Amiti Uttarwar: Building Bitcoin’s Future
Amiti Uttarwar opened Bitcoin’s code and froze.
She was no stranger to programming languages. Studying information systems at Carnegie Mellon, she spent the first few years after graduation as full-stack developer for Silicon Valley startups. She was proficient in a half-dozen coding languages and had worked for five tech companies in her nascent career. She was working for Coinbase at the time.
This article is part of CoinDesk’s Most Influential 2020 – a list of impactful people in crypto chosen by readers and staff. The NFT of the art, by Osinachi, is available for auction at Nifty Gateway, with 50% of the sale going to charity.
But she had never read code like this.
“At first I was in disbelief,” she told CoinDesk. “It’s an insanely intimidating project.”
On Peter McCormack’s “What Bitcoin Did” podcast, she likened her baptism into Bitcoin Core – Bitcoin’s primary software version – as more of an introduction to Babel than a revelation.
“Is this Arabaic? What do I do here? I was endlessly opening files going, ‘cool, cool, cool,’” she said, describing her first experience with Bitcoin Core.
She doesn’t remember what led her to dip her toes into Bitcoin Core – or, as the backpacking Uttarwar would likely analogize, take the first step from the trailhead. But she does recall thinking whatever trail Bitcoin took her down would be a short trek, not a multi-year exploration.
“At the time it just seemed another small thing I was learning about. I had no idea that it would blow up into my career and my passion,” she said.
Four grants, hundreds of Github commits and a Forbes “30 Under 30” profile later, she was surely wrong about that. The first known woman to contribute to Bitcoin Core, she’s also the first woman to receive funding to work on Bitcoin Core full time. And she’s spending this opportunity to do more than improve Bitcoin’s code – she’s also mentoring the young, promising minds of Bitcoin’s next generation of developers.
Her meteoric success as one of Bitcoin Core’s first fully funded developers – and as one of its brightest new minds for development and mentorship – earned her a spot in CoinDesk’s Most Influential list for 2020.
Amiti Uttarwar, 28, was born to Indian-American immigrants into the burgeoning, buzzing techno-metropolis of 1990s Silicon Valley, California. After elementary school and high school she attended The Harker School, a renowned college prep school founded in San Jose in 1893.
For college, she would study information systems at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, spending her summers interning for a handful of tech startups. Returning home from Pennsylvania after receiving her degree, Uttarwar’s graduation threw her into Silicon Valley’s electric, break-it-until-you-make-it startup scene.
She began her career as a full-stack developer, a term for a general-purpose position, which meant she “did what needed to be done” (and is a catch-all title Uttarwar “doesn’t really like”). Cutting her teeth at Wanelo, a commerce app marketed toward Generation Z patrons, she would move on to Simbi, an invite-only marketplace for freelancers where payment is made in time and skills, not money.
A bit bohemian and a bit experimental with its approach to invoicing, Simbi was more in tune with Uttarwar’s own values than Wanelo, but she still wasn’t fully absorbed in her work.
This was during 2017, a time when Bitcoin was tearing through all time highs and “suddenly everyone in San Francisco was working in ‘the blockchain scene,’” she said in a Forbes interview this summer. Eventually her own interest was piqued. Her first point of contact was a TED talk on blockchain and then (naturally) the Bitcoin white paper, authored by Satoshi Nakamoto.
Having entered Bitcoin’s orbit, it wasn’t long before she was sucked in.
I realized I couldn’t go back to a normal job.
“I was never the type of person to do professional work outside of my job. I was the type of person who was like, ‘I have my job, and I’m happy that it ends.’
“In my free time I spend time in the mountains or play guitar [which are] more balancing activities. Falling down this rabbit whole was the first time I found myself devoting my free time to something so close to my work.”
She began watching as many technical videos on Bitcoin as she could. Commuting home from work, she would sit on the BART – San Francisco’s transit system – with her eyes glued to her smartphone, another TED talk or explainer video dancing in technicolor on the screen.
Her days became programmatic, precise. Not unlike Bitcoin itself, her every move was dictated by mathematical exactness. Every ticking second was planned, optimized and executed intentionally. Rise, eat, work, learn, sleep, repeat.
