‘Blockchain Is Really Democratizing a Lot of Things,’ Interview With Marta Piekarska, Director of Hyperledger’s Ecosystem

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Talking with the director of ecosystem at Hyperledger on blockchain adoption, community stereotypes and the power of education.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Hyperledger, an open source project, was created in 2016 by the Linux Foundation in order to support the development of blockchain-based distributed ledgers. All the members of Hyperledger — including such major actors as Intel, Accenture, JPMorgan Chase, Hitachi, Fujitsu, Alibaba Cloud, Citigroup, Deutsche Telekom and many others — find their interest in blockchain technology and discuss it with Marta Piekarska, who is in charge of the project’s ecosystem.  

We met Marta at the Anon Blockchain Summit in Vienna and talked about computer science, conservative vs. progressive sectors of economy, Hyperledger’s community and her favorite books.

Kristina Lucrezia Cornèr: Can you please tell us how the whole Hyperledger adventure started?

Marta Piekarska: The Linux Foundation was created 20 years ago to bring enterprises and the open-source community together to work on frameworks, tools and technologies to support certain fields. What started off with Core Linux, today has over 70 projects in every major industry.

Hyperledger started three years ago to bring enterprises and the open-source community to work together on blockchain tools and frameworks. Every piece of code, every piece of work that ever happens under the Linux Foundation has to be on the Apache license. Hyperledger started three years ago with 30 founding companies, some of them the biggest in the industry: IBM, Accenture, JPMorgan Chase, Hitachi, Fujitsu and Intel, of course. And then, there are much smaller startups, like IntellectEU, that was a founding member of Hyperledger, and some big but not very well-known companies, like Digital Assets, like DTCC — which now has its name, but back in the time before blockchain, it was one of the most important institutions in the U.S., but nobody knew about that.

And shortly after the Linux Foundation started Hyperledger, Brian Behlendorf was hired as the executive director of Hyperledger, and three or four months after he came to me and said: “Would you like to join us at the Linux Foundation focusing on Hyperledger?”

The way that Linux Foundation is structured is that some projects have core employees, and we are focused 100% on Hyperledger. And then, our PR, marketing team and events team are shared across all the Linux Foundation projects and focused more or less intensely, depending on how many events or how much marketing we need.

Hyperledger’s ecosystem

KLC: What about your position – Director of Ecosystems? What is your role?

MP: It was a nice creation, although nobody knows what it means, which might be a problem. So, I define my role as member success, because Hyperledger is a nonprofit, and we are member-based. So, our life, our existence is sustained by membership fees. And these members are enterprises. We don’t have individual memberships, but enterprises that want to benefit from the PR, marketing support, networking, promotion, and all that. Because the technologies are 100% open source, you don’t have to ask permission to join special interest groups, you don’t have to ask for the permission to download the code. But there is a lot that can be done in the blockchain space to support your development of products, solutions, etc. That’s basically what we at Hyperledger do, and my focus is on working with our members to define what it means to be a successful Hyperledger member, why did they join this gentlemen’s club, if you will.

KLC: That is some very gender-focused language.

MP: It is, but it’s very British. Until today, you have some gentlemen’s clubs only, like a Soho house. That’s more gender-specific.

I work very closely with our now-over-280 members to understand why they apply blockchain technology, and how they apply it. My computer science background is very useful because I understand their technology at its core — like, I understand why they are going blockchain. And then, I can abstract that and talk about more high-level goals and objectives.

The role of gender stereotypes

KLC: How is it to be a woman in the blockchain “gentleman’s club”?

MP: My background is in humanities. I never actually planned to study computer science, I never thought of technology before I applied randomly to a technical university. I lost a bet, basically. The bet was that I had to apply to a technical university — and if I got in, I had to at least start studying. So, I did that, I randomly chose electrical and computer engineering because it sounded fancy. I started, and after two months I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do in my life. I want to code — I loved coding.

It was a very rough ride for me, firstly because anything that you start learning compared to the other people that have been doing that for the last million years of their life, is harder. In high school, I was a top student, always the best in class. I went to university and I hardly made it through the first semester, I hardly passed all of my exams. Then, it got slowly better and better, obviously.

But also, the way I have been treated by my professors was pretty awful. My favorite story was two or three weeks in, when one of my professors said to me: “Oh, I guess computers don’t like you, but don’t worry, computers in general don’t like women.” Great. I’ve also had comments like “Maybe ballet school will be better for you than the computer science school.”

