You don’t have to be a developer to work in blockchain anymore
Demand starts with blockchain developers to create tools, then moves to those who can evaluate and use them.
The cryptocurrency and blockchain space is often seen as the purview of developers and other technically inclined occupations, but this balance is shifting as the space evolves. With the technology itself now getting rolled out for real-world applications, and set to serve a much wider-ranging set of disruptive applications in the relatively near future, the sentiment of the day is increasingly for businesses to be "blockchain ready."
Functionally, this means finding people who can separate the hype from the concrete applications, with the right skills to gauge the extent of blockchain disruption within their own industry and on their own occupation. And that means blockchain training across a wide range of existing industries and occupations.
What does "blockchain ready" actually mean?
Coursera has over 35 million learners and works with over 1,400 companies, Coursera head of industry partnerships Kevin McFarland told finder. And blockchain is one of the words of the day. Blockchain readiness, he says, is taking the form of an understanding around how it will disrupt existing business. For businesses, this means a department-by-department understanding of both the benefits and the limitations of blockchain technology.
"We hear them ask a lot on digital technologies that affect how their work gets done and how businesses are changing," he said. "More specifically, we've seen growing demand from both enterprise customers as well as learners for learning on blockchain.
"Enterprises are keen, the demand for blockchain talent is spiking and TechCrunch reported that blockchain related jobs are the second fastest growing in today's job market... Broadly, I've seen the interest and appetite continue to grow over the last year and a half... Definitely the appetite is growing and demand is growing."
This is probably to be expected. As McFarland notes, the function of blockchain technology beyond bitcoin and cryptocurrency is to allow for the creation of new tools to do things that were previously not possible.
"Even all the non-technical professionals need to have a basic understanding of blockchain," McFarland said, "...as developers build tools using this new technology, that affects every other job."
In this stage, being "blockchain ready," means working out what kinds of tools to expect, whether certain solutions are feasible, what to expect and how it's going to disrupt existing spaces. Getting good answers to these questions means hiring on or training up a wide cross-occupational set of talent within a business to explore blockchain disruption from all angles, including the sceptical.
The new need, then, was for a course focused on laying out the potential real-world applications and limitations of blockchain technology in a very tangible way.
Blockchain: Foundations and Use Cases
Coursera's response to the new need was the creation of a course called Blockchain: Foundations and Use Cases, released on 5 September.
It's a relatively lightweight course, of two to three hours per week for five weeks, designed to let anyone get their heads around how blockchain works, what it can do and, just as importantly, what it can't do. It was designed with the busy professional in mind but is intended to be accessible to anyone without any kind of technical background or particular business experience.
For help creating it, Coursera approached ConsenSys, an Ethereum-focused blockchain firm founded by Ethereum co-creator Joseph Lubin.
It was a natural choice for several reasons. The first reason was because ConsenSys was already looking for a way to deliver a similar course to a wider audience and had a lot of experience in this kind of thing.
"ConsenSys has been delivering a course of this kind for the last two to three years in various capacities," said Akila Natarajan, ConsenSys director of Ethereum education programs and the tip of the spear of this course. "Then we realised at some point of time, this is a course that as there is more public mindshare around blockchain, it's time to make this course more available for everyone."
Coursera's features and goals also meshed well with ConsenSys's plans. A platform of over 35 million learners is a powerful venue for a blockchain lesson, and Coursera's multimedia options made the course a lot easier.
"We've gone to great lengths to make sure the content is complete and accurate, and provided in a very engaging way," Natarajan said. "This is a very media-driven course, with a lot of rich animation... to make sure that while we talk about technology we also make it accessible for everyone."
Making an example of Ethereum
ConsenSys might also have been a good choice of partner in light of its focus on Etheruem. The teachings themselves are naturally platform agnostic, but real-world examples are needed and Ethereum simply presents the most options. Ethereum-based Viant, for example, is presented in the course as an example of a blockchain supply-chain solution in light of its work with the World Wildlife Fund tracking wild tuna on the blockchain.
Ethereum's fundamentals, current limitations and future plans are also a great way of exploring blockchain fundamentals. It's available in both permissioned and public forms, it's feeling the crunch of scaling problems, it has plans to change its consensus mechanism and it's fundamentally different to bitcoin, which is naturally touched on in the course as well.
"This course starts with the introduction to blockchain then moves on to talking about Ethereum as well," Natarajan explains. "How it's different, for example, to bitcoin. Many of the things that are essential for Ethereum, for example decentralisation, consensus, etc, are foundational for any blockchain."
The course isn't just for developers or the tech-savvy, Natarajan said. On the contrary, it was specifically designed to be more accessible to anyone without a technical background precisely because that's exactly what businesses need right now.
It's designed to give a very practical use-case-driven approach, she says, "so students who take the course and learn come out of the course with a very practical understanding, knowing where and how to apply blockchain."
"So I think there is initially, as with most technology, the initial adopters are usually the technologically savvy, and then they slowly bring in the rest of the public," she said. "This was true with every new wave of technology we've seen in the past.
"[But now] it's not limited to people who are technologically savvy or developers. Everyone is keen to learn more about blockchain."
Making it easy
Of course, you can't entirely separate blockchain from its technical elements, and understanding what it can do means understanding some of these more technical elements.
Natarajan is confident the course has successfully made it easy, not that doing so was easy.
"This course not just talks about foundational aspects of blockchain, but goes into certain technical aspects which are essential to understand, but not in ways that are going to confuse or confound a non-technical audience," Natarajan says. One of the main challenges was to find out "how to deliver the training in a way where it doesn't get too technical to be understood by everyone regardless of background, but at the same time [in a way that] they do understand the concept.
"One of the assignments the student actually does at the end of the course is to create their own use cases based on their experience or domain or industry – to come up with a use case they think will be solved using blockchain.
"We walk them through a full chart, helping them find out how a problem can be solved, and why it needs a blockchain solution."
How much is blockchain experience worth?
Putting an example price tag on the value of general blockchain know-how, and the value of this new course in particular, is tricky. But all signs are promising.
First, ConsenSys is a fairly prestigious name in the blockchain space, and graduates of Blockchain: Foundations and Use Cases will also walk away with something tangible in the form of a certificate from ConsenSys Academy.
"Our learners come to our courses to acquire the skills they need to do their job or prepare for a new career," Coursera's McFarland explains. And "on successful completion they get a co-branded Coursera and ConsenSys certificate.
"A few years ago those were the second most shared certificates on LinkedIn... we've seen learners get real value from both the course and the certificate."
Second, it would be very unusual if the value of this kind of fundamental blockchain education doesn't increase going forwards. The previously-mentioned pattern, where developers build tools and then everyone else needs to work out how and whether to use those tools, means the demand for blockchain experience across occupations in the context of learning what is and isn't a viable use case is likely to reflect the demand for blockchain developers to a certain extent.
Experienced blockchain developers are attracting signing bonuses of over $1 million, albeit as a response to fairly unusual market circumstances, including a roughly 6,000% increase in demand for blockchain developers from 2017 to 2018.
This course is a specific response to that pattern, so there might be a decent chance of this new program being one of the most practical blockchain courses currently out there for non-developers.
Disclosure: At the time of writing, the author holds ETH, IOTA, ICX, VET, XLM, BTC and ADA.