In conversation with Preston Van Loon, Co-Founder and Team Lead at Prysmatic Labs

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The Block sat down this week with Preston Van Loon, Co-Founder and Team Lead at Prysmatic Labs, to discuss the origins of his client implementation project, the future of Ethereum, and life as a Xoogler.

Here are some of our notes.

Prysmatic Labs:

What were you up to before starting Prysmatic Labs (PL)?

  • Software engineer at Google working on DoubleClick, the enterprise-focused ad serving service
  • Wasn’t particularly intellectually stimulating — day to day largely consisted of updating legacy codebase
  • Started checking out Ethereum in Summer 2017
  • By 2017, with the rise of token sales and infamous CryptoKitties launch, became increasingly apparent that scalability was essential
  • Started looking into the Sharding specification and from there continued to ask questions
  • Met with Raul Jordan, the co-founder of PL, in January 2018, and decided to put a team together

What kind of backgrounds are necessary to develop a client?

  • Need people who are genuinely dedicated to and excited about open source development — initially there was no funding for PL so had to be willing to work for free
  • Need at least 2 people for code review, engineers
  • Project manager also useful
  • 10-15 people would be optimal
  • Current team completely distributed

What have the biggest challenges been to date and what challenges do you expect to encounter moving forward?

  • The biggest hurdles so far have been self-inflicted — wanted to get up and running in January 2018 before the spec had been finalized. Was then re-written after Spring retreat in Taiwan
  • As for future challenges — some concern that ETH 2.0 might not be complete before competing protocols launch and attract users
  • ETH 2.0 contains an optimistic set of features: putting real value on shards, EVM on shards, cross-shard transactions etc.

What does success look like for PL?

  • Want the client to be a major player – at least top 3 by market share
  • Primarily motivated by making a big impact, solving problems

Why did PL decide to implement their client in Go?

  • PL team already familiar with Geth
  • Go is typesafe, meaning easier to prevent errors, and human readable
  • The alternatives were C++ and Rust (used by Parity)
  • Python is terrible — nice for prototyping but bad for performance

With 8 teams currently working on ETH 2.0 clients, how necessary is wide client diversity?

  • There’s certainly value in having at least 3 succeed — need different perspectives, have individual groups asking different questions
  • Client diversity also important in scenarios where one client has bugs, vulnerabilities

How well-capitalized is PL?

  • PL has enough runway for the next 12 months
  • Received grant from the Ethereum Foundation, and then another 3000 ETH from Vitalik and an anonymous donor
  • Currently still holding ETH as haven’t set up institutional account on Gemini
  • Want to get down to 20% ETH exposure
  • Funding only important up to certain point — beyond that, need more collaboration, communication

Will PL have to rely on grants in perpetuity?

  • Can leverage experience working on client implementation to consult other projects down the line
  • Might possibly work on a staking-as-a-service product

As a client implementor, would you like to be more involved with Ethereum research?

  • Primary goal right now for PL is to catch up with the spec and then get a testnet working
  • Once that’s done, would be great to focus more on research

The State of Ethereum:  

What was it that drew you to work on Ethereum versus Bitcoin?

  • Found that Bitcoin wasn’t fulfilling its initial vision of p2p money
  • Difficult to get involved with Core development
  • Ethereum community more welcoming, exciting

What do you find most exciting about Ethereum? What are the best use cases?

  • MakerDAO and DAI – fulfills Bitcoin’s original vision of p2p money
  • Uncensorable gaming applications
  • Sovereign identity
  • Asset ownership

What does it mean to be a good ‘Ethereum citizen’?

  • It doesn’t mean being interested for the sake of making money
  • It doesn’t mean being interested in technical aspects but unwilling to help
  • A good citizen is engaged, trying to actually help solve Ethereum’s shortcomings
  • Doesn’t spend time criticizing other projects
  • Generally welcoming, friendly

Recently there was a discussion about the extent to which protocol developers should care about Ether price. What are your thoughts there?

  • Holds some ETH in personal portfolio
  • Price of ETH important with respect to funding — higher the price, more capital to go around
  • Doesn’t like talking about price on daily basis – too distracting

Lane Rettig recently proposed the following question: ‘Fast-forward five years and the Ethereum experiment has failed. Why did it fail?’ What’s your take?

  • Could be several reasons
  • Research team could give up for some reason
  • Ethereum network could be attacked in a way that makes it impossible to recover
  • Not enough funding to support protocol developers

What are your thoughts on protocols like NEAR, Dfinity etc, which are attempting to challenge Ethereum’s supremacy?

  • The community support behind Ethereum is important – has a distinct first-mover advantage, network effects
  • Can understand why these projects are emerging — way to monetize core-protocol development through token sales
  • dApp developers want a scalable platform — they’re going to build on the platform that best serves their business
  • If Ethereum cannot solve scaling problems, might not have any meaningful dApps left – Aragon, for example, just announced that they will be leasing a Polkadot parachain

How can Ethereum solve for core protocol funding?

  • MolochDAO a good initiative — have been in talks with Ameen
  • Like the idea of on-chain funding, similar to Tezos/Decred
  • Suggests a fee/tax to be paid for protocol advancements in the same way that the network already subsidizes miners
  • However, imagines the Ethereum community would reject such a proposal
  • Perhaps something that can be solved in the future once better governance solutions have emerged

What is your relationship with the Ethereum Foundation?

  • Slightly chaotic at first but getting better by the day
  • Would like them to be more transparent when it comes to funding
  • Think it should be operated as a for-profit business – keep costs low, maximize value
  • Don’t think it should disappear over time, useful organization to answer hard questions, work with governments etc.

What are your thoughts on Ethereum’s existing informal governance mechanism?

  • Has worked historically and working right now, although that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good

Life after Google:

How is Google thinking about blockchains?

  • The company doesn’t favour any one protocol but if blockchains can enable access to information then will make sense for them to explore
  • Allen Day, Science Advocate at Google, launched and running BigQuery, with Google paying for compute and data storage

What’s life like after Google?

  • Happy – glad to be fully focused on Ethereum
  • Before leaving Google, was waking up at 5am every morning to fit in some hours on client development
  • Can now spend more time with wife and friends

What are your off-screen hobbies?

  • Flying planes — originally went to pilot school before switching to CS
  • Got pilot’s license in 2009
  • Flies several hours a month out of Farmingdale Airport
  • Enjoys the freedom of flying

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In conversation with Preston Van Loon, Co-Founder and Team Lead at Prysmatic Labs written by Matteo Leibowitz @ https://www.theblockcrypto.com/2019/02/06/in-conversation-with-preston-van-loon-co-founder-and-team-lead-at-prysmatic-labs/ February 7, 2019 Matteo Leibowitz

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