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How to Learn Blockchain Technology

Trent Fowler - May 12, 2021


Arguably, no technology since the rise of the Internet has caused as much a stir as blockchain technology. Nor has any discovery had as much potential to transform various parts of the global economy.

Indeed, blockchain has demonstrated its ability to create new industries, empower the disenfranchised, and spawn novel problem-solving approaches. If we take a holistic view, we’ll see that there are many things we can learn about the newer technology from its older counterpart.

Pretty much the entire internet in the 1960s

Blockchain as the New Internet

The Internet had amazingly humble origins. It would’ve taken a visionary to imagine Amazon or Google when they first learned of ARPAnet, the Internet’s precursor. Back then, the earliest version of the Internet was just a loose network of computers at various places linked together in exceedingly crude ways.

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Blockchain is, in some ways, similar to the early days of the Internet. It would’ve been easy to dismiss ARPAnet as a telephone line for computers. In the same way, it’d be easy to write blockchain off as a glorified ledger.

The Internet was also propelled forward by an early cadre of die-hard techies motivated to build amazing things with these new tools. This isn’t quite true for blockchain. Many of its developments are driven by financial speculation on cryptocurrency exchanges. However, it would be a mistake to let this blind you to the awesome ideas being created with today’s blockchains.

Finally, it’s easy to lose sight of what makes both the Internet and blockchain epoch-defining. For one, so much can be built on top of them. They also allow people to build websites, blogging platforms, social networks, and e-commerce sites without knowing how any of that machinery works.

Several debates have been sparked by individuals for whom the essence of a hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) remains elusive. It’s too early to forecast what the blockchain equivalents of these applications will be. Yet, smart contracts, cryptocurrencies, decentralized autonomous organizations, and similar creations give us tantalizing clues.

With this preamble in place, it’s tempting to entertain the “what if.” What if you could go back in time and learn more about the Internet when it was still just ARPAnet? Sadly, the entertainment stops there as there’s no way to do that now. But it’s not too late to take this step with blockchain. If that prospect interests you, then you’ve come to the right place.

What is Blockchain?

Before we can begin to answer what blockchain is, we’ll need to agree upon an acceptable blockchain definition. Then, we can proceed to explore its underlying components.

In the densest terms, a blockchain is a ledger that’s digital , public , distributed , decentralized , and immutable . This phrasing is a bit inelegant. However, by pulling each apart, we can arrive at a clearer picture of what blockchain technology is all about.

Digital, Public, and Distributed

First, blockchains are ledgers. A ledger is a book in which transactions are recorded. If the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker trade among themselves for goods and services, the activity goes into a ledger.

Ledgers are nearly as old as accounting itself and were written on a physical medium such as paper. After the development of computers, however, record keepers began to use digital ledgers, which are stored as ones and zeros on a hard drive.

By being public and distributed , blockchains depart from the standard-use cases for ledgers. Ledgers tend to be private and concentrated. In most cases, the only person who sees my list of transactions is me. Now, what if we’re storing the same information on a blockchain? Absolutely everyone using that blockchain has a list of all the transactions that have occurred since the very first block.

Decentralized

When a new person begins using the blockchain, they download their copy of the distributed , public , and digital ledger. Implicitly, then, we can see how blockchains are decentralized because it isn’t owned or controlled by any single central entity.

Immutable

Finally, blockchains are immutable , meaning that they can’t be changed. So, what if I try to change a transaction on my copy of the blockchain? Let’s say, I give myself an extra $1,000,000. This could be checked against all the other copies of the blockchain. That’s why the blockchain is important in banking and other trading platforms—it can eliminate the risks and threats of fraudulent actions.

So to recap, blockchains are essentially like old-time ledgers built around a peer-to-peer (P2P) system. This allows it to become digital , public , distributed , decentralized , and immutable . As we’ll see, all of these traits together play a big part in making blockchains so potentially revolutionary.

Why Is Blockchain Important?

We can broach this subject by comparing blockchains to something so commonplace that most of us wouldn’t even recognize it as a technology: money.

Do us a favor: take a dollar bill and put it on a table. Would you believe that this piece of paper is a distillation of 3,000 years’ worth of historical significance? It’s one of the tools upon which the whole of the modern world was built.

On a small scale, a moneyless, barter economy works adequately. But consider what happens if you have chickens to trade when no one wants eggs. What if you have a piano to trade when no one is currently in the market for something so big and expensive?

These represent the two biggest problems that money solves. First, people’s desires don’t always line up. Second, many goods don’t have ‘fungibility.’ That is, they can’t be broken into pieces.

