Dan Shields is one of the most enthusiastic blockchain advocates and community builders we've met; in addition to co-founding and organizing Denver's popular weekly blockchain meetup, being an instrumental organizer of ETHDenver and ETHBoston, Dan has been an active builder of the Denver and global blockchain communities for the last two years. His popular meetup fosters creative thought and insight reminiscent of the Homebrew Computer Club and his startup Aproflow aims to revolutionize the way bright young students enter the workforce.
Last week Dan and I met up to talk about how he got into the blockchain space, how the community has changed, obstacles to adoption by developers, DeFi, DAOs and what he’s excited about for the future.
Below is a transcript of my conversation with Dan edited for clarity and readability.
Austen: How long have you been in the blockchain space?
Dan Shields: I’d say it’s probably been about 2 years now; I’ve been pretty dedicated to this since roughly the beginning of 2017 is when I started to jump down the rabbit hole, and it has become all that I’ve been doing. So, a little bit more than 2 years I’ve been doing it (Blockchain) and it’s been my job.
Cool cool. I understand you graduated from Colorado School of Mines with a degree in Applied Physics and Engineering. How did you discover blockchain and is there anything you learned in the pursuit of your career that gave you early confidence in blockchain technology?
Ironically no. My degree is completely separate of any sort of blockchain tech. My old life so to speak was in engineering and physics. I was working towards a PhD at Mines and was about 5 years into it at this point. So my thesis and analysis was almost done but what I was finding in my personal and professional life was that I was so isolated and I didn’t like it at all. This is what was the inspiration for me to actually leave that. I actually dropped out of the program and discovered what I wanted to do with my life beyond that: I got into personal finance and general entrepreneurial principles and blockchain piqued my interest on that journey so it was kind of out of the blue.
My discovery was more about “Oh Bitcoin! You can trade this. That’s cool.” So the technical background, the linkage there, the tech that drives all this was really cool to me. As a system it is just really beautiful to understand how some of the dynamics are going on. The thing that really lit me up — more than anything I am bullish on — is the community all around this stuff.
So that’s why I founded Denver Bitcoin and Crypto a little more than two years ago, which is now Denver Blockchain. I was there with Jonathan and Tree; so if you’re watching, hey guys! We started that up together and really tried to get people involved in the currency side and moved towards the understanding of the [underlying blockchain] technology.
So that’s been my journey. Evangelize and get people involved. Even if quantum computers blow up blockchain and everything we understand cryptocurrency to be. The people being together… we have this culture and ethos: we want to make a better world and use tech to do that.
That group you just mentioned — Denver Blockchain — has over 1,000 members on Meetup and a fairly sizable Slack channel as well. Do you find it to be a more or less successful medium for evangelizing than big events like ETHBoston or ETHDenver?
It’s very different. Denver Blockchain in my mind is like a welcome wagon in the community because we have so much going on here in Denver. We have over ten different meetups here for different things that are going on so Denver Blockchain in particular is run weekly out of Enterprise Workspace (where we are today). It’s more casual just to let people who are curious about the technology learn, wherever they’re at or coming from. Maybe they are interested in the speculative trading side of stuff. Maybe they are curious about development — they have heard about blockchain tech or ETH or something like that. Maybe they don’t care about anything and they just heard the term. So that is what I think this group is about and for.
As opposed to ETHDenver, ETHBoston, ETHBerlin, etc., right, which are these big hackathons and are totally about the blockchain tech development stuff. It’s still a welcome wagon but it’s a different perspective. It’s not just for the general crowd and it’s a much more intense experience as opposed to “let’s get together and chat.” It’s more like “you have 72 hours to not sleep.”
That’s exciting! I have been to a few of your Denver Blockchain events and I’ve noticed there is a fairly large, diverse community of people that are very interested in the personal finance and economics side of blockchain (trading, investing etc.), while the bigger events are more commonly attended by developers and people evangelizing the technology and business side of things, as you mentioned.
How have you seen the community change since ETH Denver last year?
So last year all the way to this year, we’re about 8 months down the road. I’d say what I have seen, the progression, the whole two-year experience, was a huge hype wave that has now tumbled down both in the price of cryptocurrency and general interest to a bottom a little bit ago. ETHDenver 2019 was the last big push and we’ve seen a kind of decay, but now I’m definitely becoming more alarmist.
There are more people interested in blockchain for technical reasons — more than about [crypto] prices or anything else. We see that at a corporate level; at an enterprise level people are getting more serious about blockchain products from the community and grassroots level. The meetup is starting to pick up again; people’s general curiosity is picking up quite a lot. So, if anything, what I’ve seen now is a resurgence in the community in general — more new people are coming in, which is great.
I am one of those people; not necessarily in the space until quite recently. What about looking back even further? What has been the most exciting application of blockchain tech that you’ve seen personally?
