Bitcoin’s emergence in the mainstream has more to do with its soaring prices and speculation about its potential than the nuts and bolts that make it function. The open-source code, which depends heavily on user contributions for maintenance and improvements, is vitally important to Bitcoin’s health, but coding has typically been handled by several dozen veterans. The times, however, may be changing. After struggling for years to recruit fresh contributors, 2018 has seen healthy growth in coders and code submissions – 21 were approved in March and April alone.
While there does not appear to be a single root cause for the increase, developers believe that sustained investment in educational programs has paid off in spades. Chaincode Labs, a New York City-based research and development group that explores cryptocurrencies and other peer-to-peer decentralized systems, created a residency program where top bitcoin developers volunteer their time to teach new trainees.
Jimmy Song, an experienced developer, founded the Programming Blockchain Workshop, which has trained 250 people of varying backgrounds in multiple U.S. locations since September 2017. "One of the things that surprised me is what kinds of people take my class. I expected it to be all developers," said Song. But the demographic makeup has been far more diverse than anticipated – a welcome change of pace for the veteran development community. “[This growth] is important because you need a diversity of views…you don't want it to just be a couple of people that do everything," said Song.
Diversity offers an antidote to long-simmering concerns about homogeneity among bitcoin developers. Too many people working the same way on the same projects means a lack of perspective, increased likelihood of bugs, and an ultimate drop in decision-making quality. Residency programs have created valuable face-to-face learning time for people of varying backgrounds, who are in turn contributing new, thoughtful ideas and perspectives. This stands to further decentralize the network and, as novices gain more experience, will alleviate current bottlenecks related to code approval – a rigorous process that only a few dozen people have the requisite experience to perform.
Onboarding new developers to a complex system containing billions of dollars in value remains complicated. Paid positions are still hard to come by, experienced developers remain rare, and the idiosyncratic review process can be intimidating. But this problem is universal to open-source projects, and the influx of new developers stand to turn the tide. Bitcoin’s continued vitality relies on new contributors, and it appears the gap between supply and demand is beginning to close.
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