On today’s episode we chat with Andrew McFarlane, CTO at Validation Cloud. His company focuses on building out infrastructure for blockchains, supporting the nodes and validators that keep everything running and verified. McFarlane explains where popular languages like Rust and Go can be found in the Web3 world and why he thinks a crypto winter is the best time to be building fundamental tech.
You can learn more about Andrew, from building out a telco in Canada to cyber security at Deloitte, on his LinkedIn.
Validation Cloud bills itself as the world’s fastest node infrastructure and cites networks like Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Binance as clients it supports. Learn more at the company’s website here.
The company announced the launch of it's latest product, Javelin, earlier today.
Shout out to this week’s lifeboat badge winner, Derek, for helping answer the question: How do you open the file chooser in an Android app using Kotlin?
[intro music plays]
Ben Popper Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Stack Overflow Podcast, a place to talk all things software and technology. I am your host, Ben Popper, Director of Content here at Stack Overflow, flying solo today. We have a great guest who's going to talk to us a bit about Web2 and Web3– some of the things we stumble over and discuss in detail on the show quite often. So I would like to welcome Andrew McFarlane, who is the CTO of Validation Cloud, to the Stack Overflow Podcast. Hi, Andrew.
Andrew McFarlane Hi. Great to meet you, Ben, and thank you very much for having me on the podcast. Very excited to chat with you today.
BP So tell us a little bit about yourself. What was your entrée into the world of software development or technology, and how did that take you to the role you're in today?
AM Sure. So I'll actually start with just a little background on the company. So I'm the CTO of Validation Cloud as you mentioned. So we are a Web3 infrastructure company that provides high performance node and validator infrastructure for blockchain networks. So nodes, if folks are less familiar, are essentially the lifelines into Web3 for developers and users, allowing them to build on and interact with blockchain networks and their applications. And validators form the basis for staking as they help confirm transactions into a blockchain and generate block rewards or yield on behalf of holders of crypto. So a little bit on me– How did I get into this space? So I originally did my computer engineering degree at the University of Toronto. I was fortunate to be selected into the Jeffrey Skoll program there which takes a handful of students directly from the engineering program into the MBA, because I wanted to combine both the engineering skill set with the business finance to eventually take an entrepreneurial path and be able to understand both sides of a business. Some of my professional experience that led me here was I worked with Canada's largest telecom on content distribution networks for video streaming applications. I spent some time at Deloitte in cybersecurity where I worked on network and application security for large financial institutions. And while I was there I ended up hearing from colleagues who were evangelizing blockchain as being this new frontier for economics and distributed computing. So I ended up connecting with the now co-founders of Validation Cloud in 2018, and my eyes were opened to the potential of this blockchain industry. So we were seeing a wave of blockchains being funded in 2017 and noticed the opportunity to provide these new networks with the necessary infrastructure for them to scale. So for the last few years I've been operating blockchain infrastructure from pre-launch to main net for many of the most prominent ecosystems in Web3, so networks like Polygon, Chainlink, Ethereum and others.
BP Very cool. And so from my admittedly not as advanced understanding of how blockchains work, there is a decentralized system in which people can choose to participate as a node, as a validator, as a miner, and be economically rewarded for that. And those incentives help to keep things decentralized, trust kind of shared between everyone, and a lot of the most interesting discussion of late was about networks like Etherium moving from proof of work to proof of stake and how that would enable them to be more efficient and less environmentally perhaps impactful. So why is a third party like Validation Cloud required within these burgeoning ecosystems? What about your work validates or certifies proof of stake or nodes in a way that they can't do on their own?
AM Sure. So you can think of the blockchain networks as not being really an entity themselves. They’re a collection of these different third parties that are collaborating in these ecosystems that are helping to run the underlying infrastructure. And as I mentioned, you can separate sort of those two roles– nodes and validators– where nodes are necessary for basically keeping a record of the blockchain and providing a gateway for developers and users to make read and write calls onto those blockchains. And after those transactions have been propagated, they need to be confirmed into the state by a collection of validators, which are sort of unique nodes who have keys on them that help confirm those blocks into the chain. So a big portion of our value and what we're really excited about is our launch of a product called Javelin. That product is node as a service, and as blockchain networks want to push their block chat times to be faster and faster, a limiting factor for how quickly users can actually experience that speed of the underlying blockchain network is how quickly they can communicate with a node. And so we solve that global scale problem to tap global users into and proliferate transactions across a global network very quickly.
