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The Journal: The Five Entrepreneurs Preserving Bitcoin - The Wall Street Journal Podcasts


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    This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.

    Ryan Knutson: If you talk to a cryptocurrency enthusiast, one of the things that they might say is so great about Bitcoin is that it's decentralized. It's not controlled by a government or a company or any single group. But as our colleague Paul Kiernan recently learned, that's not exactly true.

    Paul Kiernan: Beneath the surface, there is a group of five people currently who have the keys to the software that most of Bitcoin's network uses, who actually do have a lot of influence.

    Ryan Knutson: How well known is it that this group exists?

    Paul Kiernan: I don't think it's well known at all. For the kind of general public, yeah, I would say they're totally unknown. Almost everyone I talk to is like, "What? There's five people?"

    Ryan Knutson: And how important is this group of five people that have these keys?

    Paul Kiernan: They're critically important to Bitcoin.

    Ryan Knutson: This group is called the maintainers. They're software developers and they're responsible for keeping Bitcoin alive.

    Paul Kiernan: One of the earlier maintainers once said that, "Yeah, it's a lot of pressure to have," at the time, I think it was like a billion dollar asset, "resting on your shoulders." Well, I mean now it's closer to a 500 billion asset, resting to some degree, on the shoulders of these five people.

    Ryan Knutson: Welcome to The Journal, our show about money, business, and power. I'm Ryan Knutson. It's Thursday, February 23rd. Coming up on the show, the mysterious coders behind Bitcoin. The first maintainer was the person who created Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto. Satoshi is a pseudonym, and nobody knows who he or she really was, or even if it was a single person.

    Paul Kiernan: But Satoshi disappeared from the internet in 2011, I think. Disappeared without a trace, but before they disappeared, they passed control over the software repository to a software engineer named Gavin Andresen.

    Ryan Knutson: Gavin Andresen was an early Bitcoin enthusiast, and he became the second maintainer in charge. And Bitcoin needed someone to do it, because software isn't just code that's written once and never touched again.

    Paul Kiernan: Software is a living, breathing document. It has to be maintained and kept up to date. And Gavin made some important improvements. He brought more people into the development process.

    Ryan Knutson: A big change that Gavin made was expanding how many people could access the code behind Bitcoin. He gave the keys to a small number of people who became known as the maintainers. Over the years, though, the group has had a lot of turnover. Right now, there are five of them. And these five people have a lot of power. They essentially oversee all of Bitcoin's code. They make sure it runs smoothly, remains compatible with the latest version of Windows or iOS, and is free from bugs. And fixing those bugs can be really important. Can you tell me the story of what happened with the inflation bug?

    Paul Kiernan: Yeah. So in September of 2018, someone reported a crash in Bitcoin Core and the developers went in and looked at it and they noticed that there was a bug that if exploited could allow one Bitcoin to basically be spent twice or Bitcoins to be created out of thin air.

    Ryan Knutson: If people could suddenly create new Bitcoins out of thin air, or spend one coin multiple times, it would've been a disaster.

    Paul Kiernan: That's like the killer. I mean, the whole reason that Bitcoin has any value is because the supply of it is fixed.

    Ryan Knutson: The maintainers pushed out a software patch, but they didn't tell the Bitcoin community how bad the problem was. They just said the fix was for something routine.

    Paul Kiernan: And once enough of the network had upgraded its software, Bitcoin Core came out with a full disclosure of the incident saying, "So, yeah, actually there was an inflation bug here. The risk is no longer there. We've taken care of it, but we didn't disclose it at the time."

    Ryan Knutson: That seems like a big decision for such a small group of people to make.

    Paul Kiernan: Yeah, I mean, what a number of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency skeptics have said, I'll quote Angela Walsh, who is a law professor. She said that, "A good rule of thumb is that if one group of people can keep things secret from another group of people, it's not decentralized."

    Ryan Knutson: Maintainers and other developer is often push back on this critique. They say they aren't forcing anyone to use their version of Bitcoin software, even though 99% of Bitcoin does. Being a maintainer is an important job, and it's a hard one.

    Paul Kiernan: Talking to different people, or seeing different people speak, you get a different kind of sense of how much pressure they feel. The joke among the maintainers is that nobody really wants this job. It's kind of a thankless job.

    Ryan Knutson: And they don't even get paid that much, at least not by tech industry standards. The maintainers aren't employees of Bitcoin. Bitcoin has no employees. So they don't get a salary or benefits. Instead, crypto companies and wealthy investors pay maintainers through grants, usually about 100 to $150,000 per year.

    Paul Kiernan: And that's not great by software engineer standards. If you work at Google, you can get over 200,000 or $300,000 often.

    Ryan Knutson: Yeah, or more.

    Paul Kiernan: Yeah, easily. So I don't think they're living large, and I don't think that most of them are Bitcoin millionaires or billionaires.

    Ryan Knutson: So why do they do this? What's motivating them to work on Bitcoin's code like this?

    Paul Kiernan: Well, I mean, I don't think it's money, but in the cryptocurrency world, there is an ethos, for a lot of people in crypto, and this goes for developers and entrepreneurs and also investors. It's not just about buying something because you think it's price is going to go up. It's about buying something that you think is going to change the world, getting in on a project that you think is going to revolutionize finance, democratize it, disintermediate banking. There's all these kind of purported objectives in crypto beyond just making money. And from everyone that I've spoken with in this group, I mean they really believe in what they're doing.

