company we’ve had a lot of things to split our time between, and admittedly we didn’t spend a lot of time on supporting open source in the early days.”
That initial neglect left a lasting impression that has been hard for Coinbase to shrug off.
According to Jeremy Rubin, a Bitcoin Core contributor, Silicon Valley’s culture in general remains at odds with open-source philosophy, in that the former doesn’t give enough credit and support to the broader ecosystem.
Rubin told CoinDesk:
“You see this at a couple different companies but I think they [Coinbase] are one of the most egregious. They’re trying to do better, but they got a ways to go.”
Still, Lallo detailed some of the exchange’s work in reaching out to the open-source developer community that has attempted to shift that perception.
For instance, in mid-March, Coinbase introduced the Coinbase Protocol Team, whose mission it is to contribute to community-led projects, naming payment channels, proof-of-stake blockchains and light clients as some areas of interest, and widely respected bitcoin programmer Jim Posen is a part of the team.
Around the same time, Coinbase announced its Open Source Fund, which donates roughly $25,000 a month to public blockchain projects.
Even Dashjr recognizes that Coinbase’s efforts aren’t “bad” and could even bring to the table some insights that open-source developers may miss, since they don’t interface with the business community quite as much. “It just isn’t the norm or ideal,” Dashjr said.
Others argue, though, that such programs, after years of inaction, aren’t enough, though Rubin said he sees the problem as bigger than any one company.
In Rubin’s view, lucrative blockchain companies could easily donate a few million dollars each in grants and sponsorships for open-source developers. It’s the same argument open-source developers have made regarding a whole slew of integral internet protocols that have allowed companies like Google, Facebook and Uber to grow into multi-billion-dollar companies.
“Not only do they not do that [provide generous patronage], but they don’t support a lot of conferences that are really critical to the space. They didn’t support the MIT Bitcoin Expo this year, even though they sent a bunch of recruiters,” Rubin said, adding:
“I don’t think Coinbase really gets open source.”
In addressing the criticisms, Lallo said, “As we grow, expect to see more investments – both in terms of time and money.”
Coinbase also announced in a blog post on Thursday that a new venture capital arm of the company will provide “financing to promising early-stage companies” that “move the space forward in a positive, meaningful way.”
Rethinking the culture
But it might take more than time and money.
According to Christopher Allen, the former principal architect at Blockstream, it’s more about adapting to the culture of open source.
For instance, Blockstream, which funds the work of several developers who solely work on the bitcoin protocol, goes a step further by offering employees individual patent rights for technologies they contribute to, in addition to roughly 20 percent paid leave to work on side projects.
“These types of very progressive attitudes towards open source were a large part of my consideration [in joining Blockstream] because I’ve been working on my own projects for a number of years,” Allen said. “I wanted to be able to continue to work on them without being constrained.”
Joe Lubin, founder of ethereum startup incubator ConsenSys, echoed the importance of this cultural shift toward independence. As such, ConsenSys strives to retain top talent by letting employees choose their own projects and work whenever and from wherever they want.
Tough to retain
Still, many leading blockchain companies struggle to retain talent.
For example, bitcoin security startup BitGo lost Alex Bosworth, a renowned developer who now works on lightning network implementations, in December.
According to Bosworth, the missions of large tech companies, and now large crypto companies, run counter to the ideals of the developers who started developing the protocols to begin with.
“The tech companies are building empires based on locking users into walled gardens and generally not thinking about what is best to progress the needs of the user,” he said. “That’s something that open source software addresses which is pretty inspiring and fulfilling to work on.”
As such, the community has rallied around several initiatives that fund developer work without strings attached.
For instance, several developers CoinDesk spoke to mentioned Chain Code Labs, which sponsors a handful of Bitcoin Core developers at a financial loss through the money the founders, Alex Morcos and Suhas Daftuar made from a previous Wall Street venture. And Allen recently launched the GitHub Blockchain Guild, which aims to create new opportunities to fund contributions to various blockchain projects.
The collaborative, autonomous nature of these initiatives is what makes open-source cryptocurrency developers so drawn to them.
Speaking to the need for the industry to adapt to the open-source culture, Lubin said:
“Nobody works on projects that they don’t care deeply about. An entrepreneur’s freedom to develop their own projects and operational style doesn’t need to change.”