Blockchain has made inroads into a wide range of industries, extending far beyond its roots in cryptocurrency. Demand has increased greatly for developers who have the skills required to build blockchain networks and decentralized applications, inspiring many individuals to consider a career in blockchain development.
Blockchain is a type of distributed ledger technology (DLT) that provides a secure environment for transactions between participating members. A blockchain is a decentralized database that's managed by computer nodes 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. If data must be updated, the change is treated as a new transaction, and a block is added to the blockchain. The original block remains unchanged. In this way, there is always an indisputable record of all actions, including corrective actions.
Blockchain got its start with Bitcoin and similar digital currencies, but its benefits soon became apparent to other industries, including banking, financial services, manufacturing, retail, supply chain management, energy, telecommunications, healthcare, education and government. Even companies such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Oracle and IBM are promoting blockchain's many benefits, although that's mainly 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 DLT 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 platforms without qualified developers who possess the specialized skill sets necessary to build efficient and secure blockchain networks and applications.
Who is a blockchain developer?
A blockchain developer is a software engineer who develops 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 has a deep understanding of blockchain and DLT and what it takes to implement the individual blockchain components in a blockchain network. 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 used to create these components.
Not every blockchain developer has the same level of skill in every area, but they possess a wide breadth of knowledge about what it takes to deploy an effective blockchain network and its applications.
Is it worth it to become a blockchain developer?
According to a recent DevSkiller report, blockchain was the fastest-growing technology on the DevSkiller platform in 2022. The platform, which helps recruiters assess a candidate's digital skills, saw a 552% increase in the number of blockchain-related requests from its customers. Despite slumps in the cryptocurrency market, there is clearly a high demand for blockchain developers.
Because so many industries take an interest in blockchain technology, the high demand should come as no surprise, and it’s a trend that will likely continue as more organizations incorporate blockchain into their operations.
The blockchain industry is a relatively young one, however, which means that the pool of experienced developers is still relatively small, and it will take time to build up that pool.
The amount of time it takes an individual to become a blockchain developer depends on that person's level of experience and expertise. It also depends on the individual's particular circumstances and how much time he or she can devote to building an understanding of blockchain and its network architecture. Some programmers might be able to master blockchain development in only a few months, while others might take several years or even longer.
Because blockchain developers are in such high demand, their salaries tend to be higher than other types of software engineers. However, salary ranges can vary significantly depending on the location and type of industry, as well as the developer's experience and skill set. According to ZipRecruiter, as of May 2023 the average salary for a blockchain developer in the US was $129,179, but salaries ranged from $23,500 to $199,500.
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 vary, but they can include any of 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.
- Employing a wide range of soft skills and people skills, including communication, collaboration, problem-solving, multitasking and working in a team environment.
Blockchain developers might also be called upon to fulfill other tasks, such as participating in open source community projects, meeting with stakeholders, mentoring younger developers or learning new blockchain skills.
What are the types of blockchain developers?
Blockchain developers wear many hats, depending on the size of their organization and their specific situation. That said, most blockchain developers are generally classified as either core blockchain developers or blockchain software developers.
- Core blockchain developers. 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. These 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 fill both roles, while other organizations break responsibilities into more specific roles, such as blockchain developer, blockchain analyst, blockchain solutions architect or blockchain project manager.
The exact approach depends on the organization and its specific circumstances. The rising demand for smart contract development, for example, has led some teams to hire smart contract engineers to 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 and an extensive breadth of knowledge. When launching a career in blockchain development, an individual might find it 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. Even so, there are seven essential blockchain developer skills that every professional should possess.
1. Blockchain architecture
Blockchain developers must have a full understanding of blockchain, including how it works and how the network architecture supports its functionality. They should be well versed in concepts such as cryptography, hash functions, distributed ledgers, smart contracts, decentralized applications and any other concepts integral to understanding blockchain's inner workings. Developers should also be familiar with the different types of consensus algorithms -- such as proof of work or proof of stake -- as well as with the four types of blockchain architecture: consortium, private, public and hybrid.
