In 2018 I became a Decred contractor, and as the year draws to a close I’m planning to spend a higher proportion of my working time on the project next year. This post is about my experience of working on Decred, why I’m into it and how it works.
Autonomy, and minimal administrative or management type experiences, are worth a lot to me. “Going to work” on/for Decred is contributing to one of the (varied and expanding) selection of sub-projects that are open. Or maybe coming up with an idea for some new initiative to float and see if people are interested.
Nobody has ever told me what to do, or even given strong hints — which can be disconcerting if you’re not used to it.
As the months passed I have grown increasingly confident about finding useful ways to contribute to the project. There are a few reasons for this:
- I looked into different aspects of the project and usually found some open tasks I could do, or something that wasn’t being done that would help.
- Jake’s (approved) DCC proposal really sets the “contractor collective” (my term for it) up as a more structured constituency, with its own dispute resolution process and quite a large degree of independence from voter direction.
- I have grown increasingly confident in the stakeholders’ collective reasoning and judgment, and expect the Treasury to fund some epic things, in the fullness of time.
Working for Decred sometimes feels more like a hobby than a job.
- I can do it anywhere I have a computer and some time.
- I decide what to work on.
- There are a variety of things to do, so monotony is not an issue.
- I am psychologically invested in the cause, I want to see Decred and the sub-projects I work on succeed.
Voice/video calls with other people account for almost none of the time I have spent on Decred, probably less than 5 hours so far. This may be a personal preference thing, because I get more than enough of calls/meetings in other walks of life.
I don’t need to plan my days around anyone else’s schedule, or spend time commuting. I have moved out of an expensive area I needed to be in for work, to a place of my choosing where I want to live. Turns out independence of place is a pretty big deal for me. Two years ago it would not have occurred to me that someone with my skills (not a software developer or freelance anything) could work entirely remotely.
I use a pseudonym, and have only met a handful of people from Decred in person. I know very little about most of the other Decred contributors, even people I work quite closely with, and they know very little about me. Perspectives on other contributors are based largely on what they’re bringing to the project, along with whatever they reveal about their own personal motivations for getting involved or how they see Decred’s place in the world. While I may not know many contributors well, we share an alignment around Decred’s objectives and we’re all working towards broadly the same aims. I find this makes for a refreshingly different organizational culture.
One of the priorities of the Decred organization is to minimize the amount of bullshit workers have to deal with. Stripping out the bullshit means that time spent working on the project tends to feel quite productive.
In fact, working on Decred has been so eye-opening and liberating that one of my interests now is in how this method of organizing work and remuneration can be maintained and expanded.
The hook that made cryptocurrencies more than a casual interest for me was the crossover between the low-friction work opportunities they facilitate and the ideas of Decentralized Autonomous Organizations as independent entities that steer (and fund) development of (some) projects in line with their communities’ wishes. Finding out that some organizations like this were already operational was what started me down the rabbit-hole proper.
Reading the Iterative Capital Thesis about the cryptocurrency phenomenon in November 2018 was my own personal “It’s happening!!!” moment. That document lays out a set of antecedents to the cryptocurrency movement, with a particular focus on the software developers who make it all possible with their open source code. It makes a compelling argument that typical FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) methods of organizing work intrinsically appeal to many software developers, and tend to produce high-quality software.
Cryptocurrencies have brought the storage and transfer of value directly into the domain of open source software and the people who produce open source software. Open source software is a form of commons-based peer production, and benefits from significant efficiencies due to workers’ self-allocation of work and intrinsic motivation.
While open source software is preferred in a growing number of domains due to its quality, the model is hamstrung by the fact that free software doesn’t generate any sales revenue, and so contributors must fund their work on it indirectly through related (or unrelated) businesses or services.
Cryptocurrencies that assign a portion of the block reward to a development fund or Treasury offer interesting answers to a perennial public goods question: how are the people who write this free software going to earn a living? The blockchain pays for its own development.
