[Exclusive] Interview with Bitcoin Core contributor Jimmy Song
At the Token2049 event, Bitcoin core contributor, Jimmy Song spent some time with us explaining what ti really takes to become a Bitcoin core contributor today and why Bitcoin core still attracts the best computer science and cryptography talent today.
How did computer science start for you and how did you get to Bitcoin?
Okay, let’s start at the way beginning. So fourth grade, I saw a computer at Toys‘R’us and I was like, “Dad can I get a computer?” I didn’t even know what the hell a computer was, I just wanted one of those amazing machines that could do thousands of things. I begged and begged him until he finally got it for me and then soon after I started basic programming. That was my first exposure to computer science and every couple of years since he’s bought me a new one.
I stuck with computer science throughout high school but dropped it in college when I chose maths as my major because I wanted to be a maths professor at one point. And then a high school friend of mine who graduated from Harvard was starting up and asked me whether I would like to join him, to which I agreed and he gave me like a problem to solve. For which I had to learn C and C++ because I didn’t really know any modern languages.
I solved the problem and I became employee number 6 at his startup and this was right out of college. I had an option between the startup and a consultancy firm and I often wonder what would’ve happened if I had taken the other job up. But the startup was where my career as a programmer actually began.
Thirteen years after that, in 2011, I learnt about bitcoin from an economic perspective and figured out there is a fixed supply and increase in demand and figured that I better get in early. Later on, in 2013, I realised that I could contribute to the community as a coder and started coding bitcoin stuff and never looked back.
In September that same year, I started working on an open source project called Carve coins. I was also doing another job at the time to which I would give 40 hours a week and then come back home and give 40 hours a week to Carve Coins as well and thought okay, maybe there is something here if I’m this obsessed with it. From there I went on to a string of companies and now I’m at Blockchain Capital and I’m doing programming blockchain seminars. So you know, it has been a really crazy and wild ride.
How does one actually start to contribute to a blockchain project right now?
So I actually wrote a pretty long blogpost on this not too long back, it’s on bitcoin ted talk, I think the title is Gentle Introduction to Core Development. But I mean you need to have at least some skills.
Is it different from when you started to where it is now?
I only started contributing to Bitcoin Core last year. Before that, I did lots of other bitcoin projects but not core. But, I mean, it’s a pretty well-worn road, a lot of people have walked it and contributed.
Roughly, how many contributors are there?
I think there are over four hundred contributors to Bitcoin Core, but only about 40 to 50 that contribute regularly still. There is a procedure to download, build and run some tests on it and then try different features on it, that is more or less it. But the big contribution you can make, if you are a coder is reviewing other people’s code at least at first and then you work towards writing your own.
That is almost like with any other open source project in which you start out as a translator, documentation.
Yeah, reviewer, then maybe tester and then you write some code. But there is definitely a progression and it is a meritocracy, so expect to not get that much respect until you’ve somewhat proven your worth. We’ve all had to go through that and the coders on Bitcoin Core are very, very friendly contrary to their bad reputation of being very snobby. I don’t think that, that is true at all, at least in my experience.
Is the hierarchy on Bitcoin Core entirely meritocratic or is it also time-based?
It is meritocracy driven and people know who is good. So Pieter Wuille has a lot of reputation because he has worked on a lot of stuff and he’s done really well with it. But you know there were other people who used to be held in high regard but they just weren’t very good coders in some ways and have since left the project and that is kind of to be expected in any sort of meritocracy. If you lose your fastball, then well, sorry.
What sort of skills are you looking for in a coder?
You need to be a good coder, you need to be security conscious. But there is room for a lot of people and if you’re good at documentation, there is room for you. If you’re good at testing, there is room for you. If you’re good at finding low probability test cases, there is room for you. The big thing is basically making changes that other people will agree to because you can’t shove anything down anyone’s throat. That just doesn’t work.
There are hundreds of platforms that have come after Bitcoin. And there is a popular opinion that the best developers are still working with and on Bitcoin and that it still is the most robust blockchain product out there. Do you agree? And if so, why?
It is definitely correct because most of these Altcoins are copies of Bitcoin with a couple of modifications. Like all copies, for the most part, aren’t even updated when there are new features. So it’s not really innovation if you’re just copying and not only do you have to innovate better if you’re an altcoin, you also have to be like an order of magnitude better because you need to take a network effect that is already existing in Bitcoin.
So I don’t see most of these projects as battle-tested, number one, really bad valuable from a network perspective, number two or really that innovative. There are some exceptions like Zcash, Monero are actually innovation projects and that is because they have really good developers. A lot of these other ones, don’t have really good developers, they just tweak a couple of parameters and market the hell out of it. This goes for a lot of ICOs too because to make an ERC20 token is, frankly, really easy and they made it that way. But does that necessarily mean that their ability to make ERC20 tokens is a direct reflection of being able to build these really complex platforms that they are promising? No, absolutely not. And if you can, then show me. Most of these ICOs have nothing to show, which tells me that they don’t really have very good developers.