Effective cryptography is essential to ensuring a secure blockchain environment and preventing people from tampering with individual transactions. Developers should have a strong foundation in cryptographic concepts and practices, including wallets, keys, digital signatures and symmetric/asymmetric encryption. They should know how to use public key cryptography to prevent unauthorized access to data and understand the differences between cryptographic hash functions such as SHA-256 and Keccak-256. Developers should also understand the differences between permissioned blockchains and permissionless blockchains, the pros and cons of each one and how to implement both types on a blockchain network.
3. Data structures
The entire blockchain network consists of data structures. Each block is a type of data structure that clusters transactions for the distributed ledger. Because blockchain developers must routinely work with data structures, they should understand how those structures are designed and how a blockchain network uses them. They should also be familiar with the various types of data structures, such as graphs, heaps, hash trees, linked lists and Merkle trees. In addition, developers should know how to access, search and modify the data within those structures and work with the metadata in a block's header.
4. Smart contracts
Smart contracts are self-executing digital contracts that enable two parties to exchange goods or services without an intermediary. Now a staple of blockchain implementations, they ensure that all terms of the agreements between parties are met. Because smart contracts have become such an integral part of blockchain networks, developers should have a thorough understanding of what they are and how they enforce business logic. In addition, they should know how to design, build and test them in a way that ensures they can carry out the terms of the agreement. 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 also be web developers who are experienced in all aspects of web development. They should have a comprehensive understanding of the technologies that support web applications. They should also know what it takes to design, develop, optimize and secure those applications. Blockchain web applications must be efficient and user-friendly, without negatively affecting performance on the blockchain network, and it's up to the web developer to ensure that happens.
6. Distributed systems
At its core, blockchain is a DLT that relies on an efficient and dependable network architecture that can support decentralized applications and smart contracts, whether running on permissioned blockchains or permissionless blockchains. Blockchain developers should understand how distributed systems work in a peer-to-peer network. Because these systems have no central authority, they require careful communication and coordination to avoid any single point of failure and ensure that the consensus mechanism can properly control all transactions.
7. Programming languages
Organizations hiring blockchain developers might weigh these skills differently, but all seven are essential to be an effective blockchain developer. 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 are also important.
In addition, blockchain developers should have strong cross-disciplinary skill sets and a good foundation in open standards and technologies that promote interoperability. And they should possess the soft skills and people skills necessary to effectively communicate and collaborate with other team members, which is especially important in today's agile development environments.
How do you learn to become a blockchain developer?
There's no specific path for becoming a blockchain developer, but professionals can take several steps toward a career in blockchain:
- Learn as much as possible about blockchain technology and its 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.
- 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 such as GitHub and post your own applications.
- Familiarize yourself with the tools, technologies and platforms currently used in blockchain development. These include 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 to 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.
Software engineers have a variety of options for learning about blockchain technology, many of them free or at very little cost. They can read white papers, take courses, work through tutorials, participate in online training and pursue certifications in blockchain technologies.
Numerous colleges and other organizations offer courses for learning about blockchain. For example, developers can find courses through Udemy, Coursera, Eincode Academy, Pluralsight, Udacity and numerous others. Many of these courses -- such as the Professional Certificate in Blockchain Fundamentals course from EdX and the University of California, Berkeley, or the Certified Blockchain Expert course from the Blockchain Council -- are geared toward blockchain certification.
When learning about blockchain, would-be developers should also pay close attention to current blockchain trends. For example, there is a growing interest in how blockchain and artificial intelligence -- including machine learning and deep learning -- can complement each other. Another emerging trend is decentralized finance, which promises to help decentralize traditional financial services.
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, it can be an issue. Beyond that, there are many other options for moving forward on a blockchain career trajectory, and the more knowledgeable candidates are about blockchain technology and the industry as a whole, the better their chances for landing the right position.