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6 must-have blockchain developer skills

Successfully navigating the many roles and responsibilities of a blockchain developer requires specialized skills ranging from cryptography to smart contracts to web development.

Blockchain has made inroads into a wide range of industries, extending far beyond its roots in cryptocurrency. As a result, demand has increased greatly for developers who are skilled in building blockchain networks and applications, inspiring many individuals to consider a career in blockchain development.

Blockchain is a distributed digital ledger that provides a secure environment for transactions between participating members. A blockchain is essentially a decentralized database that's managed by computers across a peer-to-peer network. The blockchain eliminates any single points of failure, while maintaining a permanent and tamperproof record of each transaction.

A blockchain consists of blocks, each of which contains a unit of transactional data. The blocks are stored chronologically and linked together by hash functions. The hashing process makes it very difficult to change a block's data once it's been added to the chain, resulting in a highly secure and immutable system.

Blockchain got its start with Bitcoin and similar digital currencies, but its benefits soon became apparent to other industries, including banking, financial services, retail, energy, telecommunications, healthcare, education and government. Even companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Oracle and IBM are now promoting blockchain's many benefits, although that's mostly because they're pushing blockchain services on their own platforms.

But blockchain doesn't need a cloud provider to sell industries on its virtues. Blockchain's distributed ledger and shared architecture can potentially benefit any business operation that requires a safe environment for conducting secure and tamperproof transactions. Yet companies can't implement blockchain solutions without qualified developers who possess very specialized skills to build their networks and applications.

Who is a blockchain developer?

Blockchain developers actively develop a blockchain network or decentralized application for that network. That doesn't mean all blockchain developers are qualified professionals. But if they're not, they won't be calling themselves blockchain developers for very long.

A qualified blockchain developer understands the blockchain architecture, underlying technologies and what it takes to implement the individual blockchain components into a unified system. The developer knows how cryptography and data structures fit into the blockchain structure, how to implement effective consensus protocols and how to build decentralized applications and smart contracts.

A blockchain developer is also proficient in the programming languages needed to build the blockchain components. Not every blockchain developer has the same level of skills in every area, but they all possess a wide breadth of knowledge about what it takes to deploy an effective blockchain network and its applications.

Blockchain developer responsibilities

What are the roles and responsibilities of blockchain developers?

Blockchain developers have many roles and responsibilities. They might be responsible for the blockchain network, the applications that run on that network or a combination of both. They might also participate in designing blockchain networks and applications, analyzing existing systems and evaluating new technologies.

The exact roles and responsibilities of a blockchain developer will depend on the individual's circumstances, but they can include the following:

  • researching, analyzing and designing blockchain networks, consensus protocols and decentralized applications;
  • planning security and compliance across the entire blockchain network and applying cryptographic mechanisms such as hash functions and digital signatures;
  • researching and evaluating new tools and technologies and integrating them into a blockchain network or its applications;
  • developing, testing, monitoring and maintaining a blockchain network, with a focus on performance, distributed computing, consensus protocols, cryptography and other security measures;
  • developing, testing, monitoring and maintaining decentralized applications, smart contracts, back-end systems, client-side applications and any other components that make up the application stack;
  • documenting development processes, artifacts and best practices as well as blockchain applications or systems; and
  • employing a wide range of soft skills, including communication, collaboration, problem-solving, multitasking and working in a team environment.

Blockchain developers might also be called upon to fulfill other tasks like participating in open source community projects, meeting with stakeholders, mentoring younger developers and learning new blockchain skills.

Five steps in blockchain

What are the types of blockchain developers?

Blockchain developers often wear many hats, depending on the size of their organizations and their specific situations. But most blockchain developers are typically classified as either core blockchain or blockchain software developers.

  • Core blockchain developers are concerned primarily with the blockchain network and its underlying architecture. They plan and develop the network, design its consensus protocols, monitor and optimize the environment, determine how the network will interface with other services and ensure a secure and efficient environment for implementing decentralized applications.
  • Blockchain software developers create decentralized applications and smart contracts to run on a blockchain network, taking into account the network's architecture and consensus protocols. They might be responsible for both front-end and back-end development, as well as API development that supports blockchain integrations. They might also develop client-side applications for multiple device types.

In some organizations, especially smaller ones, blockchain developers might fill both roles. Other organizations might assign additional roles. It all depends on the organization and the specific circumstances. The rising demand for smart contract development, for example, has led some teams to use smart contract engineers -- individuals who develop and audit smart contracts and conduct end-to-end testing of business processes. Teams using blockchain developers specifically for back-end development is another example of how developer roles can vary.  