Reason 1: It’s convenient

Because money is something that most people want more of, it can be traded in place of other goods. You don’t have to wait until someone wants eggs; you can trade for money now. You don’t have to bust up your piano; you can sell it to someone who can pay in installments.

If you have money, you can begin setting a small fraction of it aside as a store of value. You can save it and invest in something bigger down the road. Or it could be insurance against some kind of disaster.

Reason 2: It promotes transparency

With all the contributions that money makes, let’s consider something from which it subtracts: the need to trust the other person. You don’t have to agree with someone, like or understand one’s motives, or even know of one’s existence to engage in trade. As long as you’re both using money, each of you can benefit from the transaction.

Of course, the possibility of counterfeiting still exists. But if you are worried about some of your dollars being fake, consider that, under a barter system, you would need to check every product to make sure that it’s what the merchant says it is.

This trustworthiness is a crucial aspect of money’s power and importance. However, in the modern world, we all still have to trust a financial intermediary like a bank. This is somewhat problematic. Do you remember the global financial crisis of 2008?

It’s safe to say that most of us are less than enthusiastic about the prospect of trusting the government and the banks after that. Indeed, it was precisely this event that spurred blockchain pioneers to push their technology forward.

The great promise of blockchain is to remove the need to trust a central institution. How do you know I have the money I say I have? Easy. Every transaction I’ve ever made on the blockchain is embedded in a distributed public ledger. Everyone using the blockchain has his or her copy and my balance can be verified.

How can you be sure that I’m not going to double spend money in my account on two different goods at the same time? Well, doing that would require me to somehow fool all the computers in the network.

This is reminiscent of what Alex Tapscott, the CEO of venture capital firm Northwest Passage Ventures, once said . “To hack [any kind of blockchain], you wouldn’t just have to hack one system like in a bank… You’d have to hack every single computer on that network, which is fighting against you [from] doing that… So again, [it’s] not un-hackable, but significantly better than anything we’ve come up with today.”

Reason 3: It eliminates unnecessary intermediaries

Verification and tracking are built into the fabric of blockchain. This removes the need (or ability) for any centralized authority to do it themselves. This alone is a big deal but taking monetary authorities out of the picture has other ramifications.

In the case of the Bitcoin blockchain, we know exactly how many bitcoins there’ll be and when they’ll become available. Supply and demand can do wacky things with prices. But, there will never be a government debasing the value of Bitcoin by printing millions to finance projects.

Applications of Blockchain Technology

It’s now time to spend some time going through the many possible uses of blockchain technology. We do discuss cryptocurrencies, but we’ve decided to leave that for last; almost everyone is familiar with them. It is more productive to focus on other places where blockchains have transformative potential.

Smart Contracts

Smart contracts are codes that are executed upon meeting a set of conditions. If this sounds like a contract that’s written as a computer program, that’s because it’s exactly what it is. To demonstrate, imagine that you’ve agreed to rent a room from me on Airbnb. To make this whole process as straightforward as possible, we use a smart contract on a blockchain like Ethereum.

The smart contract has some simple conditionals in it. These are ‘if-then’ statements that check whether a requirement has been met before taking an action, just as in a computer program. In this scenario, the ‘if’ condition might be that you’ve given me some fraction of a crypto asset as a deposit on the room. If you have, then a receipt is issued and becomes part of our smart contract. The ‘then’ condition would be that you receive a digital key to open the door to your room.

If any part of the conditions is not met, a refund would be issued. By becoming a part of the blockchain’s distributed ledger, it is impossible for transactions to be forged. Put another way, everyone has a copy of the contract’s underlying code—there’ll be no way for either of us to defraud the other without all parties being alerted.

Because smart contract technology is immature at present, a lot of work and expertise is required to write one. But it’s not hard to imagine a day in which this is no longer the case. At the moment, smart contract templates exist for many common agreements.

Smart contracts significantly cut down the friction of accomplishing all sorts of goals, such as renting equipment, paying for services, or working for a company over a predetermined time.

Supply Chain Management

There are several ways in which blockchains could impact supply chains. As it turns out, getting stuff from one place to another can be a tricky business. This is especially true in the modern world where parts can be manufactured on every continent.

The startup Chronicled is looking into using blockchain to make it nearly impossible to slip counterfeit drugs into the world’s supply of medicines. Their closed blockchain only allows vetted manufacturers to join. Each participant can assign unique identifiers to their drugs.

These identifiers are tracked on the Chronicled blockchain and are therefore extremely difficult to forge. This means drug distributors and their patients can be confident they’re getting what they need.

