By Mark Lurie
Blockchain development is hampered by systemic issues
Something is broken in blockchain development. We hear about hacks in crypto all the time, the industry is filled with hastily developed products, and project delays are often expected. The common wisdom is that this is a talent shortage: blockchain is a new space, and developers are still learning the language and the tech.
However, the problem goes beyond talent. Many projects with plenty of resources and long development timelines have faced exploits and delays. For instance, THORChain was hacked three times this summer, and the Ethereum 2.0 Beacon Chain launched almost a year after its original deadline. This suggests it’s less a talent problem than a systems problem.
Traditional software development isn’t cutting it for crypto
All three of the main paradigms of traditional software development fall short when applied to crypto.
- Waterfall development was the predominant paradigm of the pre-internet era, when software ran on desktops and mainframes and updates were delivered via disk. However waterfall requires a huge amount of upfront planning, and changes are expensive and highly discouraged. Most importantly, firms do not always know what customers want in advance, and missteps can torpedo years of work. As a result, waterfall development is undesirable for blockchain projects, especially when the technology and demands of the market evolve so quickly.
- Agile development was the next method to arrive, and this paradigm made it easier to update client applications frequently and almost imperceptibly. The Agile Manifesto, published in 2001, presented the principles of this new paradigm, which allows products to be launched while still in development as teams improve features based on user feedback. However, when it comes to crypto a bug can cause the loss of billions of dollars in an instant, meaning even a quick-fix response will often be too little, too late.
- Open source code is open to the public and is essentially a form of crowd-sourced collaboration. Following this philosophy, the open source development paradigm involves minimal planning and often leads in unexpected directions, evolving organically from user contributions. However, open source often falls short when applied to consumer-facing products that are used by non-developers. This is an issue for crypto projects, which have a massive usability issue that must be overcome. Additionally, even minor updates to a blockchain require the publication of an entirely new version and a wholesale user shift, meaning the rapid-fire updates of open-source and agile would be impractical.
Crypto development processes are ripe for disruption
If the pre-existing paradigms are round pegs, crypto is a square hole. The blockchain space is highly adversarial, which means coding errors are unacceptable and security is of the utmost importance because the tiniest of errors can be existentially costly. At the same time, crypto is a fast moving market with constantly evolving needs, which means long development timelines are a nonstarter.
But the frustrating results are there for all to see: long development timelines, frequent delays, regular bugs and hacks, billions of dollars lost, and unused vaporware. These issues can be traced back to systemic flaws in the current approach to blockchain development that lie somewhere between Brook’s Law from the waterfall age, and the warning left behind by the third THORChain hacker: “Do not rush code that controls 9 figures.”
Back in the 1960’s, American philosopher Thomas Kuhn drew a distinction between “incremental science,” in which existing theories are added to and tinkered with, and “paradigm shifts,” in which past theories are discarded in favor of promising new ideas. DeFi’s massive amounts of capital and usage represent an unsolvable problem for the existing paradigms. Blockchain needs a new development paradigm to ensure this fast growing community is able to build safe and useful products.
Mark Lurie is CEO of Shipyard Software, the developer of Clipper.exchange. Shipyard is backed by Polychain, 0x Labs, 1inch Network and other members of the DeFi community. Mark is a former investor at FJLabs and Bessemer Venture Partners, and has an MBA and BA from Harvard University.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.