Must-have blockchain developer skills

Qualified blockchain developers require a wide range of skills. When launching a career in blockchain development, it can be difficult to determine which skills are the most important to pursue. Job postings can give candidates some indications of what organizations want, but these "requirements" tend to be tailored toward a company's specific needs. There are six essential blockchain developer skills, however, that every professional should possess.

1. Blockchain architecture. Blockchain developers should fully understand how blockchain works and the architecture on which it's based. They should be well versed in concepts such as cryptography, consensus, hash functions, distributed ledgers, smart contracts and any other concepts integral to understanding blockchain's inner workings. Developers should also be familiar with the four types of blockchain architecture: consortium, private, public and hybrid.

Four blockchain technologies

2. Cryptography. Effective cryptography is essential to providing a secure blockchain environment, and developers should have a strong foundation in cryptographic concepts and practices, including wallets, keys and digital signatures. They should know how to use public-key cryptography to prevent unauthorized access to data and understand the differences between cryptographic hash functions like SHA-256 and Keccak-256.

3. Data structures. The entire blockchain network consists of data structures. Each block can be considered a type of data structure that clusters transactions for the public ledger. Blockchain developers must routinely work with data structures and should understand how the blockchain network uses them. They should also be familiar with the various types of data structures, such as graphs, heaps, hash trees, Patricia trees and Merkle trees.

4. Smart contracts. Smart contracts are self-executing contracts that enable two parties to exchange goods and services without an intermediary. Smart contracts have become a staple of blockchain implementations, and developers should have a thorough understanding of what they are and how they enforce business logic. Blockchain developers should also be familiar with the programming languages commonly used for smart contracts, such as Vyper, Solidity or Chaincode.

5. Web development. Blockchain and web development go hand in hand, especially with blockchain's emphasis on decentralized applications. Blockchain developers should be experienced in all aspects of web development. That not only means knowing how to design and develop web applications, but also understanding the technologies that support these applications and what it takes to optimize and secure them.

6. Programming languages. Blockchain technologies often use different programming languages, depending on the platforms used to implement the blockchain environments. Although developers can't be experts in every language, they still need to be proficient in any number of them. Some of the more common languages used for blockchain include Java, C++, Python and JavaScript. Developers should also have a strong foundation in object-oriented programming and be familiar with an assortment of development libraries and frameworks.

Organizations hiring blockchain developers might weigh these skills differently, but all six are essential for an effective blockchain developer. Yet they're not the only blockchain skills developers should possess. They should have basic skills such as understanding DevOps practices, using source control in a team setting, participating in code reviews, writing efficient and secure code and staying current on emerging technologies. They should also have strong cross-disciplinary skills and a good foundation in open standards and technologies that promote interoperability. And soft skills like communication and collaboration are essential to participate effectively in today's Agile development environments.

How do you learn to become a blockchain developer?

There are no specific rules for becoming a blockchain developer, but professionals can take several steps toward a career in blockchain.

  • Learn as much as possible about blockchain principles and fundamentals. Have a complete understanding of blockchain concepts such as cryptography, consensus, blockchain protocols, public-key encryption, decentralization, smart contracts, wallets, hashing and anything else that plays a role in blockchain architecture and operations.
  • Read white papers, take courses, work through tutorials, participate in online training and pursue certifications in blockchain technologies. A variety of free and low-cost resources are now available for learning blockchain.
  • Get hands-on experience with all aspects of blockchain to better understand basic concepts. Try setting up a private blockchain network. Review decentralized applications available from resources like GitHub and post your own applications. Consider buying a small amount of cryptocurrency to see how it works from a user's perspective.
  • Familiarize yourself with the tools, technologies and platforms currently used in blockchain development, such as EOS, Ethereum, Ripple and Hyperledger. Learn their differences and when to use one over another. Take advantage of free trials to learn more about the different tools and better understand basic blockchain concepts.
  • Join development groups and organizations. Participate in community events and forums. Talk with blockchain developers. Look for other opportunities to get involved in the blockchain community. Stay current by following blockchain news.

Organizations looking for blockchain developers typically want candidates with a degree in computer science or a related field. Although that's not a hard-and-fast qualification, be aware that it may be an issue. Beyond that, there are many options for moving forward on a blockchain career trajectory.

Next Steps

A timeline and history of blockchain technology

Permissioned vs. permissionless blockchains: Key differences

8 blockchain-as-a-service providers to have on your radar

6 alternatives to blockchain for businesses to consider

Blockchain terminology: A glossary for beginners

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