Speaking of things we consume, buyers have become more conscious of the sustainability and ethics of the food they purchase. The logistics required to make and transport food is complex. Because of this, it’s easy for it to be sourced in ways that the consumer wouldn’t endorse.

Major players in the food space, such as Walmart, Tyson, and Nestle, are leveraging the distributed and immutable nature of blockchain. Doing so makes it easier to track and verify the origins of the food purchased by customers.

Cryptocurrencies

And now we turn to the most famous application of blockchain: cryptocurrencies .

A cryptocurrency is a form of virtual currency built on top of a blockchain. Most people today either trade them in the short term or hold them in digital wallets for the long term. Yet in principle, cryptocurrencies are built with a dizzying variety of purposes in mind.

The Basic Attention Token (BAT), for example, is tied to a special browser called Brave. This aims to store user interactions with advertising content on a distributed ledger so that online marketing is more useful and efficient.

The Golem Network Token (GNT), meanwhile, tries to make it possible for participants to rent out their computer’s extra CPU cycles. This way, a vast and global supercomputer can be stitched together from different machines.

Lastly, Dogecoin is a long-running joke that started getting out of hand and has now become a serious cryptocurrency in its own right.

How to Learn Blockchain Technology: A Guide

A radio tower seen from above
Blockchain technology can be hard to get a handle on.

Because of the complexity of blockchain, learning the tech may prove daunting to many. There’s also an added layer of dynamism, making it difficult to pin down a one-size-fits-all path towards mastering it. So, we decided to beg off from providing you with a singular and detailed path. Instead, we’ve laid out the key steps to steer your career towards blockchain development.

Step 1: Sign up for a structured learning experience

As with mastering other fields, attending classes is an effective way of understanding topics that would be difficult to comprehend on your own. Having access to a curriculum and an instructor allows you to separate the wheat from the chaff; that is, knowing which topics you should spend time on and which ones are unnecessary.

Traditionally, you’d need to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science, information security, or any related discipline to become a blockchain developer. Over the years, however, most hiring employers have pivoted into prioritizing demonstrable comprehension over credentials.

This paved the way for individuals to veer off the traditional four-year course and opt for pathways that are shorter but just as effective. Among these are certifications, massive open online courses (MOOCs), and bootcamps that pride themselves on intensive learning structures that open the gate for speed-to-job opportunities.

Step 2: Be a constant reader

Anyone who has experienced success would probably tell you that one of the key steps to the top is reading constantly. For aspiring blockchain developers, this is a must. Due to the evolving nature of blockchain, keeping up with the trends and changes is crucial.

Now, some of you may say it’s difficult to maintain one’s focus when reading books that are hundreds of pages long. That’s okay; you’re probably in the half of the population that doze off after reading a couple of pages. Luckily for you, there are lots of materials about blockchain that are quite succinct and short.

Check out blogging platforms, blockchain websites, and articles that do a good job of covering the fundamentals of blockchain. Doing so will greatly supplement and enrich whatever you learn in class. If you’re reading this, you’re a step closer to understanding the ins and outs of blockchain tech.

Step 3: Seek blockchain meetups and events

Taking a class and reading are great ways to be up-to-date with blockchain technology. However, interacting with industry experts will help you go further. As the saying goes, it’s always better to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.

Exposing yourself to a range of perspectives in blockchain technology allows you to develop an understanding that’s not limited to a curriculum or a book. Interacting regularly and being open to other ideas also serve as practice for when you enter the workforce. Not to mention that meeting people who share your passion serves as a great motivation booster to continue learning.

A simple search of “blockchain events” will yield thousands of meetups that you can attend either in-person or virtually. To get you started, we recommend joining the following groups:

  • Ethereum . The Ethereum community offers multiple channels where members can share current news and developments and engage in technical discourse. These channels may vary from online forums and chat rooms to meetups and virtual conferences.
  • Silicon Valley Developer Network . The SVDN is marketed as “the place to be” for developers in the San Francisco Bay Area. With nearly 4,000 members, its roster includes all sorts of developers from Android and iOS to web, full stack, and blockchain.
  • BlockchainNYC.org . This community organizes monthly meetups, promoted as your “one source for everything blockchain technology,” including news, crypto, and blockchain. Its events boast a wide audience, among whom are developers, social and tech entrepreneurs, impact investors, and even philanthropists.
  • EthGlobal . EthGlobal was created to strengthen the developer community and explore new technologies. Its events are open to beginners and veterans alike, making it a great entry point for non-developers.
  • IBM’s Blockparty . This channel includes a webinar series led by IBM clients and business partners. Comprising five episodes, the topics cover the uses of blockchain, including ensuring consumer trust, creating sustainable ecosystems, and driving end-to-end efficiency.