Initially, it was 80 of us that started and five women. After the first semester, there were twenty of us and two ladies — me and another one.

The thing I don’t like about this industry in general is that it is always about your gender, when you are a woman — I guess, a person of color as well, or different sexualities. It’s not always about if you’re smart or you’re not smart, it’s just always about your gender.

I’ve found the hacker community extremely welcoming, and I’ve never had problems with being open about being bisexual or being a woman, and all of my hacker friends all have quirks in one way or another. The more traditional, strict industry and computer science is very much about, “you’ve got this scholarship because you’re a woman,” or “you didn’t get this scholarship because you’re a woman.”

On the other hand, I think that blockchain is really democratizing a lot of things; it is democratizing the startup world. Now startups can compete with the biggest. […] And the same with that women now can be entrepreneurs, and don’t care about what guys are thinking. People of color can be entrepreneurs and don’t care about what others are thinking. I think this is pretty incredible and a very powerful area, and I’ve never really felt in any way discriminated.

Obviously, we still struggle to get good technical females talking on stage. It seems like if there are good technical females, they tend to stick in the coding room and code. But that will happen.

There was this “60 minutes” — it’s a show in the U.S., and they did a study on computer science and kids. And it turns out that after secondary school, there is a massive drop. So, until secondary school girls are very eager, and I see that one of my stepdaughters, she’s 13, she was always really good at sciences, and it took so much courage to say “I’m gonna go my A-levels in triple science.” For a year, we had to work on it and say, “it’s okay, it’s fine, you can be good in science,” but she just felt embarrassed.

KLC: The same could be found in the first season of “Genius,” a series by National Geographic, about Einstein. His first wife, a brilliant scientist, had to struggle through all her life to be a woman in the academic sphere. And it just became harder when she married Einstein and bore his child.

MP: Historically, we’ve been in a society where women are supposed to be supporting the man who comes home and brings food. And there are different ways of doing that. So, in Japanese culture, the man is the one earning money and working hard, and woman will take all the money and give him just pocket money. In European culture, it’s much more that man drives it all and woman is there to cook. We say it’s stereotypes, but they are not really stereotypes.

New technologies and academia

Marta Piekarska is also running academic programs, being responsible within Hyperledger to connect innovative business with academia.

MP: This is something that we are just building out. How can we connect academics with the enterprises, because we have all the enterprises in the world, but academics still don’t know they can reach out to us and say, “I want to do a research on X, do you have a partner I can be doing it with?” So, we are trying to bridge that gap.

KLC: What is your solution, your first steps to connect with academia?

MP: Well, we have an internship program that just started. So, we are trying to do real academic internships. We had 10 places, now we grew into 15, because it is just so popular. The Linux Foundation or Hyperledger pays for these internships, but we ask our community to submit topics and be members. It’s those different enterprises — someone in that enterprise has that little thing that they want to do. We are also trying to build mentoring programs for the community to learn how to work with open source, to open a new project. That’s just starting.

Some other ideas are: We have some proposed research, we have universities on the Hyperledger.org mailing list, where we hope to engage academics more closely. Basically, you know, it’s giving a shout-out to the people who are doing interesting research — like the Cambridge Centre for Alternate Financing is doing really good work, and they are an associate member of Hyperledger. For universities, governments and nonprofits, we have an associate membership, which is free of charge — and if universities are engaged with us, we are happy to accept them as associate members. We have the Blockchain at Berkeley lab, we have Penn University, we have MIT, Stanford, Peking University.

Challenges while working in the blockchain space

KLC: It seems really exciting. You combine in your everyday job that communication, humanities skills and, at the same time, technical knowledge. What are the main challenges within the objectives you are trying to reach?

MP: Well, scalability is an issue, because you want to keep that individual approach and engagement — but with the more people you get, there are only so many hours in the day.

In terms of the general blockchain space, I think the biggest challenge today is a lack of objective experts. All the experts today — or many of the experts — have learned a certain thing. Like, they’ve learned only about Hyperledger, or only about ether, or only about Corda, and they will spend a lot of energy explaining to you that you should not be using anything but X. And when you ask them why, the honest answer is “because I don’t know W and Z.”

So, that’s why I’m so hopeful with the academic programs and teaching programs. As we go through the batch of students that have learned about all of those elements, because they’ve been university-educated rather than online-educated, (although I have nothing against online courses, but in order to be online-educated you have to take five courses, right? If you go to university, you still have to take five courses, but you have to do them for the credit). I think that with that, we will get better at having people who will say: “Okay, this makes sense for X, and this makes sense for Y, and let’s use the technologies appropriately.” So, the lack of objective experts is a thing.

