This week at CoinDesk we’ve been highlighting the growing number of university programs that focus on blockchains and cryptocurrency. College isn’t necessarily a requirement for a solid career in the field, but for most people it’s the surest first step.
This piece is part of CoinDesk's Education Week.
But now may be a strange time to think about college, especially for those hoping for a career in crypto. After a two-year stretch of unprecedented hype, we’ve entered “crypto winter,” a recurring species of downturn that has proven typical of the blockchain industry as speculation outpaces adoption, then retreats.
The huge up-and-down cycles in crypto can certainly be nerve-wracking. And this time we’re also seeing signs of broader weakness in technology jobs, with a wave of headline-generating layoffs over the summer. It’s enough to make a young person second-guess career goals that had seemed like a slam dunk just a few months ago.
But recruiters with an eye on the tech world cite three good reasons learning about blockchain makes sense, even at a moment when it suddenly feels a bit less like The Next Big Thing.
First, the skills that will get you in the door in crypto can be transferred without too much difficulty to other technology spheres. Second, anyone trained in computer science or coding will have relatively solid job prospects in nearly any kind of economy. And third, in crypto as in most fields, a downturn can actually make the early stages of a career easier in some ways by creating more freelance or gig work opportunities.
Above all, job-hunting experts say it’s important to think long term, even when news of layoffs and a slowing economy make it tempting to throw in the towel before you’ve even started.
Understanding the downturn – and when it will end
“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of discussions about hiring freezes and layoffs and the recession,” says Rick Chen of the tech-job discussion site Blind.
Blind is an anonymized forum where verified employees speak freely about what they’re seeing at their workplaces and beyond, making it a very valuable source of job market insights. Chen is head of public relations at Blind, but he says most of his job is “being the in-house journalist” – watching the anonymous chatter on the site and extracting larger trends.
Chen says the looming economic downturn is causing particular worry for tech workers in three industries: real estate, fintech (including crypto) and the so-called gig economy. “People in corporate roles … at Instacart, Uber, Lyft. They’re concerned whether their business models are sustainable.”
But what’s behind the broad downturn in tech and crypto? In very broad strokes, COVID-19 is still in charge: Pandemic disruptions led to high inflation, and in turn central banks are raising interest rates both in the U.S. and worldwide.
That has a particularly sharp impact on so-called growth sectors of the economy, where companies often borrow money from investors to fund and market new ideas. When interest rates are higher that money tends to dry up because safer investments like bonds become relatively more attractive. That’s particularly worrying for companies like Uber that have been around for years but still show weak profitability and limited growth.
Crypto also falls very much in the growth category: While some crypto firms have strong revenue even during the current downturn, many rely on investor funds of one sort or another as they work towards broader adoption. Those funds have become more scarce, dropping by half between 2021 and the first half of 2022. That means the current job doldrums, in crypto and in tech more broadly, could end in a couple of different ways: either investment revives, or more revenue starts flowing from customers.
The good news is that, unlike Uber, crypto is still considered a big future opportunity, so investment is still flowing in – just more slowly than at the peak of the last bull market. And even now there are still jobs to be had.
“Despite this crypto winter, [blockchain firms] are still hiring,” says Chen. “No matter what, in terms of the state of the economy there are still some companies that need engineers, or need product managers. Those roles are kind of evergreen, so to speak.”
Tech is everywhere, and you can be, too
Josh Brenner, CEO of the job market Hired, agrees there are still plenty of opportunities in the tech sector as a whole, despite some high-profile layoff rounds.
“We started off the year with crazy aggressive hiring, and we’re now more at an efficient or stabilized kind of hiring for companies,” says Brenner. In many cases, the layoffs came from companies that were aiming to grow too fast and had to suddenly reverse course, rather than from companies that are shrinking or dying.
Crucially, many of the skills needed to work in crypto, especially in technical roles, are transferable to the broader tech sector, making coding, design and other skills the foundation for a robust career even if things get rocky in one specific industry.
“Every company is a tech company now,” says Brenner. “If I were to pick a skill to pick up, technically related skills are going to serve people best into the future.”
More specifically, Brenner is seeing a growing crossover between blockchain and more traditional finance. “We’ve seen that while there has been a slowdown in hiring among crypto companies, a lot of banking and finance companies are hiring people with the crypto skills,” he says. “Obviously there’s a lot of need within banking for blockchain expertise.” To pick just one recent example of why, the stalwart banking infrastructure firm SWIFT this week announced a new partnership with the blockchain project ChainLink.