The Best Blockchain Technology Courses and Training

Now that we’ve laid out the most important steps to learn blockchain technology, it’s time to get you started. Here’s a list of our top choices for blockchain courses. The following will cater to your needs, whether you seek free and self-paced courses or paid and synchronous programs.

Best Free Blockchain Courses Online

We understand that signing up for a course can be a tough decision. There are the obvious concerns about its value for money and your ability to commit your time. Some might also be wary of running out of interest mid-program.

If this is you, a great move would be to sign up for free courses online. Doing so will give you the freedom to learn according to your availability and gauge your interest without wasting a penny. Below are our top picks for free blockchain courses online.

IBM: Developer Blockchain Hub

Created by the premier tech company, this hub has all the resources you’d need to learn the fundamentals of blockchain. From tutorials and blog posts to code patterns, this hub allows you to understand blockchain theories and put them into practice through application building.

It covers the blockchain fundamentals, including distributed ledgers, lingo, and use cases. The code patterns, meanwhile, walk you through the creation of blockchain apps. Among these are an insurance app, a fair trade supply chain network, and a global finance app.

edX: Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies

This program was put together by the University of California, Berkeley’s computer science department. The course introduces the fundamentals of the crypto-space, including the basic properties of and underlying architecture behind Bitcoin. Its curriculum contains the following:

  • The basic properties and intent of centralized/decentralized currency
  • Origins and historical significance of Bitcoin
  • Bitcoin network, cryptographic hash functions, and Bitcoin Script
  • Uses of Bitcoin (wallets, mining, transactions, and governance)
  • Game theories and network attacks

Udemy: The Complete Course on Understanding Blockchain Technology

With 50 minutes of on-demand video, you’ll learn the necessary knowledge you need to gain a deeper understanding of blockchain. Although much shorter than the other courses, this program covers multiple topics in a span of 16 lectures, including:

  • A blockchain demo program
  • Process of Bitcoin transactions
  • Applications and limitations of blockchain technology
  • Smart contracts and Ethereum

Coursera: Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technologies

Offered by the prestigious Princeton University, this course has reportedly helped 50 percent of its students launch a new career. Forty-five percent have meanwhile claimed to have experienced a tangible career benefit from the course. The course is self-paced and takes approximately 23 hours to complete. Its syllabus contains the following topics:

  • An introduction to crypto and cryptocurrencies
  • How Bitcoin achieves decentralization
  • The individual components of the Bitcoin protocol
  • The community and politics within Bitcoin
  • Bitcoin’s potential as a platform

Best Paid Blockchain Courses Online

Now that you’ve decided to fully commit to learning about blockchain technology, it’s time to talk about the paid courses. The following programs are some of the best blockchain courses out there. One of the perks you can get from these courses is a certificate of completion that you can share with prospective employers.

MIT: Blockchain Technologies (Business Innovation and Application)

Cost: $3,500

Duration: Six weeks

As the course title implies, this program goes beyond blockchain fundamentals and examines the tech through an economic lens. In a little over a month, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of how the blockchain works. It can verify a transaction, analyze the market, and facilitate networking at a much lower cost. You’ll also learn how blockchain can launch a marketplace while eliminating traditional intermediaries. Throughout the program, you will be guided by a team of professionals, including a head facilitator, success manager, and an on-call global success team.

Coursera: Blockchain Specialization

Cost: Available upon subscription with a 7-day free trial

Duration: Approximately four months

This program is offered by the University at Buffalo and the State University of New York. It contains four courses that cover the blockchain basics, smart contracts, decentralized applications (DApps), and blockchain platforms. If you’re on the fence about taking this program, 56 percent of its takers reportedly started a new career upon completion. Twenty percent got a pay increase or promotion.

Udemy: Ethereum and Solidity (The Complete Developer’s Guide)

Cost: $94.99 (subject to change)

Duration: 24 hours of on-demand video

As the name implies, this course specifically focuses on Ethereum, a cryptocurrency that’s been dubbed as “Bitcoin’s successor.” Another point of focus is Solidity, a programming language for writing smart contracts. The course is made for individuals with basic knowledge of JavaScript and NPM. With nine sections and 250 lectures, the curriculum includes:

  • Building interactive front ends
  • Ethereum project infrastructure
  • Advanced smart contracts

Udacity: Become a Blockchain Developer

Cost: $1,356

Duration: Four months

This course allows you to advance your knowledge in blockchain fundamentals, architecture, and other concepts, such as privacy, security, and decentralized file management. The program culminates with a capstone project where you get to apply the skills you’ve acquired by building a decentralized property listing app.

