So you want to be a Web3 developer

As the hype around Web3 reaches fever pitch, there is a growing divide between engineers who see an exciting new paradigm for web development and those who only see efforts to make a quick buck, wrapped in plenty of techno-vapor.

As Web3 is currently defined, it is a vision for the public internet where data and content are registered on blockchains, tokenized, or managed and accessed on peer-to-peer distributed networks. It is the decentralized internet that currently supports cryptocurrencies, nonfungible tokens (NFTs), and new types of decentralized applications (called dapps) underpinned by a distributed ledger.

This new model for building software on distributed blockchains is certainly a major departure from traditional three-tier architectures and, depending on your perspective, is a major opportunity for developers who want to jump on the latest tech trend.

According to analysis by crypto-focused venture capital firm Electric Capital, the Web3 developer community is small, with 18,000 active developers working on open source Web3 and crypto projects today, but growing at a 75% clip since the start of 2021.

Dave Walters, CTO of tech hiring platform Hired, told InfoWorld that “activity for Web3 candidates has been seeing growth on Hired’s platform as of late. Relative demand for Web3 candidates has increased around 67% since the start of 2021.”

What is Web3 development, anyway?

The founder of Web3 developer tools company Decentology, Nik Kalyani, sees Web3 as an opportunity to dramatically simplify software development, by more clearly defining and distinguishing between front-end and back-end skills. “From a developer standpoint, there is a clear demarcation of where your skill set can be and where to excel,” he said.

On the back end, “you pick a blockchain, work with a single language, and once you figure out the change in architecture you can start to think more deeply about efficiency, optimizing for storage—all of those things that enable you to be a really good smart contract developer,” he says. Then front-end developers or designers can take their existing skills and apply them directly to Web3 applications.

How to start with Web3

Former Amazon Web Services (AWS) senior developer advocate Nader Dabit made the transition to Web3 full-time last year when he joined Edge & Node, a company focused on the Graph indexing protocol for blockchain data. Naturally, he is bullish on the transferability of traditional Web 2.0 development skills into the Web3 arena.

The best place to start, Dabit said, is the Ethereum and Solidity documentation. Reading them will provide the fundamentals of understanding the most popular blockchain ecosystem and how to write a smart contract.

The learning curve for Solidity shouldn’t be too steep for most developers, as it is similar to C++ and Java. Developers are starting to write smart contracts in the more general-purpose Rust programming language as well.

You also need to get comfortable with a new development environment like Remix, and learn how to deploy to the Ethereum Virtual Machine or a similar execution mechanism for the blockchain of your choosing. Then you need to get to grips with the mechanism for signing transactions to the blockchain, with MetaMask emerging as an early industry-standard tool for this process.

In short, to build or use most Web3 applications today, you will need to come to terms with a whole new world of terminology, set up a crypto wallet, and pay the volatile “gas” fees required to perform actions on the Ethereum blockchain—all of which can be off-putting for new entrants to the space. “What scares people, once they get into Ethereum in particular, is the gas costs,” Kalyani said. “This means many developers tend to stay at the tinkering phase and aren’t yet ready for deployment.”

But that is already changing, as other blockchain platforms like Cosmos, Solana, and Cardano grow in popularity thanks to their promise of lower gas fees. There is also a growing set of testnets available, letting developers test their smart contracts without paying gas fees.

The state of the Web3 stack

Even at this high level, the Web3 developer stack is clearly immature, somewhat opaque, and fragmented. But that may be changing. “If all of this is making your head spin, you’re not alone. Cobbling together all of these tools is complex and can lead to a painful developer experience,” wrote ex-Coinbase developer Preethi Kasireddy in a blog post.

Developer frameworks like Hardhat are already trying to make it easier to build, deploy, and test smart contracts on Ethereum, and frameworks like Polygon promise developers one-click deployment to blockchain networks. And the number of Web3 frameworks and SDKs is sure to grow as interest and investment in this space heats up.

“We are at the tipping point where enough components are sufficient for any developer to make the switch [from Web 2.0 to Web3],” Onur Akpolat, a software developer at the Interchain Foundation, told InfoWorld.

“It’s important as technologists to stay up-to-date with the trends, from virtualization to the cloud, and now to Web3,” Luke Youngblood, a senior staff engineer at crypto exchange Coinbase and a former solutions architect at AWS, told InfoWorld.

Fortunately, there is a fast-growing range of Web3 tutorials and developer communities emerging as interest in the ecosystem grows, including courses popping up on Udemy and Coursera, and through growing online learning communities like Web3 University, ETHGlobal, and Buildspace.

Like many engineers, Youngblood started his journey into Web3 by mining Bitcoin. It wasn’t until 2017 that he started to learn Ethereum and smart contract programming in his spare time, while mired in blockchain and distributed systems design in his day job at AWS. But before long, he saw Web3 as a potential career path. “What was revelatory for me was the idea of owning our content and it not being owned in a centralized database by Facebook or Google,” he said.

Why Web3? Follow the money

Even after you learn the fundamentals, shifting from tinkering with Web3 on the weekends to committing significant time and energy to the space is a major leap.

But getting in on the ground floor of Web3 also has a major draw: money. Full-time Web3 developer salaries tend to start in six-figure territory, as companies scramble to get into this new space. Web3 candidates already earn an average base salary of $160,000 in the United States, according to Hired.

