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Meet the Herd: Engineering Manager Arthur Burkart


Arthur discusses his reluctant journey into crypto, how to spot empathy in a technical interview, the importance of unrealized yet applicable short-term value, and much more.

Meet the Herd: Engineering Manager Arthur Burkart

By Bison Trails · Mar 12 2021

Each profile in Bison Trails’ Meet the Herd series is the story of a member’s professional path: how they started their career and made their way to the world of blockchain. Interview by Mark Forscher.


Q: Hi Arthur! Tell me about your role at Bison Trails.

I am the Engineering Manager for the Platform Infrastructure Team. I help unblock my team for the various projects we’re working on. Unblocking might mean communicating with other teams to figure out what they're doing, and if there’s an opportunity to reduce effort on both sides.

But what’s a lot more interesting to me is our work with primitives, certain patterns that can be abstracted across all different blockchain protocols. A really good example of a primitive is Global Blockchain Sync. Our Global Blockchain Sync primitive abstracts away the downloading of the blockchain—the ledger—so that we can onboard new protocols to our platform in a more generic way.

Another example of a primitive would be an authentication mechanism we built for our Query & Transact (QT) product that is generic to the protocols; it doesn't need to be protocol-specific. So, the Platform Infrastructure Team is responsible for building and maintaining these primitives.


Q: What’s the story of how you started working at Bison Trails?

I've known Rob for a very long time, since 2011. He’s tried to get me to join every company he's ever worked for. I was in a security role at another company and Rob tried to get me interested in this Bison Trails thing. I was not interested, and I was not looking, but he kept peppering me with information and interesting aspects of crypto. Eventually I started to look into it. Honestly, I didn't actually want to join until I read about Aaron and Joe's background.

There are two pieces that interested me in Bison Trails. First was the Bison Trails website, which lists its values, something a lot of companies do. But what's unique about Bison Trails’ values is that they're all aspirational. Sometimes, companies will list a value like “work hard, play hard.” That's not really a value that everyone aspires to. But I think values like empathy, creativity, trust, transparency, and excellence are all things people want to embody, which indicated to me that they were really well thought-through.

Secondly, there’s Aaron and Joe’s history at Grand Street and the Etsy acquisition. That was really interesting, and it served as a signal to me that they knew what they were doing. Also, I learned about where the people who used to work with them went after Grand Street. Everyone went on to awesome companies. They did awesome things. And Aaron and Joe seemed to consistently have some role in public support for them as well. Seeing all of this was what really sold me on Bison Trails.


Arthur Burkart

Q: Did you have blockchain experience before Bison Trails or was this your first deep dive into blockchain?

I was first exposed to blockchain in 2010 or 2011 but I was not interested. One of my classmates in a college cryptography course used the university's computer cluster to mine bitcoin. They came back with a good amount. I can't remember what it was, but it was a ton now if they still have it. It was their final presentation for the class and that was my exposure to crypto.

In 2017 I first started to dabble a little bit, exploring smart contracts. I didn't get too deep into crypto because I still didn’t trust it. Honestly, I don't think I really started to reach that point of trusting in the technology and thinking ‘this is really, really going to be a big deal’ until maybe this past year while actually working at Bison Trails.

I had my doubts but it really started to click recently. I realized just how easy Bison Trails makes it to do things like staking Polkadot DOTs. I've tried to do it myself manually and failed miserably, and we make it so much easier. Then I saw how our integrations work with different types of customers. It's a night and day difference. And that was really when it clicked, which was surprisingly recent, to be honest.

I tend to gravitate towards concepts like Livepeer’s implementation: this idea that the focus of a blockchain protocol doesn’t have to be just a currency really resonates with me. Tokens can actually be some sort of functional unit. Personally, that's the technology and story that I want to see succeed.

I'm holding out hope that we will start to have these micro-economies of different functional units of work, as in Livepeer’s case with transcoding. NuCypher and Keep are really interesting to me because of the encryption aspect. I'm really looking forward to protocols like eth2. I just want it to succeed. But yeah, to answer your original question, I didn't have any deep knowledge before joining the company.


Q: I’m going to attempt to connect to two strands. You originally met Rob at college when Rob was working at Wesleyan and you were a student?

Yes, that’s right.

Q: As a fellow Wes alum, I’m very curious if you think there’s anything about studying at Wesleyan that was uniquely formative in your world outlook or in this career path that you chose?

