Successes and failures do not follow any particular order — Sometimes everything is great all at once, and at other times it feels like everything is on fire. The important thing is to not take it personally and to keep doing your best.
As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Evan Shapiro, CEO and Co-Founder of O(1) Labs, the team behind Coda Protocol. Evan graduated from Carnegie Mellon with a BS in computer science. He then obtained his research MS while working in the CMU Personal Robotics Lab, where he did research for the HERB robotics platform. He has also worked as a software engineer for Mozilla.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Istarted programming in high school. Instead of paying attention to my classes, I’d be coding on my netbook (for anyone who remembers those). I also became obsessed with playing Minesweeper with my now fellow co-founder of the Coda Protocol, Izaak Meckler. Neither of us anticipated at the time that our hobbies would lead us to found a startup with 28 full-time employees and hundreds of dedicated community members just a few years later. When I first heard of cryptocurrencies around 2010, I thought of it as comparable to the invention of the internet, or a new kind of computer. Just like that innovation, I wondered what could be done with the novelty of cryptocurrencies. At the same time, the limitations of the new technology really stuck out to me. It was clear that blockchain technology, as it was, couldn’t scale without a different design approach. I like puzzles, and I couldn’t get this one out of my mind. The desire to find a solution is ultimately what led Izaak and I to create the Coda Protocol.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The rise of zero-knowledge proofs definitely influenced the trajectory of my career, tapping into my interest in elegant computing solutions.
Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
Coda Protocol is the world’s lightest blockchain. This is important because legacy blockchains like Bitcoin and Ethereum are so data-heavy that they cannot scale to meet the needs of the modern digital economy. To put this in context, streaming a Full HD Netflix show with a very fast home internet connection for 1 hour uses about 3 GB; the Bitcoin blockchain is nearly 270 GB. Add to this the reality that more than half of all web traffic is on mobile, which has limitations to the amount of data that can be stored and processed, and you have a real problem. What the Coda Protocol does is use cryptographic, zero-knowledge proofs to ensure the Coda blockchain always stays about the size of a few tweets (~20 kb). Compared to the Bitcoin blockchain and other legacy protocol layers that must add more data to the chain with every transaction, this is a completely transformative innovation. It allows Coda Protocol to scale to thousands of transactions per second, millions of users, and years of transaction history without sacrificing security.
How do you think this might change the world?
Our aim is for the Coda Protocol to enable a more efficient, fair future by forming the foundation for a new internet that works for everyone and not just the tech giants. The way we achieve this is by allowing anyone to participate in governing the very systems powering the dapps we use to exchange ideas, value, and data. This is in stark contrast to today’s internet that is controlled and operated by corporations like Google, Facebook, and Amazon whose business models revolve around collecting data about users and then selling that data to advertisers to use in retargeting campaigns.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
Blockchain technology emerged with the promise of widespread participation and prosperity for all. Instead, we see power and ownership on these chains concentrated in the hands of just a few ultra-wealthy entities. This is not the dream of decentralization originally put forth by Satoshi Nakamoto in the Bitcoin Whitepaper.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
Coming from a background in computer science with experience in machine learning and robotics, I’m always thinking about what in the world isn’t computerized that needs to be. Looking at our divided politics, our echo-chamber online communities, and broken financial system caused me to see cryptocurrency as a much-needed alternative. At the same time, back in the early 2010s I was concerned about the delta between the hype and what the tech was then capable of (we’ve come a long way since then). All of this led me to ponder how a decentralized system would work and envision what sort of positive community could be enabled by such a network.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
The dream of the decentralized Web envisioned by many technologists will not become a reality without developers building dapps for every facet of digital life. This is why at Coda we ensure developers have tools that will make their work easier and we’ve prioritized an incredibly inclusive consensus process that will allow anyone with a mobile device to participate.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
We have a very strong community of participants in our testnet. Their feedback on how to make the protocol more resilient and function more effectively has been invaluable. So many of our community members believe so strongly in the importance of what we are doing that they have volunteered their time and expertise to translate our project documents into other languages, draft blog posts about the protocol, and help spread the word about what we are doing across social media and community channels. We recently launched our Genesis Token Program that is designed to prepare up to one thousand participants to become block producers (an essential role in the network), upon mainnet launch. This will ensure that our network has some of the highest levels of decentralization among protocol layers from jump. This is also our way of expressing our gratitude to our most ardent community members. These are the folks who know the ins and outs of the protocol best and are committed to ensuring its success.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am fortunate to have my co-founder, Izaak Meckler, to lean on. I remember the challenge of determining a consensus mechanism to deploy in the Coda system, and it was incredibly helpful to be able to talk-through the pros and cons of different approaches together. This collaborative approach is what has allowed us to develop such a resilient testnet in a short period of time with an enthusiastic community of supporters.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
It’s my belief that the biggest improvements to the world happen through people sharing and working to put into the world their values. The end of the Cold War spurred the growth of democratic governments around the world, which brought the values of freedom and tolerance to the forefront of the global consciousness. In recent years we’ve seen a rollback of democracies as many governments turn towards authoritarianism to cement power. The reaction to overt centralization of power will be a movement towards decentralization and community-powered systems. I believe that our protocol, by embodying the values of inclusivity and individual empowerment, is doing its part in furthering the newest value shift that will hopefully improve the lives of millions of people around the globe.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Here are three takeaways I’ve learned from my experience running O(1) Labs, the team behind Coda Protocol.
- Running a company can be incredibly rewarding — As an engineer by education, I had to learn this.
- Successes and failures do not follow any particular order — Sometimes everything is great all at once, and at other times it feels like everything is on fire. The important thing is to not take it personally and to keep doing your best.
- Though you can’t predict the future, if you keep moving the ball forward, you will achieve more than you expected, even if your accomplishments are different from your original goal — Our team has found answers to many technical problems, from which consensus mechanism to deploy, to the creation of the Snarketplace. I couldn’t have anticipated the answers to these technical quandaries prior to doing the hard work of iterating solutions and experimenting with our team. As nice as it would be to have a hint of our technical journey in advance, if developing a new system to power the decentralized web was easy, our entire economy would already be different.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We should build fair platforms that get around the tech monopolies of today to bring more open, fair marketplaces to people and small and medium-sized businesses. Starting with value/money, because of its power to incentivize action and power change, I would like to see a transformation in how people earn value based on their contributions and how this democratization of value distribution can allow for the emergence of a competitive marketplace, diverging from the current tendency towards monopoly.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Although of course, you end up becoming yourself” is a quote from an interview with writer David Foster Wallace. I think we’re all always working on ourselves, and who knows if it’s true, but I love the idea that we’re all converging towards something.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Crypto got where it is today by being user-run, but that’s increasingly hard with today’s blockchains. Coda allows for a return to that, so we can build a strong first community, and has the tools to get to end users on web and mobile for the first time. Coda can be a platform for truly open programmable money and work towards letting anyone build more fair platforms through crypto.
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Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.