In Decred’s case, the question of how the Treasury fund gets spent to further the project is bundled with a system for amending consensus rules and resisting chain/community splits. People who time-lock DCR to obtain tickets are the key decision-makers. Those are people who buy DCR, mine DCR or earn DCR — and stake it.
From up close, this looks like a rock solid and paradigm-shifting alignment of incentives to me. It contrasts sharply with the way in which larger projects that lack formal governance handle differences of opinion about the way to proceed. I have written about my observations of this kind of informal governance in some detail, it looks to me like a critical flaw, and on a more personal level is not something I would want to participate in.
Decred stakeholders are bought into its approach to governance, and the on-chain component of that governance only allows a chain that changes consensus rules to survive if it commands support from at least 75% of voting tickets. It is not viable for a minority of Decred contributors to perform their own contentious hard fork without changing the formal governance processes that define Decred. It is hard to imagine a scenario where there is any doubt about which of multiple chains is the “real” DCR.
I am of the opinion that building a strong method of amending consensus rules into the protocol, is preferable to having users’ participation in governance consisting of picking sides in “dispute resolution” chain splits or hash wars. Swimming in a sea of misinformation and Sybil drones is not my idea of a good time. For as long as that is the default experience for a cryptocurrency’s users who want to engage with its governance, that’s got to be hindering broader adoption.
Coins with treasuries give the constituencies that control those treasuries significant independence from key figures or entities like groups of engineers. For projects that fund and direct development through a particular entity or set of entities, users who are external to those entities can only ever have consultations and “take it or leave it” choices. The long-term viability of any cryptocurrency is tied to the decision-making of the people who have the motive and means to develop it.
How does contributing to Decred work?
This blog post is for now the definitive guide to becoming a Decred contractor (contractors can bill for their time spent working on the project at an agreed rate). Becoming a contractor is a case of demonstrating that you’re a useful contributor, more on that below.
The DCC proposal outlines how recruitment and termination of contractors will work once the contractor management system is online. The DCC system will change things up a bit, as it will formalize the on-boarding process (approval from 3 existing contractors in the sub-domain) and sharpen the differentiation between sub-domains, probably making them more independent. The key criteria of demonstrating that one can make useful contributions is unlikely to change though.There are various chat channels bridged on Matrix, Slack and Discord, where you can follow discussions among Decred contributors and the broader community. I would say most of the sub-domains of the Decred project have one or more GitHub repositories and a main chat channel where anyone can follow what’s going on.
There follows a brief characterization of some areas I’ve had experience with and my perception of how they work.
Independent research and writing
Writing posts about Decred and the blockchain space is how I started as a Decred contractor, but I would say I started contributing to the project on a smaller scale a few months before that. I was interested in following the discussions about aspects of governance (Decred’s and other projects) happening in the chat channels, and started contributing where I thought I had some useful insight to add.
I realized that discussions about Politeia that were shaping it’s design were happening in public channels but not being well documented or communicated, so I wrote a blog post about the plan for Politeia as I understood it. It was around this time that I was asked if I would like to become a Decred contractor.
With subsequent writing projects I would typically mention that I’m thinking about doing it or working on it in the #writers_room channel and see what people think — when considering whether it’s something Decred would fund work on.
I also tend to ask for feedback before I “publish” things, which usually involves sharing a GitHub or medium link in the channel. I do this largely because the feedback is almost always useful and helps me to improve the piece. I have always felt that I retain full “editorial control” or ownership of what I have written, and that’s a big deal for me. It feels proper though to invite and consider community feedback for things I expect the community to fund.
This feels quite different to publication contexts such as academia (where journal editors and reviewers define what is acceptable) and journalism (where an internal editor performs this task). The Decred stakeholder collective is a more nebulous entity and the direction it offers is less firm, at least when it comes to written material published in independent channels.
In addition to writing things myself, I have also contributed with feedback, suggested edits or content to a wide variety of writing projects that other people have been working on.
