The market for recruiting blockchain engineers has been described as “red hot”. But where can aspiring software coders find training about the intricacies of this technology? There has been a surprising dearth of courses available in this nascent but fast-growing field. Yet the signs are that this is starting to change.
Blockchain is a technology that powers cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, the value of which soared to more than $2,500 recently, up almost fivefold in the past year. Blockchains allow encrypted data on anything, from money to medical records, to be shared between many companies, people and institutions. This protects data from fraud while instantly updating all parties concerned.
Experts say the demand for expertise is coming from all sectors — from financial services to retail — and it is far outstripping supply. “It is a hot market at the moment because most of the large corporates want to be able to say they have a blockchain team,” says Michael Mainelli, who runs blockchain training courses for senior executives and boards at his consultancy Z/Yen.
Having initially kept away from bitcoin, fearing the risks of fraud and criminality, big companies now see huge potential in the underlying technology to improve the efficiency of everything from tracking food products to processing financial transactions.
The best blockchain engineers can command a salary above $250,000, according to Jerry Cuomo, IBM’s vice-president of blockchain technologies.
“It is on the high side of what a really talented consultant or software engineer can earn,” Mr Cuomo adds. “Demand is exceeding supply, so we are seeing shortages. It is up there with the cloud and artificial intelligence as a really hot area.”
Mr Mainelli adds that few established universities offer blockchain courses, reflecting the developing nature of the field, which combines shared database systems with cryptography. “This technology is not that complicated,” he says. “If you are a coder who knows about cryptography then it is pretty simple.”
This year the University of Edinburgh plans to become one of the first big European universities to launch a blockchain course. Aggelos Kiayias, chair in cyber security and privacy and director of the blockchain technology laboratory at the university, says: “Blockchain technology is a recent development and there is always a bit of a lag as academia catches up.”
He adds that as well as learning the skills needed to build a blockchain, also called a distributed ledger, there are other benefits in studying the technology. “You can learn an incredible amount about cyber security just by studying the blockchain.”
US universities have been quicker to join the bandwagon. Stanford University launched a bitcoin and cryptocurrencies course two years ago. A similar course is offered by the University of California, Berkeley, and another is in the works at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There are also scores of internet tutorials, many of them available for free as massive open online courses. Coursera, an education-focused tech company, has joined with Princeton University to offer an 11-week cryptocurrency technologies course.
A group of experienced cryptocurrency executives founded the Blockchain University three years ago in California, offering an eight-week course to students who paid a $100 deposit that is refundable on completing the course.
At the other end of the spectrum is B9lab, a fee-charging institution based in London and Hamburg offering a 40-hour course in blockchain for technical executives and analysts that is spread over nine weeks and costs €2,350.
Underlining how swiftly the technology is becoming mainstream, data requested by the FT from LinkedIn, the career-related social networking platform, showed there over 1,000 blockchain-related job adverts on the site in early June, more than treble the level of a year ago.
The number of blockchain ads on LinkedIn is growing at more than 40 per cent a quarter. Almost 10,000 people on the site list blockchain as a skill, half of them in the technology industry and a quarter in the financial services sector.
LinkedIn does not include blockchain among its official list of skills, but so many users cite it that the website is considering adding it to the ones it tracks.
The majority of the people listing blockchain as a skill on the site are based in the US, followed by the UK, France, India, Germany and the Netherlands. Almost a quarter of them also list bitcoin as a skill, while 16 per cent cite one of their skills as Python, a programming language, and 9 per cent say they are skilled in cryptocurrencies.
Josh Graff, UK country manager at LinkedIn, says: “Professionals in related areas such as cryptography and machine learning may want to look at the roles available and the skills they need to develop, as there is certainly a growing demand within the technology, finance and insurance industries for blockchain expertise.”