Interview with Marta Piekarska, Director of Ecosystem at Hyperledger

  • Posted: 30.03.20

Colin Platt (CP): Hello Marta, it’s been awhile. Great to catch-up again.

Marta Piekarska (MP): Hello Colin, yes it has been. Very good to chat indeed.

CP: So if you don’t mind, could you please give us a bit of information about your background?

MP: I started my adventure with computer science very late in life. I basically lost a bet with a friend and had to go to a technical university and I chose electrical and computer engineering because it sounded fun. I actually wanted to study social and political, economic, at Cambridge University originally, but when I was on my gap year I had a bet with a friend that I lost, and the penalty for losing was that I would have to apply to a technical university. She always believed that I would be a much better engineer than a writer. Anyway, I applied and was accepted. Within one month of starting, I knew that I was doing what I wanted to do, and that she was right. I didn’t get along very well with the electrical part of my studies though, but I did enjoy the computer engineering part of it. Then for my master studies, I decided to go towards computer science and informatics. I was very lucky that I had some very good professors along the way, and got to study in Germany, as well as my native Poland, and see things that a lot of others didn’t have access to. This is also when I started to get into hacking, I had one professor that gave me an assignment to hack a Samsung S3 phone through the graphical processing unit. With a colleague I designed an exploit and we got it to work on the first go without having to change a single line of code.

CP: Wow, that’s pretty crazy. So you just kind of became a hacker because you lost a bet?

MP: Yes, kind of funny isn’t it? But I quickly figured out that everything is really insecure as long as you poke at it enough, you can eventually find a hole in it. So I moved over to designing secure systems because it was a more interesting challenge for me. I spent some time doing that at Deutsche Telekom and Mozilla, and realised that the biggest security hole is always humans. This got me to realise that you could use tools like mobile devices to help inform people and design privacy and security tools creatively. This work eventually got me to spend a lot of time in San Francisco, and I fell in love with the city and decided to find a way to stay. I first started working with a startup in the security and privacy area, and they got acquired as I was going to join.I had lunch with a friend after I signed that, and he brought half his team, and they talked about a lot of interesting things about problems with trusted third parties and governments. After lunch I absolutely knew that I wanted to work with this team, and I decided not to take the role with the other start up, which is how I ended up working with one of the hottest teams in Bitcoin, Blockstream. This got me really interested in the possibilities of blockchain more generally, and how they could be used in enterprise. Eventually this led me over to Hyperledger.

CP: Thank you, you led me onto one of the questions I wanted to ask. Hyperledger and Blockstream kind of represent opposite ends of the spectrum for a lot of people. With one being seen as led by big companies, and the other representing counterculture. Do you see it that way?

MP:  Yes, I think that there are a lot of misconceptions of what Hyperledger is and isn’t. As you suggest, some people see us as fighting against Bitcoin, which is not the case. We have been big supporters of Bitcoin, and I have spoken at the Break Bitcoin Conference, which is one of the largest Bitcoin focused security conferences, and I work closely with people who focus on Bitcoin. Hyperledger has evolved a lot too, early on a lot of people looked at how they could just understand what to do about blockchains. Enterprises didn’t want to be associated with cryptocurrency, and the Linux Foundation had a background of running kind of weird projects, so we became a good conduit for that. Companies didn’t want to deal with Bitcoin directly, but instead, something that could benefit them. They’ve started to understand this, and how technologies that prevent double spending enables achieving consensus that operates without the need for a trusted third party. This technology can be useful in the healthcare industry, public sector and many other areas. We’ve never wanted to work directly with cryptocurrency because we believe that the Bitcoin and Ethereum communities are doing a very good job, and we didn’t immediately plug into a gap for them. We have started to take steps now, with the Ethereum Foundation and Ethereum Enterprise Alliance joining the Hyperledger Foundation. We’re very much here to build bridges. With Bitcoin there isn’t a comparable organisation as the Ethereum Foundation.

CP: So let’s take a step back, for the uninitiated, what is the Hyperledger Foundation?

