Moving past the hype – Talent needed for the future of blockchain

Nov 1st, 2021

The success of blockchain’s future lies in a complete ecosystem that looks beyond the development stage.

Developing the digital talent required to support the rapid pace of technological change is vital for Ireland’s competitiveness and progress. One area of technology moving at an exceptional rate is blockchain. To realise Ireland’s ambition to become a global centre for blockchain technology we need to build the talent base to support it. 

To gain a deeper understanding of the blockchain ecosystem and the skills needed for the future, we spoke to Technology Ireland ICT Skillnet and several practitioners who have completed Ireland’s first-ever Master’s (MSc) in Blockchain. This online MSc was developed under Skillnet Ireland’s Future Dynamics initiative by Technology Ireland ICT Skillnet, in collaboration with Dublin City University in May 2019. 

Blockchain moves into the mainstream 

A study from Gartner estimates that by 2030 blockchain will add $3.1 trillion in business value. As blockchain and distributed ledger technologies (DLT) continue to move beyond the realms of cryptocurrency and digital finance and into the mainstream of business applications, there is ever greater demand for blockchain experts.  

Even though the core development skills come from a familiar array of languages and development methodologies, a new range of educational and training resources must be created and made widely available if Ireland is to take full advantage of these technologies and the demand for expertise in this growing area. The top programming languages required in blockchain development are familiar for most application developers, including C++, C#, Go Lang, Java, JavaScript, Python, and Rust, with mentions for Solidity, Simplicity and RhoLang too.  

In terms of roles, blockchain developers, solution architects, project managers, product managers and UX designers are in demand, as are quality and security engineers. Along with the core development requirements, there are a number of other areas in blockchain development that require knowledge. Data structure and processing are key, along with overall blockchain architecture and cryptography knowledge. Interoperability between systems and devices is also vital for integration and efficiency. Perhaps surprisingly, emotional intelligence and diplomacy are often listed with these, due to the cross-disciplinary nature of much of the work around blockchain projects. Touching every aspect of the organisation, developers, project managers and product managers need to be able to successfully interface with every branch of business.  

Blockchain development methodologies also bring distinct challenges. While they are generally based on familiar object-oriented principles and agile development environments, they must be implemented within the blockchain architecture and depending on their application, also within required standards, frameworks and regulations. Furthermore, the area of smart contracts is complex. The nature of smart contracts as self-executing programmes in these environments that operate without external authority when trigger conditions are met – means that not only are deep development skills required, but insights for business, legal, financial, and regulatory considerations are paramount. This often makes smart contract advisors vital in blockchain development efforts.  

Cillian Leonowicz is Head of Markets and Alliances with EY’s Microsoft Services Group, and an expert in the field. He maintains that “As blockchain is one part of a wider distributed technical architecture, developers with skills or experience in cloud-based development are most useful. While many blockchains have specific programming languages for smart contract development – many of these are based on existing ones, so JavaScript is always useful.” 

Cillian confirms the soft skills needed too, describing the need for “Diplomacy, collaboration and moreover emotional intelligence to help form these networks with participants who would previously be adversaries, and help them to appreciate how the associated business model transition provides them with a more sustainable business.” 

A complete blockchain ecosystem 

Examining these languages, skills and methodologies show that while the major elements might be familiar, their application within the context of blockchain and DLT demands specific training and education. While Ireland enjoys a wealth of resources for developers in these areas broadly, specific blockchain application is required, especially as demand in the area grows. To build out a complete blockchain ecosystem that can evolve to meet growing needs, Ireland needs a range of supports and resources that reflect the wide-ranging nature of business blockchain developments.  

Organisations in Ireland such as AccentureEY, and Deloitte have already established centres of excellence or specialist groups to address these blockchain challenges. These centres serve to nurture blockchain efforts among Irish organisations, but also as advisories to work alongside skills and training providers to meet the evolving needs of developers and architects in the sector. 

These broad-based collective efforts have allowed blockchain to flourish, from start-ups such as EquideqDownstream.io and Origin Chain Networks to multinational scale, for example BNY MellonOverstock and Fidelity Investments. 