Because of the complexity of the program, it is recommended that students have some experience in coding. This includes knowing how to code with object-oriented programming, working with asynchronous JavaScript code, and creating data using a remote API.

Udacity boasts a program that surpasses other online courses and borders a bootcamp structure. All of its programs include real-world projects, career services, technical mentor support, and a flexible learning program.

Blockchain Certifications

After getting a certificate, you can further advance your credentials by gaining a certification that demonstrates your skills and experience. And as usual, we got you. Below are the professional certifications you could take to solidify your blockchain competency.

BIT’s Certified Blockchain Professional

Awarded by the Blockchain Institute of Technology, this certification is for professionals with demonstrated competency in the following areas:

  • Blockchain
  • Bitcoin
  • Business Application of Blockchain Technology
  • Cryptocurrency
  • Smart Contracts
  • Decentralized Applications

The certification exam consists of 90 questions that must be completed within an hour. You must answer 75 percent of the questions correctly. To prepare for the exam, BIT offers an online blockchain and cryptocurrency program worth $495.

It includes videos that discuss blockchain and cryptocurrency fundamentals, Bitcoin transactions, and other real-world applications of Bitcoin. The certification is valid for two years, after which you’ll have to take additional courses to maintain it.

Blockchain Council’s Certified Blockchain Expert

Holders of this certification are professionals with a demonstrated understanding of blockchain technology. It includes an exhaustive training program that lasts nine hours and addresses the blockchain ecosystem, mining, and solutions.

The exam consists of 100 points, with takers needing over 60 to pass. Those who fail to hit the passing mark may take the exam after one day and are entitled to three retakes.

Blockchain Training Alliance’s Certified Blockchain Security Professional

This certification is marketed as “an elite way to demonstrate your knowledge and skills in Blockchain security.” The exam has 70 questions with a requirement to answer at least 70 percent correctly. Topics covered in the exam are as follows:

  • Fundamental blockchain security
  • Advanced blockchain security mechanisms
  • Blockchain for business
  • Network-level vulnerabilities and attacks
  • System-level vulnerabilities and attacks

The Best Blockchain Books and Blogs

As we’ve mentioned in our guide, reading is one of the hallmarks of success. So, here’s a list of books and reading materials that will enrich your understanding of blockchain technology.

Blockchain Basics: A Non-Technical Introduction in 25 Steps , Daniel Drescher

As the title implies, this is a good book for blockchain beginners. In only 250 pages, Drescher lists 25 concise steps to get up to speed with the building blocks of the technology. The book promises to leave out mathematical equations, code, and other highly technical jargon to make it really accessible to beginners.

Blockchain Revolution , Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott

This book explores how blockchain technology may affect the world of business and other human affairs in the long run. Blockchain Revolution is an extensive work written by a father and his son. Readers can expect to gain a forward-looking perspective on the power of blockchain, including its ability to accelerate the pace of transactions.

Mastering Bitcoin: Unlocking Digital Cryptocurrencies , Andreas Antonopoulos

This is an essential read for understanding the foundations of Bitcoin and other cryptographic currencies. Antonopoulos breaks down these concepts by interweaving stories, analogies, and code snippets into the discussions. This book is ideal for technical professionals, Bitcoin entrepreneurs, and university students.

Hackernoon’s Cryptocurrency Stories

This website contains stories that tackle everything about digital currencies. Topics include best practices for crypto projects, ways to earn bitcoin, and the risks associated with the cryptocurrency market.

News BTC

This website is a great resource for the latest news on blockchain and cryptocurrency. You’ll find everything you need about Bitcoin exchanges, mining, and forecasts for cryptocurrencies.

IBM’s Blockchain Pulse

From blogs and newsletters to a podcast, IBM’s Blockchain Pulse contains a wealth of bite-sized information about blockchain. It covers the latest trends, stories, conversations, debates, and opinions from experts within the blockchain community.

Should You Learn Blockchain Technology?

A lot of major companies have started adopting blockchain to facilitate their operations. In the bank and finance industry, you have BBVA, Barclays, HSBC, and Visa. Other industries include insurance, energy, government, and real estate. Finally, e-commerce giants such as Walmart, Unilever, and Amazon have also begun exploring the technology.

With its expanding reach, blockchain tech has become a rather exciting field to explore. And as it continues to evolve, it will take an ever-increasing amount of time and effort to be in the know. Hopefully what you’ve seen here has whetted your appetite to learn more. As we collectively watch it mature, we’re excited to see what the creators of the tech do with it.

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Trent Fowler

About the author: Trent Fowler is a data scientist and writer with an interest in machine learning, blockchain technologies, and futurism.

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