BP And so I guess of late there was a bit of a boom and a bust in the world of crypto. Like I said, there was a lot of interest in changing from proof of work to proof of stake. What has that been like from your perspective? How do you see the ecosystem continuing to move forward, and in what ways do you think maybe the recent shakeout was good or bad for the future of Web3?
AM Yeah, ultimately there's still a lot of innovation that's going on in this ecosystem. I mean, there are unfortunate natures to the downturn for its impact on certain businesses. But a lot of the most impactful companies in the industry were built during previous crypto winters because there's really a focus during those times on building the core infrastructure and improving product in order to take the industry to the next level. So there's going to be a number of use cases that survive and a number of new use cases that will emerge. Just a couple notes on that, DeFi as being a big one. Despite the drop of the market, there's still around 30 billion dollars of staked value across DeFi today and only set to grow as it sets the stage for more efficient financial services infrastructure, and has the potential to be impactful in emerging markets for things like access to credit and micro loans. And another large one is blockchain gaming. So in the first half of 2022 approximately 3 billion dollars was invested in blockchain gaming alone, which accounted for more than half of the funding in the video game industry during that period. So there's a lot of capital formation around the industry despite the downturn, and so there's a lot of opportunity for these industries. Gaming, just as an example, has an exciting ability in blockchain to allow gamers to own in-game items, the ability to unlock the value of those items, move them across the metaverse, across games, even the ability to temporarily lend out the utility of those items to others. So there's a lot of exciting opportunities still yet to play out in that space, but these are use cases that are here to stay.
BP Interesting. And so when you look at this from someone as you described, who got into this through learning in college, then working at the MBA, talking about streaming and then security, people who want to move from Web2 to Web3, what skills translate and what did you have to learn? Where could they start if this is an industry they're interested in moving into?
BP Right, right. So for folks who are interested, can you talk to us a little about some of the networks that you support and in what way they're building with you? I perused your website briefly and saw some names there that I recognized– folks like Polygon and Ethereum and Solana, Cardano. In what way are those well-known names utilizing some of the technology and the platform you have, and to what degree is there a spectrum I saw under the ‘Who We Serve’ part, everything from asset managers to networks, to custodians to applications?
AM Sure. So I can unpack that a bit. So with the node as a service offering, we help connect users on four applications on top of those networks, communicate and have their transactions both be seen very quickly by the network and help get confirmed on priority. We're also participating as validators in a number of those networks to help also with the confirmation of transactions. So we're unique in our infrastructure coverage both from the beginning of the transaction all the way through on the network. On the networking side, our value prop is being able to bring an enhanced user experience to developers and to users which allows more robust applications to be on top and can actually allow networks to function more quickly as well. Because of how we tie our global infrastructure together and run nodes across the globe, we can actually help propagate transactions to move block times faster on networks and to users. So I talked a little bit before about DeFi and gaming so speed is already critical for 84% of Web3 users, so those are the DeFi users and the blockchain gaming users who are interacting with Web3 today. And our ability to, no matter where you are in the world, tap you into the closest endpoint for communicating with a node and then propagate a transaction has very interesting value for you in those use cases. So in DeFi, that speed and that propagation allows you to have superior trade execution that leads to winning arbitrage opportunities, avoiding being front-run, and ultimately generate more alpha in the portfolio for asset managers. And then on the side of gaming, speed eliminates game lag which is really the number one priority for user experience for gamers. And so that sets the stage for more robust and interesting games to be built on Web3. It unlocks developers to tap into global user bases who can participate in those games. It enables gamers to be more competitive because they can have their transactions proliferated across the network really fast and be put in on priority.
BP Start building authentication today with your free Auth0 by Okta plan. No credit card required, no messing around. Get started in five minutes at stack.auth0.com. Make sure to use that link and let them know that the podcast sent you.
BP So in some way is this similar to kind of the point of presence network that a big streaming service would build out? They would want to have something that's global so if I'm looking to do Netflix in the US and then I fly to Hungary, they assign me to a new set of infrastructure and I'm able to do things really rapidly. And then at a certain point once you've built that out, you become the backend provider for other folks. Like if somebody is launching a live game streaming service there, it's a first person shooter, and latency matters. Well, I've built out this incredible network through my work doing pops as video streaming, so now you can rely on me as well. Is that kind of what you're doing but for the Web3 world through node?