Navigating the ecosystem

Despite the prevalence of online resources around blockchain, Gonzalo Faura, Founder and CEO of Swappsi, indicated that it is not well-structured or organised. For Gonzalo, the MSc programme provided structure and more general knowledge. “In terms of specifics, throughout the course, I found that not only is this related to blockchain, but also about security, the cloud, best practices, and software in general that helps you have a wide overview of what matters. Not just at the development level, but how you can provide services that can take the advantages of blockchain to many different clients or possibilities.” 

The combination of the familiar within the blockchain context was again a highlight for Fintan Duffy, Development Manager with Ocuco. “Covering topics such as Development, Security and Operations (DevSecOps) and uses of Agile, really hit the mark for me. In my day job, I was able to apply these straight away. On the blockchain side of things, it really helped in terms of building out Proof of Concept (POC) apps in Hyperledger Fabric and Ethereum. From application management and a development perspective, covering intellectual property law, GDPR, were very beneficial. The cloud systems module was very useful too, I got a really good understanding of that area.” 

Andrew Howell is Director of Blockchain Engineering at Blockdaemon, where he leads a team delivering high-performance blockchain node systems used by crypto exchanges, financial institutions, and digital asset custodians. Andrew said the MSc programme has been “very good for my understanding, and I have learned some things that I wouldn’t necessarily see in my current role.” 

That sentiment was echoed by Kieran McGowan, Development Team Lead Ireland with Medici Land Governance. “The material we studied really helped [me] to navigate – there’s a lot of hype and excitement around bitcoin and that also brings a lot of negativity when it’s so volatile, whereas the focus should really be on the technology underneath and that technology, we all know, is pretty sound.” 

Enabling blockchain for business 

This full-spectrum aspect of blockchain development was carefully considered when efforts began to create the world’s first MSc in Blockchain. 

As far back as 2015, there was a recognition of the need for not just instruction and skills, but also context to understand broader enablement, according to Dave Feenan, Technology Ireland ICT Skillnet Network Manager and Blockchain Ireland Chair 2021.  

“During that same year, the IDA was working on ‘blockchain enablement,’ building out the whole ecosystem, to develop not just talent, but a leadership capability and knowledge set. My predecessor Gerry Doyle, and the first chair of the Education Working Group in Blockchain Ireland, did much to establish pathways for education, informed by consultation with industry. The goal was to create an MSc programme that was not just based on cryptocurrency but looking at the broader business applications of blockchain — a very forward-looking approach at the time”.  

“While other countries were working on these issues, such as Malta and Cyprus, the focus here was firmly on business applications. Extensive industry consultation was undertaken to establish what was needed from the proposed MSc programme, and what value could be derived from it. Consequently, Hyperledger and Ethereum emerged as the technologies to be included initially. A central goal was to develop skills and knowledge that would help organisations to scale.”  

Building Ireland’s talent base 

From a firm base, Ireland is well placed to support the development of the entire blockchain ecosystem as the adoption and understanding of this innovative technology grows.  

The MSc in Blockchain goes a long way towards integrating the various areas to provide a solid foundation, but wider supports would also be beneficial to fully understand the business value of the technologies. As Cillian of EY notes, “The real requirements for blockchain projects to be successful, and to create value, are people who can enable organisations to reimagine the value chain and turn it from a 2D linear model into a 3D or 4D value-based network where the disparate user or customer outcomes are achieved in a decentralised manner.” 

Skillnet Ireland Chief Technologist Mark Jordan adds, “To meet the business demands of the digital transformation, collaboration with Government, industry and educational institutions is key. This is where Skillnet Ireland’s model excels, as we facilitate the necessary collaboration which allows talent development and innovative solutions to come to the fore. Ireland’s position as a leader in developing the blockchain ecosystem is strong. The blockchain and future technology programmes developed by Skillnet Ireland, and Technology Ireland ICT Skillnet will continue to evolve and adjust to suit emerging skills needs and market challenges”. 

Learn more 

If you or your business are interested in learning more about the technology programmes that Skillnet Ireland offers through our Skillnet Business Networks, visit our dedicated Network technology page to learn more. Visit the Technology Ireland ICT Skillnet website to keep up to date with the innovative business supports they offer.  


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