The whistle-blowing wizard

With big changes to multi-billion-dollar blockchain Ethereum on the horizon, developers like Greg Colvin find themselves suddenly in the spotlight.

Greg Colvin lives in a mountain valley in the Colorado Rockies, and outside his window is a snow-filled vista, which he shared with us briefly via a recent video link. He’d just moved, and on the kitchen counter lay a box waiting to be unpacked. But before he did so, Colvin agreed to first unpack for Decrypt his role in the events which occurred after a recent core Ethereum developers’ meeting took place behind closed doors. It was an unprecedented move in the history of the famously transparent coding process behind the best known of the decentralized blockchains.

Colvin is a veteran developer whose primary task with Ethereum has been his work on Ethereum’s Virtual Machine (EVM), an integral part of Ethereum’s inner workings and one of the reasons it’s unique among blockchains. His work for the platform has essentially been a part-time unpaid job for the past year, and he’s been living off his personal savings while continuing to maintain the EVM code.

Like much in the dev world (aside from code), the specifics are hazy. But closed-door core developers meetings were first said to have taken place in Prague at the fourth annual conference of Ethereum developers in early November. A subsequent conference call last week was by invitation only.

Sources who participated in the closed meeting last week told Decrypt at the time that concerns about Twitter trolling were among the motivations; meanwhile Lane Rettig, an Ethereum developer and one of the meetings organizers, said, “The reality is that some of the core folks don’t feel comfortable speaking totally candidly when the press is present. I do think that we need to respect that desire and create a safe space for these discussions.”

What is known is that the fact the Prague meetings took place only became public when Colvin (who apparently wasn’t invited) published notes that were taken there on the developer’s resource github. Colvin also revealed he had refused to attend the followup closed-door event.

The news prompted a Twitter outcry among Ethereum developers; complaints by devs on github; and, as a topper, a suggestion by Ethereum’s co-founder and CEO, Vitalik Buterin, that the whole thing was simply an experiment—but one which Buterin said he objected to. Before too long, a return to “normal service” was announced by Hudson Jameson of the Ethereum Foundation, although it’s unclear exactly what that may mean. Colvin isn’t sure either.

“So far as I know the next All Core Devs call will be live-streamed and recorded just like always,” he wrote upon hearing the news. “The experiment seems to have been a failure.” (Indeed, today’s meeting was open to the public when it began.)

Building the future by consensus

The rapid growth of startups based on radical decentralization into multi-billion-dollar enterprises is unique to the 21st century. Among these, Ethereum is famed for developing its technology in an open and transparent manner. While the Ethereum Foundation acts as an arbiter, while also supporting ongoing research and development, it’s the technology’s independent developers, acting as a group, who manage the system.

Like many an open source Internet project, the till-now accepted order of business is that the developers must publicly reach consensus about every step they take to maintain a technology which now supports some 100 million smart contracts. Until November, those decisions were supposed to be agreed upon at open meetings, which are usually live-streamed.

The technology they discuss is difficult for outsiders to understand, and little is known about them as individuals. And yet Ethereum developers make decisions which can affect billions of dollars in holdings. Since they reached agreement that significant changes to Ethereum’s underlying code are urgent and necessary, the developer community as a whole has become subject to increasing scrutiny.

That community is distributed across the globe and come from a variety of backgrounds. Some aren’t paid at all for their work, either because they’re dedicated to the cause, or because they’ve become independently wealthy through trading in ether, the Ethereum cryptocurrency; some are paid by the Ethereum Foundation, or moonlight for Ethereum while working for other companies; a few actually rely on welfare to support themselves while coding.

Submarine culture

Whatever their background, by last month some portion of them had decided they were through with real-time public scrutiny.

Colvin for his part dismissed the suggestion that the move to close off meeting access indicated the heretofore close-knit Ethereum developer community was now splintering.

“What gets missed is how intensely engineers and scientists will argue technical issues,” he said. “Because you need to get them right up front. You can’t just go ahead and experiment on a $20 billion network to make sure it’s going to work.”

Colvin, who holds a Ph.D in psychology, first came to the Ethereum community two years ago as a contractor for the Foundation, after 30 years of working for a variety of companies large and small, from Oracle to barely staffed startups.

At Ethereum, Colvin has been charged with improving the performance of the EVM, incrementally supplementing the current version and developing ideas for successive implementations.

But there was always another project on the table: to replace the EVM completely with a product labeled e-WASM, based on the execution environment Web Assembly (aka WASM). It’s chief advantage is that it would enable developers to code in multiple programming languages, instead of having to rely solely on Solidity, the current language base for Ethereum code.

In a familiar refrain, Colvin said he’s not entirely sure why the decision to move to e-WASM was made in June, 2018. But he is sure he doesn’t agree with it. He argues that by the time the new technology is ready, there will simply be too many smart contracts already written for the current EVM. So he’s continued quietly working on an alternative course of “just cleaning up what we had. I figured that was—all-in-all—an easier path than a complete replacement.”

He insists there is “no real conflict” with e-WASM in what he is doing, and that it’s common practice for engineers—even those working for large corporations—to work on these so-called submarine projects, under the radar and in their own time.  

Colvin’s hope is that he receives a grant, ideally from the Ethereum Foundation, to continue his subterranean work. Meanwhile, he’s active in the Fellowship of Ethereum Magicians, a developer group launched in early 2018 as a forum for technical discussions and code disputes. He’s also advising a number of startups.

“And,” he added, “just generally being a cantankerous old man.” Appropriate behavior for a man affectionately dubbed “Ethereum’s Gandalf” by his fellow developers.