The following is an edited transcript of a fireside chat with Harmony founder, Stephen Tse, led by Zi Wang on August 8, 2018.
Zi Wang was a Creative Director at Android and founded a research lab at Google with a $20M budget. In February 2017, Zi, Chris Fong and Stephen Tsestarted TGI-ML, a weekly gathering of ex-Google entrepreneurs, that quickly turned into TGI-Blockchain. Below is the edited transcript of their firechat on Aug 8 with the Xoogler.co community on the founding story and vision ofHarmony.
Zi: Let’s start with your story, your journey. Why are you building a public blockchain with the aspiration of impacting billions of people?
Stephen: After Google, Apple, and my first startup exit, looking for the next journey is not any easier! I’m really grateful to find this group of ex-Google founders to support each other along the way.
So many false starts, wrong turns, walking about into the deep, playing the young man’s game of obsession, paralysis by over-learning, failure being the only option… it’s been you (and many beers and ramen together) that keep me going. I’ll remember the unreasonably high trust and the bone-shaking generosity you all bestowed along the way.
Pitching to many of you, I’ve learnt a lot on selling yourself and asking for help. But the key is product-market fit — What is the biggest market opportunity now? Which product can capture the most value in the market right away?
To me, the answer is platform infrastructure for the decentralized economy. Internet technologies impacted millions of people and mobile technologies impacted hundreds of millions of people; now, we have a technology that can have a direct impact on 10 billion people in the future.
Z: Can you talk a bit about what are the major engineering efforts at layer 0 — trusted execution environment, PoW/PoS consensus, scaling via sharding?
S: It’s all about scalability. Decentralization is already proven to be worth hundreds of billions. Very much like Dropbox, Slack, Google Docs when arguing Internet vs Intranet, permissionless protocols will win over permissioned or consortium chains very soon.
For security, we don’t want to go back to trusting hardware from a few vendors. Secure enclaves cannot be verified independently.
Sharding is the proven way to scale when communication gets expensive. Sharding is commonly used for large-scale memory database and distributed systems.
Z: Are we in a bubble?
S: Not if you look far enough. Many crypto projects without products will pop, but decentralization and scaling by technology will stay for the next few decades. Eight trillion dollars of gold and hundreds of trillion dollars of financial instruments will be replaced before we see the boundary of a bubble.
Z: What is Harmony?
S: Harmony is an open infrastructure for 10B people in the future. Harmony builds a high-performance consensus protocol. We provide a Google-scale marketplace and decentralized economy for everyone.
Z: You recently announced a benchmark of 10,184 transactions per second with 10,000 nodes and 25 shards… can you put this into context of what it means?
S: Other than Bitcoin and Ethereum, most protocols have tested with very few nodes. Scaling to tens or hundreds of nodes is easy to build but is not decentralized enough. We have the ambition to scale to hundreds of thousands of nodes for everyone to participate equally on our platform.
Z: There are a lot of protocol projects out there — Ethereum, EOS, NEO, Dfinity — and there are new ones popping up every day, what differentiates Harmony?
S: Others only focus on throughput performance in terms of transactions per seconds. Harmony sets the standard to benchmark both TPS and the number of nodes.
Very few teams have the combined expertise in academic research, engineering large-scale systems, and building a long-term company.
Very few people take the integrated, end-to-end approach like Google. It’s not just about the PageRank algorithm. Google optimizes their own kernels and tailor-makes their compilers.
Harmony is also taking the full stack approach of applying 10x innovationsin networking, systems, and algorithms.
Z: Can you talk more about OmniLedger?
S: OmniLedger is the most promising scaling architecture I found after months of research. The lead author Bryan Ford is a top researcher in the fields of decentralized systems and scalability. Actually, he and I published in the same conference when he was still a Master’s student at MIT!
Harmony builds on top of OmniLedger because it is a proven researchresult that we want to bring to production scale. The research covers many important implementation details such as O(log n) for block distribution with multicast trees, and signed back-pointers for 100x smaller checkpoints.