MP: Hyperledger is a global open source collaboration hosted by the Linux Foundation. We provide the governance infrastructure and support for developing enterprise grade distributed ledger technology on a source code basis. But that’s a lot of words that might not make sense, and I mean we are in the middle of defining our mission as well. So obviously, this might be something very different in a few months, but basically, the most important thing about Hyperledger is the open source part of it and truly open source, not the kind of enterprise version and open version dichotomy where in order for it to be of any use you need to pay. We’re committed to truly free software development. People also ask quite often, do we have training courses and certification, yes, Linux Foundation is officially offering that too.

CP: You’ve alluded to how things are changing now. Can you talk about how the industry’s views on technology have changed over time?

MP: One thing that was definitely changing throughout the last three years is that we’ve grown incredibly since I joined. I have a presentation on that and I have a slide which was like one of the first slides I designed for my first presentation and hyperledger has literally like four different projects and now it looks like this is a whole different world. So obviously we’ve grown our code base incredibly and the number of projects and the number of contributors to this project. For us, that reflects the fact that people are getting more and more comfortable with technology and want to build their own flavors and do your own types of blockchain for various use cases.From an understanding point of view, we went from people asking what blockchain even was in 2016, to doing some PoCs in 2017. This led to a huge rise of projects, many of which naturally didn’t work out. This led to a lot of the disillusionment in 2019. Now we’re starting to go into production. So now we’re getting a smaller number of projects, but the ones that are coming are much better funded and structurally sound.

CP: So has this led to a consolidation of projects?

MP: This has been a difficult discussion that we’re having in the community. Because one part of the equation is we had all of these projects that there are many similarities between some of them to have greater contributions and not dilute the contributor base. On the other hand, we also understand that there are reasons why people need them and the diversity is what makes our community so rich. We’ve seen a proliferation of new tools as well, which is helpful to bridge some of these cases.

CP: That brings me to one of the questions that I’ve had for a while. A lot of what we’ve seen in the enterprise DLT space comes from cryptocurrencies, now that space is evolving as we are seeing learnings going the other way?

MP: I think that is starting to happen. With ConsenSys taking over the Quorum project that has accelerated. I think this is one of the reasons why we strongly believe that we are not competitive or against any of those public permissionless chains. Our stance is very much that if our code base can be used for permissioned or permissionless networks that’s great.

CP: In the early days of Hyperledger, there was a view that IBM was a big part of the project and some of the others were somewhat less important. Has that stigma changed?

MP: We still sometimes have to fight the idea that our projects internally are competitive with each other, like Fabric, or Burrow or Sawtooth. And, you know, IBM was contributing early on Fabric, but also in other projects, and as Fabric has evolved we’ve seen contributions from a very wide set of actors.

CP: You’re writing a book, can you talk about that?

MP: Yes, this actually was an opportunity when a friend who is a PhD student at Cambridge started writing a book and asked me first to contribute a chapter on permissioned blockchains. But then when we started talking about it. We decided to write it jointly. Why now, because I think that we are moving into a time where DLT is becoming a technology, rather than a reason to build something. Rather than using a blockchain because it was there, like before, nowadays it’s more like, okay, so I have this problem within supply chains, we need to track across a number of entities, and for that blockchains make sense. So now we have an opportunity to educate people on the principles and how to design distributed systems.

CP: And looking forward, what are the trends you’re watching?

MP: My personal focus right now is a governance and trying to understand how do we build governance for distributed ledger systems. It is a big challenge we are seeing all those resources being built, and yet most of them ultimately come back to one or a few entities that decide what to do.

CP: Marta, thank you so much. It was a pleasure talking to you again and hopefully see you somewhere around. 

MP: Yes, thank you. Hopefully we’ll catch up again soon at a cryptocurrency conference.

As always, worth mentioning that nothing in this should be construed as an endorsement, or enticement to invest in any of the instruments or projects mentioned. We are big fans of crypto but cannot be relied on for financial advice. Please make sure to do your own research and consult a professional before making any investment decisions.