The Decred Journal, started and led by @bee, is a great example of a written product that has a more collaborative approach to production (although @bee still puts in the bulk of the work). Each month a number of contributors put together a list of significant developments for Decred and the crypto space, with a sentence or two of description and links to relevant sources. These journals have become the definitive record of happenings for the project, and as such offer significant value to the stakeholder community.
On the more research-oriented side, I have studied Dash’s Treasury in some detail and considered the funding of blockchain projects more broadly, with the idea being to inform the design of Politeia. As I was following the development of Politeia anyway, I was around to make suggestions about how it should be set up when various aspects were being discussed in the channels and I felt like I had some insight to share from this research. I also contribute with the odd issue or comment on the Decred repositories.
Handling centralized channels
For a project that strives for decentralization, the handling of certain platforms which require centralized control poses interesting challenges. Some examples include:
- the many GitHub repositories associated with the project
- decred.org website
- @decredproject twitter account, “official” groups on other platforms
- Politeia moderation
- /r/decred subreddit moderation
Of these, I will describe the project’s “official” twitter account (@decredproject), and the maintenance and updating of the decred.org documentation pages.
The @decredproject twitter account is run from a private Matrix channel where 15 community members propose tweets and re-tweets. Drafting a tweet would typically go through a few stages of maybe floating the idea then an initial text and developing it or dropping it based on feedback. Generally a +1 from another contributor without any disagreements is enough to go ahead and make the tweet. There are five people with access to the account itself, (I was added to this list recently and have only made 2 re-tweets so far). The others are @jz, @ingsoc, Noah and Praxis.
The reason for having a small number of “tweet executives” is obvious, access could be abused.
The reason for making the channel private is that sometimes news will be released with a tweet, and so the process of drafting the tweet can’t happen in public. This is not generally big news that would affect the price and enable insider trading (e.g. no advance notice of the Binance listing), but we did get a heads-up on the launch timing for Politeia a day or two in advance, so we could have a tweet ready that would form part of the launch.
Reviewing the re-tweet candidates could also be considered somewhat sensitive I guess, as ultimately it’s about accepting/rejecting the suggested tweets, which often come from community members.
In this channel we also discuss things like the tactical approach to the twitter account (what kind of thing should we be re-tweeting or tweeting about directly through the project account, proposal tweeting in particular has been discussed a lot). There has been discussion of making the channel logs open, if there was a method to hold back logs until tweets that required privacy for drafting had already been tweeted. It’s not clear if there is demand for this kind of transparency. If you have thoughts on this, please make them known.
The Decred LinkedIn account now runs on the same kind of model as the twitter account.
docs.decred.org is probably the most comprehensive and definitive explanation of how Decred works. As I was learning about the project, I found myself looking for many pieces of information on the docs site. As Politeia got closer to launch, I figured the docs site (and proposals.decred.org) would need some documentation and introductory copy. The launch of Politeia seemed like it would be “soon”, and there wasn’t a comprehensive find-able description of how it worked that answered the most common questions or misconceptions. I had been following it out of interest (and writing about it) so I decided to start drafting documentation style explanations.
This got me more into using GitHub and basic developer tools I was not familiar with, like mkdocs to build a local copy of the docs site to preview changes. I have always found the Decred contributor community very helpful when I encountered problems while learning some of these new tools, and @bee has even set up a Git Help channel now.
The docs site repository is structured like many other aspects of the project, using Issues to plan/track work and Pull Requests to merge changes, which then go through a deployment process. If you find something useful to do in these repositories, either in an existing issue or one you add, and discuss it with other contributors before/while you work on it — that will typically be considered a useful contribution.
There are a sub-set of contributors to this repository who have maintainer status and the authority to merge pull requests. Pull Requests will often be reviewed by several contributors and undergo rounds of refinement before they are merged — this is in part about accuracy and in part about maintaining a consistent style across pages, for a less jarring reader experience.