Z: What is a conceptual model to think about the decentralized world? What is the “business model” of the decentralized world? (speculation, metered electricity — charging per transaction, or based on net positive value you deliver?)
S: This is an open question for blockchain companies. Given our approach of open source, open research, and open platform, how do we make money? Transaction fees are for miners, not for the platform foundation.
We see ourselves as platform developers and foundation directors. Once our community is formed, it’s of utmost importance to hand off the development to open governance. The team holds Harmony tokens and we benefit from a continued success of the platform. We may manage an ecosystem fund and nurture long-term research as a business.
Z: Other than Harmony, what other protocols do you value highly?
S: Zillqa has a strong academic background and an active open source community. Its smart contract language Scilla is written in OCaml, which I coded in for more than 15 years.
Z: You guys raised $18M earlier this year. Why do you think there’s so much capital coming into the space? What are the key insights you learned in the process?
S: The answer is scale. This space has 1000x bigger potential and more global audience. Once you’ve found your product-market fit, the market moves with you! Instead of 2 or 3 investor meetings per day, I had 20 asynchronous pitches on WeChat and Telegram.
I was very glad that I went on the China tour you organized earlier this year. The speed of innovation, market opportunities, and entrepreneurial spiritthere deeply impressed me. The power of decentralization finally hit me during the final week of our fundraising. Everyday, millions of dollars were transferred to Harmony in a few minutes after signing a contract!
Z: What kind of people are suited to a career in blockchain? What kind of skill do they need to prepare themselves with?
S: We are still very early in decentralizing everything. So this opportunity is prime for pioneers and innovators. Go deep into the latest research from the top conferences, go broad on innovations from emerging markets like China and India.
Z: What languages should I learn if I want to be a blockchain engineer?
S: My language min-lang.com! You will learn a lot of beautiful syntax and minimal abstraction there for the charm and delight of programming. OCaml is the best if you want to learn about building a compiler for smart contracts. Coq is the state of art for formal verification and security.
Z: How much cryptography is it necessary to learn?
S: If you know math or computer science, you can pick up most concepts to apply along the way. It is far more fun and lasting to go deep into topics you’re most interested in.
Z: Can you recommend any resources for learning the fundamental technical concepts of blockchain?
S: Definitely — Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technologies by Narayanan at Princeton and others. I have cited many resources and top conferences in Harmony’s technical whitepaper. For business and product, the Token Economy newsletter is a must read.
Z: How about Harmony’s hiring/team culture? What types of folks are you looking for to join the team?
S: They must be Hungry and Foolish! We are spending lots of effort on hiring the best people. Our candidates self-score on our 3x3 cultural interview questions and spend two days working onsite before they’re hired.
Everyone wants to work with the A players in his field. We have a high bar of excellence; our team are from Google, Apple, Stanford, Harvard, CMU… But we’ve found empathy and passion even more critical. For example, we value conversation turn taking, being optimistic about flying off a cliff, and people over process.
Z: What is your view of where we are in 5 years? How much of what we experience everyday will be decentralized?
S: Billions of dollars for funding startups are already transferring in Ethereum. I expect many more financial services and digital assets will be decentralized. In particular, AI data marketplaces are going to be a big direction for decentralized technology. These open marketplaces will democratize machine learning.
Bitcoin is mostly for one-to-one transfers and store of value; Ethereum tokenizes your assets on contracts, so the transactions are one-to-many. Harmony is going to be a marketplace for many-to-many transactions.
Imagine for your health data. There’s very little value in the sleep or diet data of one person; there’s also very little impact in exercise or meditation advice from one health expert. But there is huge value with many millions of users and thousands of experts — that’ll be the impact of an open platform!
Z: How do I connect with you or team?
S: My team in the crowd can stand up! We’re hiring — we have a few first edition of Harmony t-shirts for those who are ready to join the team!