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.
A Product Engineer works on the platform’s engineering and the user experience of a product or a platform. At Bison Trails, my responsibilities include working with design, product, and engineering teams to make sure that we're building an accessible, usable, delightful, and intuitive product.
There's a lot of unique aspects to the Bison Trails platform. I always like describing the platform as the tip of an iceberg to people, because on the surface there is this really simple, easy-to-use interface to create a cluster on a protocol. The simplicity is from taking away the bulk of the choices and technical details, and allowing users to incrementally make these adjustments to their infrastructure as they see fit. An intuitive product is as much about what you choose to take away.
An example of this is when launching new clusters on the platform. Across multiple protocols, each cluster create flow is dramatically consistent even though the network topologies have considerable variances. It’s about being able to create some sane defaults, largely from talking to customers, and coming up with a cohesive product.
Beyond just the company’s values, there are a lot of things about Bison Trails—including the makeup of the company—that represent the type of place I’ve always wanted to work at.
My blockchain journey began when I first heard about it, like a lot of other people: the crypto space was booming in 2017 and we were in this crazy bull run. When I heard about the crypto economy and started to dig deeper, it was really eye-opening because I realized that you could invest in these projects, circumventing some of the negative attributes of traditional financial markets—like equal and open access to information and data sets, and the ability to hold tokens and have a voice. So, that's how I got interested, and I started looking into blockchain companies.
Most blockchain companies at the time were crypto exchanges or wallets. Then I came across Bison Trails through AngelList. When Aaron reached out to me, I remember looking through the early website and realizing that the company was effectively trying to be the AWS of the crypto economy. What’s more, they were using their software to spin up community nodes and dogfooding their own systems. To be honest, I don’t think I knew what a community node was at the time! I've always wanted to work at a company that was building products for entrepreneurs, developers, and technologists. What AWS did for the second wave of startups, I wanted to do for the next gen of crypto startups.
There were actually two different moments. My first crypto learnings were from one of my close friends who I was helping with a blockchain-related project. He was already a Bitcoin hobbyist and investor; this was in the very early days when he taught me about the value of bitcoin and how it can enable micropayments across different applications.
I worked with him on an app concept where fans were able to unlock music tracks using a Kickstarter funding model, made possible due to micropayments. We brainstormed and experimented with some front end concepts and I learned some obvious benefits of crypto, like low fees and no intermediaries. At the time I didn't quite understand decentralization or the concept of open networks and open finance. I also didn't really understand the breadth of applications that can be built in the space.
My second experience was a couple of years later, around 2018, when the net neutrality laws were repealed by the FCC. I was intrigued by whether there were any projects that were trying to build some sort of open internet access system using blockchains. I had heard about a project called Althea that was built on a blockchain and was bringing the internet to remote areas while incentivizing users to share their bandwidth. In hindsight that’s a work token that’s used within the network. I thought it was neat that no one had to learn anything, other than how to install a router just as they would even otherwise, but could still get cheaper rates and better service. Given the areas this service was disrupting, the current business models aren’t even commercially viable.
Of the current protocols we support, Flow definitely comes to mind. I think Dapper Labs has demonstrated their ability to highlight their efforts on marketing its use cases, applications in gaming and collectors items, and partnerships, instead of simply highlighting the underlying chain.
In addition, we're currently at a time when the NFT space is blowing up, and a bulk of the users uploading their art online don't even really need to know how the underlying system works in order to gain value from it. The truly valuable experiences will try to maintain existing user behaviors all while making it cheaper, faster, and profitable for its users. So I would say that Flow is an exemplar.
This term gets overused quite a bit, but I consider myself a process-oriented learner primarily because I learn better from principles and a bottom-up approach. There's an aspect—I would say every engineer can relate to this—that you want to try to build things to truly understand them, like building your own framework or taking something apart. In the context of blockchains, I’m trying to find what process I can employ that can consistently give me a deeper insight and knowledge of the technology.
For starters, if I want to learn about a protocol I can go through the protocol’s white paper, their forums, interact with the dapps that are built on top of them, and look at the kind of data that is visible on these dashboards. At Bison Trails, we have the benefit of this amazing team that's put together this crypto 101 guide—basically it's an extensive document for new hires to be able to go easily find all sorts of publicly available materials. That's essentially what I've used as a learning guide to get a better understanding of things.
There are unique parts to my role. Our core ethos is to make it really simple to spin up nodes, so a big part of my role is to focus on providing a premium product with that in mind at every interaction. We stick to our ethos and make the experience extremely simple and also delightful for our customers.
In addition to that, there's also responsibilities on the engineering side. We're ramping up support for new protocols, so the ability to scale the user experience across these protocols is really important while still providing the unique features available on these networks. Part of the job is constantly thinking about processes and architectural patterns that you can employ to allow our protocol developers to be efficient and empowered at their work, without the platform becoming a bottleneck.
In addition to architecture, scaling products and design systems is equally important. This is where I work very closely with the Design team, since they’re laying the foundations for how design components are used effectively and what patterns will be scaled across our various products. Category defining products that have not existed in the past are tricky; you’re constantly evolving the app, so there are tradeoffs of how much time to spend on new experiences vs. familiar patterns.
Then there are other things to care about, such as accounting for both the long-term and short-term needs of the customer: tradoffs on large architectural changes, but also consistently releasing newer features on a shorter time scale while maintaining high performance, and the list goes on.
I've never experienced working remotely for long stretches prior to Bison Trails, even though I've consistently taken a few days a week to work from home. There's definitely a pretty significant shift in how I work because the bulk of my experience working with the designers and engineers on a day-to-day basis is that I’m constantly interacting with them, and getting feedback.
I learned this from Brandon recently—it's called the framework effect—where the last 10% of the work is like 90% of the work. Pre-COVID this last stretch was mostly in person. We'd sit down for a couple of sessions and try to get through the last mile. But during COVID I've essentially had to become a lot more intentional with time and plan the last mile of work. So the designers and I have these 30 minute working sessions where we go through the platform together and try to pick out what is still pending, or what can be improved for that final touch.
We've had a lot more working sessions since the pandemic started. There’s also a lot more of a focus on developing documentation from the team so anyone can jump in and know what topics were discussed and decisions were made, so I’ve tried adopting this in my work as well. We use Jira and Figma comments heavily during collaboration.
I enjoy music events, traveling, reading, anything outdoorsy, and importantly trying something new—that’s one of the perks of living in NYC. Since I spend quite a bit of time in front of the screen, my hobbies all revolve around being outdoors and trying to play more sports. I spent the first few years in NYC rock climbing and started playing tennis last summer, so I hope to continue that this year now that the weather is nice.
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 23 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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