So yeah, most of the innovation out there is around Bitcoin and there are very few places with actual innovation but I would say the majority of it is at and with Bitcoin.
What is the Bitcoin scaling problem that everyone’s talking about? How do developers look at it?
So here’s the thing about scaling. Most developers look at scaling from a very long-term perspective. It’s like what is it going to look like five years from now? Most businesses look at scaling from a six-month perspective, why? Because they need revenue in the next six months, they don’t have the luxury of thinking five-ten years out. And that was sort of the fundamental tension behind the scaling debate that happened with SegWit 2x, is that businesses are looking at six to eight months and developers were looking at five to ten years.
And if you’re looking at six months, you do want the easiest solution and that would’ve been to double the block size but that only scales so far. If you want something that scales a lot, you need a different mentality towards the problem and you have to go back to fundamental principles and figure out how not to send this much data, how can we put the burden back on the user and not the network and things like that. To a large extent, that sort of mentality is what lead to Lightning and the innovation that is there.
Isn’t Lightning leaning towards centralization?
Only if you assume things that Bitcoin Cash people tell you! And here’s the thing, with any technology you have no idea how it is going to develop. The assumptions under which Lightning will be completely centralized are completely unfounded because you have no idea of the future.
They assume that the network topology will be a certain way and they have no justification for that unless you know exactly what is going to happen and that is something nobody does. Like those fears are completely unfounded and even if it were centralized there is always innovation you can add on to that.
If people don’t care about centralization, fine. If they do, then they’ll use something else. You can’t just dismiss it, in my opinion, it is a very idiotic way to do things.
So where does this leave Bitcoin now? Will it be an asset or a commodity?
You can transfer Bitcoin at very cheap rates now. But here’s the thing, if you have a long-term perspective, the short-term fluctuations don’t bother you. So a lot of people are panicking over the fees being really high in December but, right now you can get it in for one satoshi per byte. It’s very very cheap, that’s like less than five cents.
YouTuber Tone Vays that says Bitcoin Cash’s transaction cost was more than Bitcoin’s at the same volume.
Exactly! From a developer’s perspective, I don’t speak for all developers, store value is the killer app. And if you talk to anybody that owns Bitcoin, they’re not talking about how they’re buying pizza or coffee with it. They’re talking about how they have bitcoins. It is an investment or a store of value for now. Not something that they use to transact every day. And that’s the killer app. It makes sense from an economic perspective because when you have good money and bad money, you’ve bitcoin and US Dollars; what are you going to spend? You’re going to spend US Dollars. Every single time.
Like in Venezuela, do they spend their bolivars or US Dollars first? They spend their bolivars! Why? Because the US Dollars are a much better store of value in comparison. So in a sense, all this talk about it being a medium of exchange is really premature because once it is established as a store of value and it has driven out its other competition, is when you can really make it a medium of exchange. At least, that is how I think it’ll go. I could be wrong, but that is what it seems like to me.
Does looking at it as a store of value affect the development roadmap of Bitcoin?
It doesn’t really matter what I think, it’s a consensus thing. I care deeply about things like security and durability all these things that you kind of need with a store of value. But a lot of other people want to try a lot of other things, so it really depends. And it’s not really for me to say, but I like to keep an open mind and I’d like to see what the market says and as of now what the market says is that it is store value. Because very few people use it to buy computers and coffee. So you’ve got to listen to the market.
The panic around bitcoin is by people who are looking at the short-term picture and when someone is kind of forcing you into quick action over something, they’re basically trying to get you to do what they want you to do. Which is why it is important for you to know your investment and you really need the conviction to hold on to it. Because it will go down 50, 60, 70, 80, 90% and it’s hard to hold in those times even for very technical people and that takes guts and courage.
It takes guts, balls, courage, conviction, knowledge, wisdom and all of those things to hold on to your bitcoins and you need to know about it because a lot of people bought bitcoins in 2011 but quit as soon as it doubled and decided that they were done.
For someone who is really interested in Bitcoin as a technology, today; what is your piece of advice to them.
I have a seminar, so go register for that! But if you’re a decent enough coder, you can learn everything and I’m going to write a book about the same, you could read the ones that are already out there. You can contribute to a lot of open source projects or you can read the whitepaper.
There are so many avenues to contributing and it’s not information that scarce, its curiosity. So if you have the curiosity, the information is out there.
And it’s not too late to start?
Oh not at all! I mean, people were saying this in 2013! And they keep saying it every time there is a bubble or whatever. It is not too late, its way early guys. In fact, you’ll be okay.