Collaboration, in general. We are changing the way the people are thinking about interactions with their customers, with their competitors as well — and need to start feeling comfortable sharing information with their competitors.

I think, it’s changing. It’s funny because I want to say it’s a slow change, but then again, we’ve only been the blockchain enterprise for, like, four years.

Discussing industries: Who are the most conservative actors in the space?

MP: I think, out of all the sectors, the financial industry is the most conservative one, although it was the one that has been in the most rush to adopt blockchain. Fintech was the one that jumped on blockchain immediately — like, the first one. But actually moving from “we are doing a bunch of PoC [proof-of-concept]” to “let’s embrace this into production” — that is extremely hard. It’s also, I think, the difference between how easy it is to do a PoC in a certain domain and how it scales up to production.

I’ll give you an example. It’s hard to build a successful deployment of a supply chain, because if you want to do a PoC, you can do a supply chain between you sourcing your Panna Cotta from your home to me, selling it at my restaurant, and that’s two nodes, and maybe you source your cream from somewhere and I sell it, right? So it’s easy to make a PoC, and we’ll say it runs well and we’ll track the quality of Panna Cotta over the supply chain.

However, if you think “How do I scale that actually to the mass production of Panna Cotta,” you have to sign up all of the sugar, cream, cows, and whatever else through the transportation of the Panna Cotta — packaging as well, all of the health certification for England, where I’ll be selling it. So, the number of parties that are highly competitive and might not want to join that market, that supply chain, is very high.

And if you think of Brexit, now you also have to add customs to it, and border control, and whatever else. A hell. So, building out a successful supply chain production is much harder than a PoC, which you could do that over a hackathon.

If you think of an identity system, it’s the opposite. You have a very hard way of navigating how to identify the elements that should be put in a blockchain-based identity, what should go on a blockchain, what should go off blockchain, what is sensitive information, what is private information — you have all those meta-questions that you have to answer, even when you are building a PoC. But then, if you do a good PoC, scaling it up to production is easier — you are just adding more participants.

This is where we could say there are more traditional versus less traditional industries, or more conservative versus less conservative. I think that supply chain is one that is really embracing the production, but it took them awhile to get there because they were figuring out their steps.

Health care is extremely embracing blockchain. You have payments on a blockchain throughout health care, you have medical health record management, you have prescriptions on a blockchain. All of that is really going forward.

The financial industry, it’s really hard to build a good, scalable reconciliation because there are a lot of competitors that are not necessarily incentivized to move to a new system.

KLC: What about the energy sector?

MP: The energy sector is catching up. So, we had a PoC very early on. It was done in China, it is from Blockchain Energy Labs, and it is tracking CO2 emission through a blockchain. There are companies like BitLumens that looks at deploying systems that combine energy use, giving to the grid sustainable energy consumption with micro-crediting — so, proving that you can buy access to a solar panel that is on your house, which basically works as a sustainable energy source. You can buy, on a regular basis, access to that for hours or for days. And based on that, you build out a credit score that is trustworthy, and you can get microloans. So, there are some interesting projects around energy.

Also, of course, one of the big things in energy — the next big thing, I think — will be a merge of IoT [Internet of Things] and the management of those independent devices, because blockchain there is very important. You get to track the security of those machines, big power grids and so on.

Books on blockchain

KLC: Okay, my last question: Can you recommend your favorite book? Something that inspired you about your work.

MP: That’s a good question. I’ll tell you three of my favorite books. The first is a Richard Faulkner book. That one inspired me because it is all about adventure, and so I’ve always lived by that.

The other book that I really love is “The World According to Garp” by John Irving. It’s just beautifully surreal, very smart about life, very much about doing what you want, but going with what feels right rather than what should be right about the societal norms.

And third book is “East of Eden,” which again is about empowerment and the fact that you can do things. The most important words are “you can” rather than “you have to.” So, these are the three books that inspire me in life in general.

In terms of blockchain work, there are not many books out there yet. I am currently reading a book that is called “How Open Source Ate the World.” It is a very good book about open source and working with open source, which I admire.

In terms of courses or learning blockchain, I quite value our Hyperledger Blockchain course, which we have free of charge online on edX. There are two types of it, there is a high-level one, and there is one that gets you into coding. I think this is a really good gateway to blockchain technologies in general.

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