Honestly I think it's very challenging to be interested in technology and attend a university like Wesleyan. It's not designed for it. It's designed for deep philosophical thought about the mathematical basis of computer science. And I was not good at it. The reason I took the cryptography course was because to me, ironically, although cryptography is an extremely mathematics-based field, it was one of the few practical applications of computer science that I could find in that university setting.

The reason my career has taken this path is because I needed to find things outside of university study to supplement the practical aspects that interested me. I actually met Rob and worked with him through a Wesleyan work study program. I also pursued internships. I had one every summer during college, and one through senior year for a company in Seattle that did email migrations. The startup environment was exciting, and that really launched me in that direction. But I can't really say my career path was driven by my time studying at Wesleyan. It's been more despite it. Until Rob pulled me into his orbit, my career path was mostly adjacent or in the opposite direction.


Q: Yeah, I know what you mean. I didn’t have access to a design program at Wesleyan, so I definitely understand what you’re talking about. As a fellow manager, I’m curious: what was it like for you to transition into being a manager? It’s a very different way of working. What do you see as the challenges and what excites you about managing, as opposed to being an individual contributor?

I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to operate in a leadership capacity during my technology career. There were opportunities that were randomly dispersed throughout my life in volunteer work. I found that when I was in a leadership or a mentorship role, or in some sort of “unblock-your-team” type of capacity, it was very rewarding. I wanted that feeling. I haven't really had that in several years.

At engineering companies, it’s common to have two different paths: there's the individual contributor path and the management path. That makes sense, because you don't necessarily want to pull individual contributors into management roles if they're not interested or unprepared. There are lots of reasons why you might not want to be a manager, and vice versa. The fact that there are two different paths is to encourage you to continue down your individual contributor path or your management path.

It seemed to me that Bison Trails was a safe environment for me to explore a different career path. Honestly, it's been really challenging. I just moved back to the United States in September. Two months later there was this Engineering Manager transition, and one week later the Coinbase acquisition was announced. There are aspects of being a manager I just love. For example, I didn't know that I am energized by talking to people. That's a new discovery for me.


Arthur Burkart

Q: This year has been all about change for a lot of us. You talked about Bison Trails as a place where you feel safe to try to do something new, and to challenge yourself. As part of your managerial responsibilities you interview people, and you’ve been on the interview loops before in the past as an individual contributor. What qualities do you look for when you’re talking with someone who is considering joining our team? Are there any common characteristics that set someone up to succeed at Bison Trails?

Well, that's a good question. I've owned the interview pipeline for the Platform Infrastructure team since September/October of 2020. I've interviewed anywhere from two to seven people per week since then. We've made one hire for the infrastructure team and I think they're successful! There are a few things on the values side that I look for that are pretty easy to spot. And then, on the engineering side, there are a few skills that are necessary to succeed.

On the value side, it’s really easy for me to discern trust and empathy. There are situations where you could get overwhelmed and uncomfortable with a technical screen and not trust or empathize with the interviewer, or vice versa. I think there's a lot of opportunities in the first couple of stages of our interview pipeline to see if this person has an honest understanding of their own values and where they are in their career progression. And if not, to me, that's a challenge against the value of trust: trust in their interpretation of their situation.

On the empathy side, if they're totally amenable to a suggestion during an interview that's really a positive signal, because it means that they can see somebody is trying to help them. This empathy makes it easier to work together. So, I think those two pieces are a lot easier to identify in an interview context early-on.

Transparency's maybe easier, but creativity and excellence are a little bit harder to figure out in a short period of time. On the technology skills side, by far the greatest leading indicator to me is how a candidate responds when we ask them to solve a hypothetical problem. It's not a coding problem. Their answer is usually either something like “Let's do this and figure it out” or “Let’s ask the developers.” This second response is a clear indicator that the person is not the problem-solver we need. Comfort with problem-solving, and a willingness to explore software development specifically, is really important to the platform infrastructure role as it is today.


Q: To prepare for this interview I found your personal user manual on our internal wiki—the guide you created about yourself for others. In it you wrote “I learn best when I feel what I’m learning has unrealized yet applicable short-term value.” It seems this insight about yourself connects with being drawn to the application of the technology, both when you were at university and with the use cases of blockchain technology you mentioned, like Livepeer. Is that what you mean when you say the applicable short-term value? Seeing the “thing in use” is what draws you to learn more about a new concept or technology?