And that’s before you consider the additional benefits of Web3 development being rewarded with new token issues, which can dramatically rise in value if the project takes off. This element of the Web3 ecosystem “attracts some people who are in it only for the money,” Edge & Node’s Dabit admitted.

“A basic premise of Web3 is that every product is simultaneously an investment opportunity … It’s as if being an early user of Facebook or Uber also automatically made you a shareholder of Facebook or Uber, and when those services got huge you got rich,” wrote Bloomberg columnist Matt Levine.

Take the example offered by Signal creator Moxie Marlinspike, who wrote about his experience building a prototype dapp called Autonomous Art in a now-viral blog post titled “My first impressions of Web3.”

The Autonmous Art dapp lets users mint a new token for an NFT when they contribute to a communal piece of art. “The cost of making a visual contribution increases over time, and the funds a contributor pays to mint are distributed to all previous artists (visualizing this financial structure would resemble something similar to a pyramid shape),” he wrote. “The people at the end of the line who are flipping NFTs do not fundamentally care about distributed trust models or payment mechanics, but they care about where the money is.”

Madhavan Malolan is the cofounder of Questbook, a startup that aims to help developers earn money by contributing to Web3 projects. He sees Web3 development as similar to contributing to an open source project, but with the key difference that you are materially rewarded for your contributions. “That is a huge difference, because developers will still build open source, but there are a lot of people that will jump the fence to get access to these financial rewards, which are an amplifier,” he told InfoWorld.

For others, building or contributing to Web3 projects purely for financial gain is problematic. “Maybe that is better, but the old guy in me thinks you lose something beautiful when you lose the commons element and the idea of doing something better for each other,” Chef cofounder Adam Jacob told InfoWorld. “Replacing that incentive with money? That feels like it cheapens it.”

Or, as Tim O’Reilly opined in a recent blog post: “The easy money to be made speculating on crypto assets seems to have distracted developers and investors from the hard work of building useful real-world services.”

All of this leads the novelist and hobbyist developer Robin Sloan to ask: “Would you still be curious about Web3 if those currencies were worthless, in dollar terms? For some people, the answer is ‘yes, absolutely,’ because they would still find the foundational puzzles compelling. For others, if they’re honest, the answer is ‘nnnot reallyyy.’”

Web3: It’s a brave new world of technical challenges

That doesn’t mean that Web3 doesn’t present an interesting set of technical challenges for engineers to contend with—it just raises the legitimate question of what motivates them.

For Ethereum cofounder Vitalik Buterin, it’s not just about the money but the opportunity to build something truly different. “Many developers really do genuinely care about decentralization and trustlessness,” he argued on Reddit in response to Marlinspike’s blog post.

Despite his well-documented skepticism, even Marlinspike admits that he can “easily see why so many people find the Web3 ecosystem so neat,” especially “on the nerd level—and that creates a space for creativity/exploration that is somewhat reminiscent of early internet days.”

For software engineer and vocal Web3 critic Stephen Diehl, Web3 does promise to help solve some compelling computer science problems. However, “from an engineering perspective, where you have to actually apply that technology, I am struggling to see useful applications in the business world,” he told InfoWorld.

Even in the face of this sort of skepticism, there are plenty of developers who will be excited to get their teeth into something genuinely new. “People feel the possibility to create something that is a breakthrough with Web3. They feel like they could create the next unicorn on Web3. This is why there are lots of indie projects in this domain, because of that pioneering feeling,” Web3 advocate and developer Vittorio Rivabella told InfoWorld.

“This is still a relatively small community with the space for people to create anything, and there is lots of investment happening,” Ashley “Ashnichrist” Christenson, a senior community manager at NFT marketplace SuperRare, told InfoWorld. “That feeling was something I was looking out for. It felt like my dot-com moment.”

Is Web3 here to stay?

Being part of Generation Z’s dot-com moment can be a compelling proposition, but it should also act as a warning against overcommitting to something that has the potential to burst in a major way.

For several engineers who have delved into the world of Web3, such as Hubspot software developer Molly White, some key tenets of the underlying technology—namely decentralization and immutability—simply don’t stand up to scrutiny.

“An enormous amount of trust is being placed in the relatively few platforms through which blockchain data is being funneled, nullifying many of the supposed benefits of the decentralization of blockchains in the first place,” she wrote in a blog post.

She uses the example of recent thefts of the highly-sought-after Bored Apes NFTs to highlight how, “in a truly immutable, decentralized world, where ‘code is law’ and no centralized authority can intervene, a transfer of an asset would be final regardless of whether it was achieved through the proper means.”

However, the centralized exchange—in this case, the OpenSea marketplace—can and has stepped in to freeze the asset, making it essentially worthless to a thief. “Blockchain technologies have somehow managed to land in the worst of both worlds—decentralized but not really, immutable but not really,” she concluded.

Similarly, Marlinspike has concluded that much of what Web3 promises for developers still closely resembles the reliance on certain central platforms that has defined the Web 2.0 era. “To make these technologies usable, the space is consolidating around … platforms. Again,” he wrote, citing Infura, Alchemy, and MetaMask as already-established developer bottlenecks.

UC Berkeley computer science lecturer Nicholas Weaver is even more fiercely critical. “The technical underpinnings are so terrible that it is clear they exist only to hype the underlying cryptocurrencies,” he wrote in a Usenix blog post. “The actual utility of these ‘decentralized’ systems is already available in modern distributed systems in ways that are several orders of magnitude more efficient and more capable.”

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