AM Yeah, that's a great analogy there. I mean there's ultimately some more Web3 and blockchain specific innovations that we've put in there, but that's absolutely a great analogy for basically moving the blockchain closer to users wherever they are on the planet. There are also some other benefits that I think are important to highlight, particularly for developers in the ecosystem. Similar to in Web2 where a company like AWS takes away the burden from having you run and manage a lot of your own infrastructure to build out your company, our access points also take that burden away from you, from having to manage your own node infrastructure in order to run your blockchain business. So we can maximize performance and scalability for you but also reduce your costs on team and on infrastructure that are required to manage those aspects. And also because we focus on that core as our business, we can take that out of your hands, give you global resiliency, more redundancy than you'd be able to achieve as a standalone organization and focus core on building out your application for your user base.
BP Very cool. And excuse me if this question is uninformed, but when you act as a node infrastructure provider are you sometimes coming in and deciding, “Yes, I will participate in that way through a blockchain that already exists like a Bitcoin or Ethereum,” and so you take the role of node provider, but you're sort of figuring out how to do that as you said, globally, and trying them all together. And then are there other times if somebody has an idea for a new blockchain or new blockchain service and they're not sure how to do nodes, then you might be the one who supplies them or sets them up with that infrastructure? I guess the question is, do you simply take advantage of the opportunity to act as a node when it's available, or do you in some cases supply people with nodes that will be the essence of their infrastructure because they haven't really set up a distributed community yet and they don't really have participants?
AM That's a great question. So for us, we are working with organizations that have built out blockchain networks. But the stage at which we get involved with those companies can be anywhere on the spectrum, anywhere from ideation and early test nets where they're testing out the functionality of their distributed network and helping work through some of those aspects, right on through main net and into larger maturation where the network may be more mature. We're also getting involved with later stage blockchains as well. Because the core infrastructure that we built is agnostic to the network that we're deploying and so we've built in a lot of innovations around automation to make sure that we can fit in new protocols into our structure.
BP All right, two last questions for you. One is, if folks are listening and they are Web3 curious or participating already in the ecosystem, they're software developers or they work at organizations that are in this space, how would you recommend they learn more about you or get involved? Is there a way for them to read through some of your documentation or play around with an API or an SDK? Is there a demo they can run? What's the best way for folks who are listening to get a better sense of what Validation Cloud can offer them and why it might be the right tool or platform?
AM Sure. So there's a few ways that you can do this. The first way is you can go to our website. We're happy to announce by the launch of the podcast there should be open accessibility into their Javelin product for node as a service. Very shortly after, through that UI we'll give access to staking and additional networks as the weeks go on, so look forward to that. And you can engage with us directly with the product. To learn more you can also reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll get back to you on priority. We'd love to engage and grow the community so reach out to us. And also if you are a developer and you're interested to get involved you could also see our careers page where we have access to software development and DevOps roles to help build out the engineering team.
BP Very cool. And if folks are listening and they are more on the Web3 skeptic side of things or they have been burned recently, what's your message to them? How long have you been in this industry? How many times have you sort of been through this up and down cycle? And what are you excited about for the future, for the next year or so when it comes to building and continuing to try to innovate?
AM Sure. So this is I believe the third crypto cycle I’ve seen. And I can remember towards the beginning skeptics at that time were saying Bitcoin would no longer exist. And so I think it's been settled that it's here to stay with the adoption of traditional financial institutions and the amount of capital pouring into the ecosystem that this space is becoming more and more inevitable as the years go by. And so to the skeptics, I think they should come into the ecosystem, participate and see the level of innovation and excitement for themselves. I mean, there are spaces like in any industry where there's hype and speculation, but if you look under the service, there's a lot of core innovation and there's a lot of great products that are out there and are being built with a lot of room and excitement to come in the future with a number of use cases.
BP Very cool.
BP All right, terrific. Well Andrew, I want to say thanks so much for coming on the program. As we do at the end of every episode, I'm going to shout out someone from the community who came on Stack Overflow and shared a little knowledge. Awarded yesterday to Derek: a lifeboat badge for saving a question from the dustbin of history, “How to open a file when you choose it in the Android app using Kotlin.” If you are struggling with this issue, Derek has an answer for. It was asked four years ago and has helped almost 17,000 people, so Derek, we appreciate you sharing some knowledge with our community. I am Ben Popper. I am the Director of Content here at Stack Overflow. You can always find me on Twitter @BenPopper, or email us at email@example.com with questions and suggestions. And if you like the show, leave us a rating and a review. It really helps.
AM My name's Andrew McFarlane, CTO of Validation Cloud, and you can learn more about the company at validationcloud.io, and reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about our Javelin launch and other products.
BP All right, terrific.
[outro music plays]