Sites like docs.decred.org are important for the project, because having a definitive explanation of how everything works makes it much easier for newcomers to understand Decred. A shared understanding of how it works is the only basis upon which there can be real social consensus about the rules. This matters more for Decred than other coins because holders who stake their coins have critical functions to play. Decred has a stronger incentive to push for broader understanding of the technology than most other projects.
From my own perspective, broader understanding of the technology and how it can be beneficially used should be one of the most important goals right now. Thinking long-term, factors like how cryptocurrencies are regulated, what people build with them and what gets used, will be influenced by how (well) they are understood by key groups.
My view is that a general lack of familiarity with how cryptocurrency governance works, even among people who are generally well informed, is a further significant barrier to the kind of adoption that might actually make the world better. Cryptocurrencies cannot become truly significant without the same being true of their governance. If and when that happens, having more people who understand what’s going on will matter.
This is where I feel the strongest alignment with Decred’s aims. Promoting a better understanding of cryptocurrency governance, and Decred’s in particular, is something I am quite enthusiastic about.
I am not a developer, so can’t really speak to that side of things, but I have contributed to some software repositories like Politeia, with non-code things like explainer copy. My understanding is that the repositories where Decred software is developed follow similar principles to dcrdocs, where contributions are open but a certain style and standard must be enforced and there are specific individuals who have the responsibility of ensuring that proper review and testing takes place.
When I started contributing to Decred, I did not imagine that I would be doing things like operating the project’s twitter account and writing introductory text for the proposals site.
Once one gets to know the project, one can identify useful pieces of work that aren’t currently being done fairly easily. Taking on these tasks and completing them well is like the application process to (be paid for) work on Decred. As people get to know you and see that you’re making useful contributions, other opportunities may open up.
I also contribute as a duct-taper/mechanical-turk, in another private channel where Slack invite requests come in and have to be made manually through the Slack UI. I laughed pretty hard when I found out this was how the Slack invitation magic happens.
Proposing or starting new initiatives
Decred is a young project and will be growing for quite some time, the project has great aspirations and there is room for expansion.
I have started a couple of initiatives myself in the last few months, one (Decred Open Source Research) which is something I thought about a lot and planned for, and another (Politeia Digest) which just sort of happened.
The Decred Open Source Research proposal was something I tinkered with over a couple of months before Politeia launched. I showed it to some other contributors whose opinion on the subject I valued, and their feedback helped me to improve it. I didn’t share it publicly because I didn’t know when Politeia would go live, and I didn’t want it to “go stale” before there was a chance to discuss it on the proposals site and have a vote. When Politeia launched I submitted an incomplete proposal with a plan to fill in the details for how it would launch after taking comments on board. I was motivated in part by a desire for there to be some proposals of substance on the site soon after it launched, so we could get on with putting the site and process through its paces.
I find it very useful to have a tool like Pi available to gauge the stakeholder community’s attitude towards an idea for doing something new, and to get a firm endorsement for a specific plan. With the research proposal, I wasn’t sure that stakeholders would share my view that this was valuable work for the project, and getting that approval gave me much more confidence to plan and push that work forward.
Politeia Digest, on the other hand, was something that didn’t even occur to me until Politeia had already been live for almost a week — and a discussion started about how it would be covered in the monthly journal. It struck me that the monthly journal may not be a good fit for Politeia, and that the speed at which it operated (i.e. week-long voting periods) would better suit weekly updates. I came up with a format and drafted a first issue to cover the first week’s activity. For the first few issues, pi digest was sort of filling in for some deficiencies of the early proposals site (like lack of notifications and approval/rejection criteria not being clearly displayed on the interface).
People seemed to like it, and I started to see references being made to reading about things in pi digest. I found some more ways to make it useful and interesting so I kept doing it, and started billing for my time spent working on it. It didn’t occur to me until some time later that maybe I should have submitted a proposal about Politeia Digest. I’m still not sure whether that is necessary, but it doesn’t seem to be, and doing that properly would eat some time I’d rather spend on other things. If at some point community members seem to think that Politeia Digest is not worthwhile, then we could have a proposal to vote on and decide the matter (unless I agree with them and just stop doing it).