    Ryan Knutson: After the break, who are these maintainers? To the average person, the work that the maintainers do can feel mysterious, but in some ways it's very transparent. If you're free on a Monday afternoon, you can literally watch one of the maintainers code on a Twitch livestream.

    Andrew Chow: All right, let's get started.

    Ryan Knutson: I tuned in this past Monday.

    Andrew Chow: So today I wanted to take a look at our address book and specifically how-

    Ryan Knutson: This is a maintainer named Andrew Chow. I was one of a handful of people who watched him talk as he coded. It kind of reminded me of a college lecture, on a topic I completely did not understand.

    Andrew Chow: The way we store metadata about addresses is kind of ad hoc.

    Ryan Knutson: Chow doesn't give many interviews, but he'll sometimes answer questions from his Twitch viewers.

    Paul Kiernan: At times, there will be a chat to the side of the screen where people can ask questions and be like, "Whoa, what are you doing?" And some of the questions are really technical, by people who are obviously working on their own offshoot of the Bitcoin software, but sometimes it's like, "Whoa, you work on Bitcoin? I had no idea." And he just kind of sits there typing away and answering people's questions.

    Ryan Knutson: Chow livestreams every week, but he doesn't share much about his life. Like a lot of maintainers, he got the job because he was really enthusiastic about Bitcoin. He started tinkering with it when he was in high school. And before he even had a bank account, he set up a website that said, "I will work for Bitcoin." But there isn't much more that's publicly known about him. All the maintainers are secretive like this, but Paul managed to talk to a few of them.

    Paul Kiernan: I've been poking around in this world for more than a year. I spoke with a couple of them kind of on background, or off the record. Several of them do give interviews. It's usually with crypto native publications or on the website of a crypto exchange, but a couple of them really don't. A couple of them, I don't know what they look like.

    Ryan Knutson: Here's what Paul was able to tell me about the current crop of maintainers. They're a motley crew hailing from all over the world. Andrew Chow graduated from the University of Maryland and appears to be from the US. A second maintainer, Michael Ford, occasionally posts photos on Twitter of his parents' farm in Australia. A third maintainer, Hennadii Stepanov, is a Ukrainian who fled his country last year when the war broke out.

    Paul Kiernan: And then there's a fourth, named Marco Falke. He has told me that he grew up in Germany, but he's kind of roaming around Europe, and he said he works mostly from a laptop so that he can be mobile and he listens to music when he codes, he told me.

    Ryan Knutson: What kind of music? I'm imagining like Neo from the Matrix or something, grinding it out to heavy metal.

    Paul Kiernan: No, it's like electronic.

    Ryan Knutson: The fifth maintainer is a woman named Gloria Zhao. Zhao is the most recent addition to the group. In 2020 Zhao was a senior at the University of California in Berkeley. She was an active member of a club called Blockchain at Berkeley. Back then, she wasn't a maintainer, but she was starting to suggest code for Bitcoin software. In an interview she did with a fellow student, she talks about how she got into coding for Bitcoin. It gives you a sense of how seriously the maintainers take their work.

    Gloria Zhao: I mean, for the past six months-ish, I've been contributing to Bitcoin Core. And I think it's the only meaningful thing I've done in my life. I can't remember what held my life together before six months ago, but, yeah, my whole life is centered around this. Oh, it sounds like I'm in a cult, but it means a lot to me.

    Ryan Knutson: I asked Paul, how does a person like Zhao go from a contributor who suggests code, to a maintainer with the power to actually implement changes? When they are trying to add a maintainer, how do they go about doing that? Do they just put up a post on LinkedIn that says like, "Hey, you want to come manage Bitcoin, this multi-billion dollar cryptocurrency?"

    Paul Kiernan: Well, who would put up the post? There's no formal organization here or at least they deny the existence of a formal organization.

    Ryan Knutson: When it came to hiring the latest maintainer, Zhao, her name was nominated over a public group chat that included maintainers and other prominent contributors. In Zhao's case, there was some disagreement over her inclusion in the group. Some people wanted there to be a more formalized process for selecting new members. For instance, one person asked why there wasn't a job description. Others said that all that would be too bureaucratic. Paul says the argument in the group chat got pretty heated, but Zhao eventually got the position. A lot of the decisions that the maintainers have to make are done in this very informal way.

    Paul Kiernan: There's no manager or organizer behind them who has the authority to tell any one of them, "Hey, look, the graphical user interface needs more work. You, Andrew, go work on that."

    Ryan Knutson: The ad hoc nature of this work means there's a lot of turnover. Several of the group's members have turned over in the last year and a half. And Marco Falke, the guy who listens to electronic music while he codes, announced this week that he was planning to transition out of the role. This whole operation seems like very informal given how important it is.

    Paul Kiernan: Bitcoin aspires to be the future of money, and for that to happen, the network needs to be able to process a lot of transactions. For Bitcoin to replace the Visa or MasterCard network, it would have to be able to process a lot more transactions. And they're going to make policy decisions in the future to make that possible, because right now, as a currency, it's not super easy to use.

    Ryan Knutson: And the maintainers, even with their informal practices, are the ones with the power to change it.

    Paul Kiernan: And so software development, really for Bitcoin to reach the potential that its biggest believers believe it has, further development of the software is really critical. And if that doesn't happen, then maybe other cryptocurrencies kind of eat away at its market share. Or maybe it just kind of fades.

    Ryan Knutson: That's all for today, Thursday, February 23rd. The Journal is a co-production of Gimlet and The Wall Street Journal. If you like our show, follow us on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. We're out every weekday afternoon. Thanks for listening. See you tomorrow.

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