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Hyperledger Executive Director Brian Behlendorf on Taking Risks, Open-Source Tech, Salesforce and Digital Identity

“I can see that a lot of the opportunities I’ve had for things that landed in my lap are thanks to privilege,” said Behlendorf, who is the primary developer of the Apache Web server, a free and open-source cross-platform web server software. “It takes a bit of smarts to know how to take advantage of the opportunities presented in front of you, but I’d say perhaps the thing that I did differently, that I think most people are given advice to do, is early in my career I said, this seems to be the time where I can take the most risks.” He didn’t have things like debt and a family keeping him from taking risks.

“Now is the time to not go and work for a big, boring company, but to go dive into startups,” he thought as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley. “I was a lot more interested in playing with this new thing called the internet.” Concurrent to his studies, he had landed a job with a tech and culture magazine.

“I was working on setting Wired Magazine up on the web with a website for the first time, which sounds really trite, but in 1993 or 1994, that was pretty unusual,”said Behlendorf, who joined Hyperledger in May 2016 –– approximately six months after it launched. “So, I went to go work for them. In parallel, I started another company with some other people I met and tried different things, spreading myself across a number of different projects.” He then doubled down on the ones that seemed to be bearing fruit. He never returned to UC Berkeley.

“I just stopped going,” he said. “I officially kind of said, I can always go back at some point in the future, and still haven’t. I haven’t really paid a negative price for that. A lot of that is due to privilege and being a white male. You can get away with that more easily than many other people can. But, then you fit into the mold of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who didn’t complete college either. That was always uncomfortable for me too. My choice wasn’t based on a hatred for schools so much as I was just learning so much more.” Behlendorf can be nervous about recommending that as a career path.

“But, I do think sometimes completing college is oversold as a path to accomplishing what you want to accomplish,” he said. “You certainly need to do it if your goal is to become a lawyer or a doctor. I wouldn’t suggest you bail out on medical school and try to freelance as a surgeon. But, especially in technology, a lot of the people I know are just self-taught around programming. Programming is one of those few professions where you can still self-teach or take a lot of different types of classes and land a six-figure job. The main thing I did right was taking a lot of risks early in my career, not focusing on a financial payout, but being focused on impact, being focused on doing what felt fun to some degree, then figuring out over time how to take advantage of the opportunities that [approach] created.”

Behlendorf was also public about his path. “I posted a lot on the early internet,” he said. “A lot of my day was writing to public mailing lists, whether that was around open-source code, whether that was around standards, whether that was just collections of interesting people. And it was through that writing that I really thought carefully about what I was doing and what I would do next. So, writing as a path to thinking and moving forward seemed to be the key to my success, too.”

Hyperledger as an Open-Source Project

His path led him to Hyperledger, an open-source project hosting technologies used by a global community of corporations, start-ups, researchers, governments, universities and  open-source communities.

“By virtue of being an open-source project, anybody can use the code and anybody can download it from GitHub or get it from wherever they want,” said Behlendorf. “We don’t really have any control over that and that’s intentional. We don’t even have metrics to share because there’s so many different ways people might get that code.” That’s how it is with open-source software.

“Part of that anybody can use a thing, which is true of any open-source project, means that you kind of have to live with the fact that some people who you might otherwise disagree with or not want to work with or are prevented by law from working with can use your code. And, so for some people they’d be happier if their open-source code wasn’t used by militaries around the world and weapon systems.”

Sometimes nation-states on sanctions lists might get their hands on the code. “Iran certainly is on a lot of people’s not favorite countries list,” said Behlendorf. “But despite that, there’s nothing that keeps them from being able to obtain open-source code, whether that’s Linux, Apache or Hyperledger technologies.”

There hasn’t been any communication between Iran and Hyperledger, which is part of the Linux Foundation, funded by its members, and focused on enterprise. “They’re welcome to use it,” said Behlendorf. “I’m not really in a position to tell them to stop using it because it’s open-source code. If Iran is looking at this as a technology that might be useful for doing a digital central bank or digital currency, they’d be in good company, because other central banks are giving blockchain technology and us a look –– specifically Hyperledger Fabric –– to see what might be possible.”

He noted inaccuracies in early reports, stating that the technology being used was created by IBM technology. While IBM did donate the initial code for Hyperledger Fabric, there’s a diverse community contributing to that framework ever since. Hyperledger Fabric is one of 15 projects (and one of six frameworks) hosted by Hyperledger.

Behlendorf assures this is not the case, stressing Hyperledger’s vendor neutrality, with technology contributed and used by diverse organizations and developers. To his point, earlier this year, Salesforce began contributing to the Hyperledger open-source community.

Salesforce Contributing To Bug Fixes

“Hyperledger Fabric is the one that is perhaps the most widely known about, but Hyperledger Sawtooth is getting a lot of interest and attraction out there,” said Behlendorf, who is on the board of the Mozilla Foundation since 2003, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation since 2013.

The biggest corporations on the planet, such as Salesforce, are helping develop Hyperledger technologies.“We’ve been helping them understand how open source projects work and how they can get involved,” he said. Salesforce is participating in Hyperledger’s open-source development process, fixing and escalating bugs they’ve discovered. Salesforce is building on top of the Hyperledger Sawtooth framework, a modular platform for building, deploying, and running distributed ledgers. They released the first low-code blockchain platform for CRM.

The Importance of Digital Identity to Blockchain

Since he joined Hyperledger, Behlendorf has learned about the importance of reinventing digital identity in order to deploy blockchain in industry. Hyperledger is building technology pieces for self-sovereign or user-centric digital identity.

“Digital identity is making the documents that you hold close to you held much like a cryptocurrency or crypto asset wallet or keys,” he said. “And how different this approach is from the traditional Facebook style of your name and password to log in on that remote website somewhere.” The world will look very different after digital identity gets more widely deployed.

“It’s pretty core to what we’re doing these days in a way that I did not expect jumping in three years ago,” he said.

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