Yeah, wow, that's pretty spot on. I don't like the fact that I used “short-term” in there, but I do think short-term is relative. I'm still very interested in learning things on the order of months. Some projects take two, three, or four months. I'm still very much interested in learning something new in the short- to mid-term, especially if we haven't realized the value of it yet. When we have a hunch it will provide value to us, but we haven't experienced it yet. Being on that cusp is when I'm really interested in learning the new thing.


Q: I can imagine that approach is also conducive to a startup environment where you have to be comfortable moving quickly.

Yes. I mean, to me, any time you're not delivering value, you potentially could have been delivering value. If you’re not delivering, you might want to reassess what you're doing today. Ask yourself whether it makes sense right now.


Q: Is there anything else that you’re excited about in the crypto space, any other protocols or projects that you’re following closely or participating in?

I’m very interested in Flow for a lot of reasons. It's the first protocol in which I explored the concept of a Genesis block and what that means for bootstrapping a network. So, of blockchain protocols, Flow has a special spot in my heart.

The Flow protocol team also focuses on getting that short-term value. They put all of the value upfront and now they're working out the other details, and I think that is a really hard decision to make. I’d guess it's probably going to pay dividends for them. They've established their spot in the space, which is a really challenging thing to do.

Protocol teams could start from the perspective of what a hypothetically perfect blockchain could look like and try to build that, but never achieve or realize the value that their blockchain could provide. But Flow didn’t do that. So, I’ve been following them pretty closely.

I think it makes wider blockchain adoption much easier when you get this sort of traction in a network. I'm talking to people about cryptocurrency and about blockchain, and then they say “Oh, like NBA Top Shot. That's what you're talking about.” Being familiar with something because you have a practical interest in it makes the conversation so much easier, even if you maybe don't want to understand all of the underlying aspects.

I also think that eth2 is going to be an awesome transition. With the current state of Ethereum and its extremely high gas prices, transitioning to a new model that might alleviate some of Ethereum’s issues might—I don't know if it will—be really, really beneficial.

It's also an interesting project because Ethereum is one of the more mature blockchains. You don't see Bitcoin migrating to proof of stake. Bitcoin is going to be a proof of work blockchain for the foreseeable future. There are projects like the Lightning network that are interesting, where you can transact much more quickly on Bitcoin or these second layer transaction ledgers; they’re interesting, but not transformative. And I think that's why eth2 is really appealing.


Q: Last question, following up on something you just mentioned. Can you tell me more about the significance of the Genesis block?

So the Genesis block is the first block in a ledger. We often say, “Okay, there's a blockchain, and it’s a digital ledger.” And that doesn't really make a lot of sense to a lot of people. The Genesis block can be thought of as the first page in your ledger, the first ream of transactions that occurred, or the first things that you tracked.

The thing that's really unique about the Genesis block though is that the first reward really comes from nowhere. It’s just assigned. But it’s not all that dissimilar to when you start tracking your own finances. You create the first page, the Genesis block, and suddenly you're writing in “Oh, plus the amount that I already have in my account.” So the Genesis block is responsible for recording that there's some value there. And then, everything is built on this decentralized trust model, this distributed consensus.

Of course the other important detail is that the Genesis block is the starting block, and you have to use that block to produce the next block because it’s used to sign the next block. There's this whole technical aspect to it as well. The blockchain is all built on that first block. Some networks might fork and have an entirely different transaction chain. And in some cases that might mean starting over from a new Genesis block and just erasing everything else that happened. But there is still a beginning and a Genesis block.


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About Bison Trails


Pioneering Blockchain Infrastructure®

Bison Trails is a blockchain infrastructure platform-as-a-service (PaaS) company based in New York City. We built a platform for anyone who wants to participate in 25 new chains effortlessly.

We also make it easy for anyone building Web 3.0 applications to connect to blockchain data from 33 protocols with Query & Transact (QT). Our goal is for the entire blockchain ecosystem to flourish by providing robust infrastructure for the pioneers of tomorrow.

In January, 2021, we announced Bison Trails joined Coinbase to accelerate our mission to provide easy-to-use blockchain infrastructure, now as a standalone product line. The Bison Trails platform will continue to support our customers. With Coinbase’s backing, we will enhance our infrastructure platform and make it even easier to participate in decentralized networks and build applications that connect to blockchain data.


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