So, I think that we’re still seeing a lot of things being developed but one of the most critical things that I think is coming around right now that’s just blossoming is decentralized finance (DeFi), that caters to basically everybody. Anybody who is interested in the speculative side wants to use DeFi tools. Anyone interested in the development side is really curious about how to make this stuff work technically speaking and the other thing is just generally people like economists talking about legal frameworks like “this is what I want to dive into”. The emergence of these self-sovereign tools to be able to non-custodially work in traditional finance and expand beyond traditional finance to a level we haven’t seen before: totally cool. If anything, that’s one of the things I’m most excited about.
The other thing is generally talking DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations): I think we’re seeing a reemergence of the DAO which was originally hacked and blew up the idea of what DAOs are and put a negative impression on what they can be because of technical errors. Now we are starting to see these come back in force. This is basically all about “how do we govern people with smart contracts?” In my mind, I’m more familiar with Ethereum and these are the two biggest things going on right now that I’ve seen progress over this last year.
What do you see as the biggest obstacle to adoption from the development side?
Right now, I would say that a lot of the developer tools are just poor, developer tools and documentation. That’s changing. So over the past, like when I was first around getting into the space and was curious about it, again ETH space is what I am mostly exposed to, it’s just that the docs were bad. Things failed all the time and there was no good support or ways to track things down and a lot of bugs.
Things are getting more polished but as a developer it’s still hard to really sink your teeth into. For instance, if you are a React dev you can just pull down a repo, install, plug and play and you’re done, starting to get to work. Similar concepts (in blockchain development) simply do not exist, at least not at the same robustness, but that’s changing. The other thing is, and this may lead into a little pitch about your company. The infrastructure need is vastly different. At this point BaaS (Blockchain as a Service) is really desperately needed in my mind. I don’t want to have to set up my own node infrastructure because if I do it is very difficult. This is a critical need, something I hope you guys can address.
If there was an available plug and play development option how do you think that would improve the rate of development?
I think the rate of development of the applications themselves isn’t necessarily going to be super influenced by having this infrastructure, but scaling those applications. Going from proof of concept (PoC) to something that actually makes sense then yes, it’s absolutely needed. Most of the things we see at these hackathons, ETHDenver and stuff is PoC stage and almost all across the space, that’s what I see. Applications that can get widespread consumer adoption aren’t there yet in my mind.
DeFi are going to be some of these first movers that actually need to scale. Hopefully things like second layer solutions especially in ecosystems like Ethereum are really going to become developed enough to allow for that bandwidth BUT you need all that infrastructure available and ready to go and right now it is just not there. In the near-ish future, definitely need it.
Tell us a little about your project, Aproflow.
So Aproflow, I don’t know if you have heard of the term apropos, it’s a very opportune / in the moment — it’s a very good thing to do. So Aproflow is an apropos flow. Basically the inspiration is ETHDenver; making hackathons is fantastic but they are just way too much packed in time. You’ve got to network, learn stuff, and build stuff all in the course of 72 hours…
GO. I think what we see is, one of the most valuable concepts of the hackathon is networking and connections but also the inspiration to get a sprint together to make something work. All the learning at the beginning should be pulled out of this. Hopefully we can get some of that product ideation and networking done outside of this time.
AproFlow is really trying to address this. We are partnering with universities at the moment that are already teaching core blockchain-related skills. This is for instance CS departments that are teaching about Solidity development as well as businesses talking about how we build decentralized business models in general or legal frameworks — what kind of regulatory structures do we need think about? So those classes are already starting to be taught at universities. We want to come in and partner with them to become a bolt-on or an addition. So, I run these meetups, right? This is a great place to bring in thought leaders into an extracurricular activity for these classes. So, go learn the skill you need to succeed in a career, but these mentors can then teach you more about the soft skills and design skills that you aren’t going to get in class.
It’s getting you connected with those industry leaders and hopefully this will naturally evolve into apprenticeship/mentorship programs. The flow is, learn about the stuff and get inspired and hopefully have this inception point, meaning that you come up with a really cool idea and you vet it. Something like a startup weekend. Come together and think about something that might work, come up with a pitch. What’s your great idea and make it stick: give us a reason to think it’s going to actually work. Then work along this mentorship flow in anticipation of a sprint like a hackathon or ETHDenver. From there make something cool that will still need a lot of polish, keep polishing it and at the end of this flow we’ll host something like a science fair meets job fair. Show off what you did, show off who you are and what you learned and hopefully get yourself right into a job, immediately out of college or maybe it’s a good enough idea that we get you in with crowd funding or VCs or angels; let’s make a company!
This whole flow is focused toward making opportunities in the space. Blockchain and Colorado is apropos. Aproflow is about emerging industries anywhere; it’s going to be creating opportunities. The subtext of this is blurring the lines between earning learning and living. We want to unbox what you learned at a university and immediately shove you into your life.