On the technical end of the spectrum, transferable skills come in basically two forms, according to Brenner. On the one hand there are specific programming languages or software tools that are used across a huge range of industries. A few of these are fairly consistent – learning Python, for instance, or how to manage a company’s Amazon Web Services. But Brenner recommends learners do their own research to figure out what skills are in demand, including searching job boards and monitoring the communities around specific coding languages.
On the other hand, says Brenner, “it’s the act of actually learning a new skill that companies look for.” In other words, the most important skill for employers may be the discipline and flexibility required to learn – which is very much the point of going to college.
That focus on basic skills extends to non-technical roles, where Brenner says good communication and organizational skills are paramount, “especially in this remote [work-from-home] world that most companies are going for now.” If you’re fascinated by blockchains and also a strong writer you have a lot of options, from technical copywriting to marketing.
Compared with technical roles, though, it is a bit harder to prove your chops as, say, an email copywriter. Especially for coders, there are increasing opportunities to pass skills tests or earn specific certifications that can get your foot in the door, even without a college degree. Brenner says Hired is working to provide parallel alternatives for communications or other roles, but “it’s a much tricker process” for so-called soft skills.
That suggests non-technical careers may benefit proportionally more from the credential of a college degree. But Brenner says more and more companies are making exceptions even for those roles, as long as you’ve found other ways to show how effective you can be.
“If you have a good track record,” says Brenner, “it’s more about your outputs and what you could produce versus where you went to school.”
The smooth on-ramp: contract work and DAOs
Undergraduate programs teaching blockchain and crypto skills have only really appeared within the last few years. That means crypto still offers a lot of non-traditional pathways for those looking to enter the industry, and they’ve recently become easier to access because of the rise of DAOs, or decentralized autonomous organizations.
DAOs are almost by their nature great places to explore a career in crypto, learn basic skills and build a track record. They often rely on short-term contracts, with workers assigned specific tasks for the DAO. That might include anything from writing text for a website to debugging contract code. Getting those gigs requires, above all, identifying projects you’re interested in and finding out where members gather and communicate (often, on an easily accessed Discord chat server).
Getting this sort of gig work is often a lot easier than getting hired for a full-time job because neither side is making a huge commitment. They can also be a perfect fit for students still learning the ropes while mostly focused on classes.
But once team members get to know you, DAO contributions can lead to a more formal role – including non-technical roles. In fact, as I was writing this piece, a small data point popped up on Twitter.
After >1 year exclusively contributing to DAOs, today I got a full time contract signed
— zeugh.lens (:D, :D) (@ZeughFromCanu) September 28, 2022
According to Zeugh, aka Ion Neto, he had been doing community management for JuiceboxDAO for about a year when the opportunity to take on a full-time role at another DAO came his way.
How a downturn can be good for freelancers
Though there are still happy stories like Zeugh’s, DAO contract opportunities have certainly been hurt by the economic and crypto-market downturn. DAOs are an exciting new frontier in the expanding blockchain universe, and largely rely on investor funds to operate. Those haven’t entirely dried up but they’ve definitely gotten scarcer.
“Many DAOs have entered into budget-reducing modes of various kinds,” says Spencer Graham. Graham is a core contributor at DAOHaus, a platform for community-driven DAOs. “Some DAOs have done the equivalent of laying off contributors, others have shifted to a constrained project-based budgeting approach, and most have decided to reduce per-contributor compensation as well.”
But there are upsides to the downturn, perhaps most importantly for those early in their careers or still in school.
“When companies are not hiring permanent workers, there is typically an increase in freelance opportunities,” says Hired’s Josh Brenner, “because those companies want to achieve the same work but need more flexibility in how they staff it.” This includes mainstream tech companies, and could mean that workers with less experience have more opportunities to add to their resumes.
The wintery downturn also offers some advantages for building a career in crypto specifically. With fewer Super Bowl commercials and Paris Hilton plugs, a lot of people briefly attracted to the surface hype tend to suddenly disappear from crypto. This can mean more opportunities for people attracted instead to the deeper goals and ideals of the crypto industry – things like financial inclusion and displacing surveillance capitalism.
Those deeper commitments are also a huge leg up for long-term and fulfilling success in the industry. In fact, looking inward and deciding precisely why you’re pursuing a crypto career may be the most important framework for planning ahead.
“The people who get into crypto are true believers,” says Blind’s Chen. “They have this kind of mental reward of working on building something new. And that’s a key motivator that might not exist if you worked at Goldman.”