ICON developer Yoo Jinho knows that as an emerging technology, blockchain still has a long way to go.
But so what?
“Do you use a computer because it is perfect? Blockchain is not God’s handcraft. No product is perfect”. he says. “But why do we use a computer? Computers are not perfect – they’re still incomplete – but we use them because they’re enough to deliver value. Blockchain is the same. If it’s enough to make some trust between peers, that’s OK.”
“I know that many people argue that blockchain is nonsense, that we don’t need decentralized systems,” he says. “But if you can make some value with blockchain, just use it.”
“I know that many people argue that blockchain is nonsense, that we don’t need decentralized systems. But if you can make some value with blockchain, just use it.”
Pirates and thieves?
After graduating from Sogang University in 2003 with a degree in Media technology including computer vision and graphics, Yoo worked for General Electric and several other firms before landing at Nomad Connection, a tech company founded by current ICON Council member KJ Eee, in 2015. It was at Nomad Connection that – at the suggestion of one of the company’s executives – he got his first taste of blockchain. “Blockchain was a first for me,” he recalls. “Nobody had experience at that.”
Learning about blockchain isn’t easy even in ideal conditions, and the dearth at the time of educational materials for developers didn’t help. “Google is always the first step,” he says. “But all the material had to do with making a business based on Bitcoin or blockchain. I needed materials for developers.”
Then he picked up a copy of “Mastering Bitcoin,” a book he credits as being “the most helpful to understanding blockchain internally.” Nomad Connection also hired a new engineer, Dong-hwi Go, the first student at Sogang University to major in blockchain. “He was a good teacher,” he says.
Working at a blockchain company elicits some interesting responses, even from friends and family. Many suspect, at best, he’s in it just for the money, or at worst, that he’s a flim-flam man. He’s constantly explaining he’s no pirate, no thief. “Even my parents asked me to explain my business,” he says. “My friends ask if I’m working in a scam or something. I have to explain every time that it’s not true.”
A difficult job to explain
When asked what a blockchain developer does, Yoo responds, “It’s very complex. Very difficult to explain. Very hard to make simple.”
He asks, “What does a reporter do every day?”
He’s a trooper, though, so he gives it a go. “Our main role is building the blockchain system.”
Software engineering, he explains, is the process of making software that produces value. This is a very common definition, he says. At ICON, this entails creating and maintaining the platform’s core network, developing DApps and performing “hidden tasks” such as checking network health. All of this involves writing code. “Nowadays, nobody just looks at the monitor or checks the physical dashboard,” he says. “We just use code and gather data for the working service and check issues.”
When he first started, things were relatively easy. The code was simple, the products predictable. As time went by, though, he and his fellow developers began getting requests they never expected. Now they are trying to make their code as flexible and independent as possible.
By way of example, Yoo cites nothing less than Loopchain, ICON’s underlying technology. “Loopchain was developed as a private blockchain. So we had only requirements for private issues,” he says. “But now, we’ve expanded the system for the public. One of the biggest issues was SCORE because our assumption was that customers would just settle our smart contract. Nobody would revise or update our smart contract frequently. Only a few companies or administrators would deploy SCORE.”
“But for a public system, anybody should be able to deploy their smart contract. It means that requirements are totally different. So our developers got a bit shocked. That team almost died trying to get that feature delivered on time.”
Speaking of Loopchain, Yoo can take credit for being one of its architects, though he is careful to point out he wasn’t alone in bringing the technology into the world. He spent six months building and maintaining Loopchain’s basic structure before taking several months off for personal reasons. When he returned, his colleagues had developed the code so much that it looked quite different and better.
That takes nothing away from his contribution, though.
“Anyway, I was the one who did the first architecting.”
Building things is cool. Explaining them is not.
Like any job, being a developer has perks and drawbacks.
Yoo enjoys designing and building new systems – probably no surprise, given his calling. “Every engineer would enjoy this because it’s good for developing our credibility as engineers,” he says. “That’s why we are working as engineers.”
He likens working with a technology as new as blockchain to space exploration. “Sometimes I feel like I’m developing a spacecraft because nobody had gone to the moon or Mars,” he says. “But we know the basic theory like Newton’s physics. What we can do is try.”
Dealing with customers is a task Yoo relishes much less. “Maybe all engineers dislike having to field issues directly because we don’t think of ourselves as helpers or teachers,” he says. “But as you know, only software developers have the knowledge or experience needed to explain an issue because it’s a software product.”
He’s called upon to train customers’ engineers so often, in fact, that he’s earned the nickname “Professor Yoo.”
“I have to really lecture,” he says. “I don’t like it.”
Winter is coming?
Though Yoo clearly thinks blockchain has a future, he’s no fanatic. Some systems will continue to be centralized, he says, while others will be distributed. Still others could be hybrids. At any rate, the market will decide, he says, because people are smarter than policy makers. “Many dreamers think, ‘Hey, we can use blockchain here and there,’” he says. “But the people will apply it and evaluate whether it works or not.”
He says industries that require trust, such as fintech, have uses for blockchain. He points to the recent scandal involving private kindergartens in Korea. “Maybe if there were a blockchain system, every mother or father could monitor how their money was going through the kindergarten to their child. If you use a blockchain system, you could monitor everything in real time,” he says. “Why don’t they?”
With his background in machine learning, Yoo is keen to develop a data pipeline to link blockchain and data engineering, a development that would create value from blockchain’s clean, verifiable data. “People say big data itself is almost trash because it’s not clean, some data is incorrect,” he says. “But with blockchain, it has to be correct, so it’s very reliable data. With this reliable data, we can make all sorts of value. Big clean data.”
Yoo cautions observers to remain realistic. He says though few sectors have grown as quickly as blockchain, nobody knows where the future will lead. He warns that blockchain could experience a “winter season” of depressed interest and development.
He points to the example of AI technology.
“AI technology including the neural networks had a winter season for about twenty years,” he says. “Nobody researched or invested in that field because people thought it would not work. But with the development of computer technology – more powerful CPUs, more memory – they could now make it a reality, make a real product, make real value.”
“Maybe blockchain can also have such a winter season,” he adds. “Please be realists.”