There’s a point to my telling these stories. The Decred stakeholders and contractor community are not looking for mercenaries, that seems pretty clear from what I’ve seen. By mercenaries I mean entities that perceive the Treasury as a soft source of funding and aren’t committed to pushing the project forward.
The people who work on Decred are largely motivated by a desire to see the project succeed, delivering a robust decentralized digital currency with strong stakeholder governance. They’re looking to spend the treasury funds on paying people who will make significant positive contributions which advance this cause. Standalone pieces of work from unfamiliar people who are unlikely to make a sustained contribution seem to be perceived by stakeholders as having little value. Based on early proposal voting and discussions about those proposals, the stake-voting constituency seems to be well aligned with the contributors. This is not surprising, as there is probably considerable overlap, but it can’t be taken for granted that those who talk the most/loudest and those who hold the most tickets are of like mind.
Looking forward to 2019
2018 has been a rough year with prices, and it is not fun to see one’s earnings from earlier in the year fall significantly in value. There is a significant silver lining for Decred contractors however, in that payments for each month are based on a USD conversion at the average DCR price for that month. As the DCR/USD rate has fallen, the DCR/hour rate for all contractors is increasing. I don’t expect to see any drop-off in Decred’s productivity in 2019 because prices are down.
There are opportunities here for people with enthusiasm for what Decred is trying to achieve, who get to know the project well enough that they can see where they fit in — and who get on and demonstrate the value they can provide.
Think of it as an open source project that happens to have 600k DCR to pay contributors with, making a product that requires much more than software to be successful. Those savings didn’t just happen, there was no ICO where the founders were showered with BTC or ETH. The Decred organization has been lean and efficient, nobody earns megabucks. This produces high expectations for what the project should be able to achieve with a given amount of DCR or USD equivalent.
For people who are thinking about making a proposal to the Decred Treasury, it may be useful to think about it like this: The people you need to convince are the stakeholders, and that group probably includes more or less everyone who currently works on the project. One of the things they will tend to have in common is that they started working on Decred for its own sake without any guarantee that it would work out for them financially. The community has invested effort and made sacrifices to grow and protect the Treasury for the long-term health of the project. They are unlikely to throw big chunks of DCR at people who just show up with half-baked plans or some generic request for funding that they’ve already pitched elsewhere.
My own Decred-related plans for 2019 involve more of the same kind of thing I’ve been doing in 2018, following along and looking for useful ways I can contribute. It’s a dynamic project and I wouldn’t want to guess what that will involve past February or March. I’m not alone in thinking that growing the contributor-base with talented people is one of the main priorities though.
The research program is developing nicely, there are plenty of good ideas and a few are slowly ramping up — nobody is in a rush.
I will keep doing Politeia Digest for as long as it seems useful, but unless and until the pace of proposals picks up again I will publish it on a more ad hoc timeframe. In other words whenever something interesting happens. There were times when I felt pressure to finish and publish an issue in a certain timeframe (all self-inflicted) while busy with other things, and that made it less enjoyable to work on. It gave me some insight into why the developers on the team prefer not to work towards target dates — total buzz-kill.
The project I am most interested in developing is an information resource/repository about blockchain consensus and governance, making it easier for people to identify, understand, and follow the phenomenon. I have some ideas for how to organize this and what it should look like, but it’s on the back-burner for now and needs some focused attention to figure out what’s likely to work.
As compared to a few months ago, it feels like there is a lot more activity brewing on the project following the launch of Politeia. Seeing how all of this plays out is right at the top of my list of things to do in 2019. I am looking forward to seeing how the relationship with Ditto develops, and think that could really help to change things up a gear. More new contributors will bring more new ideas and skills. I am also interested to attend some events in 2019, I really enjoyed meeting the other Decred contributors and talking to people about the project in person the one time I have done that.