“I got ultra cerebral about optimizing my life,” she told CoinDesk with a laugh.
What was driving Uttarwar further down the rabbit hole was unlike any motivation she had encountered so far in her young career as a developer.
“I was shocked at how much energy I had. I could spend an entire day at work and still want to look at Bitcoin code,” she expressed, saying how her social calendar soon became filled up with meetups at Stanford and Berkeley Bitcoin and blockchain clubs.
This was at the same time as the 2016-2017 initial coin offering (ICO) boom and Uttarwar was “reading a lot of white papers, some of which were bulls**t,” she commented wryly. It was in these academic environments that she was exposed to the “more legitimate projects” and to the “fundamentals” underpinning Bitcoin.
From here, her curiosity was aroused even more and her focus became “How can I get closer?”
From Coinbase to Core
The answer came from a lesson in perseverance.
Uttarwar applied for a job at Coinbase, one of the hottest startups in a blooming crypto industry, shortly after she was not accepted into a 2018 residency at Chaincode Labs, a summer program in New York where promising Bitcoin developers research and develop with guidance from Chaincode’s engineers.
While there, she was involved in a number of projects, including, in her words, the “definitely stressful … high-stakes” job of helping with a mammoth $1 billion transfer of Coinbase funds from an old “cold wallet” (an offline storage technique) to a new one.
All the while, she continued to research and learn until eventually her passion would outgrow her paycheck. On a pivotal night for her career, she met Bitcoin Core developer and educator John Newbery at a developers dinner.
She had laughed off the notion that she could work on Bitcoin Core full time, but Newbery wasn’t joking.
“John Newberry created an opportunity, broke it down for me into related achievable steps. Once on-boarded, I was able meet new people, reach out, discuss ideas. Having that initial boost of confidence and some guidance for where to channel my initial efforts was enough to get me started and going.”
Once she started, she “seized the opportunity obsessively,” she said.
She received permission from her supervisor to take a sabbatical for a spot in Chaincode Lab’s coveted Bitcoin residency.
No need for a third time. After being rejected the first go around, Uttarwar made the cut for Chaincode’s 2019 residency.
At last, Amiti Uttarwar was finally getting closer. And after a summer laboring in the cryptic bowels of Bitcoin’s code, she returned to Coinbase when the residency was finished and knew her calling was working on Bitcoin in an open-source environment.
“I realized I couldn’t go back to a normal job. I realized that this is what I want to spend all my time doing right now,” she said.
She quit Coinbase in September of 2019 and threw herself into Bitcoin Core once again. It wasn’t long before she found a benefactor in Xapo, a crypto wallet and banking services company.
Today, she’s still a free agent, and she’s still attracting funding. OKCoin and BitMEX jointly granted her $150,000 this year to continue her work on transaction relay privacy and automated testing procedures for code development.
Uttarwar is one of the fortunate few of Bitcoin Core’s top echelon of coders who have received grants for their work. For the majority of Bitcoin’s short history, developers have worked on its open-source software on a volunteer basis. It hasn’t been until recent years that core developers have been paid to maintain and improve Bitcoin’s code.
2020 has been a watershed year for open-source Bitcoin development grants. The Human Rights Foundation has funded Chris Belcher, Gloria Zhao and others, and has secured more funding for 2021 from donors like Gemini. Other exchanges such as BitMEX and OKCoin have consistently funded developers since 2018. Square Crypto, the research and development arm of Jack Dorsey’s Square, has funded more than half a dozen developers. Other Bitcoin companies, including Blockstream and Chaincode Labs, have been funding Bitcoin development since the early days.
Developers with access to funding, however, are definitely in the minority. Plenty of others work on Bitcoin Core or other Bitcoin software without hope of remuneration. Even the lucky ones who are funded are making less than they might if they worked for a tech company.
Uttarwar, who is taking a “big pay cut” by working on Bitcoin, said there’s “no strong financial incentive” to undertake the laborious and inglorious work of Core development.
The drive to do it, then, is the same thing that kept Uttarwar up at night researching when she still had her 9-to-5 job: raw passion.
Perhaps this is why, as she says, “The hardest hurdle to overcome is the emotional one.”
“Core development requires a solid understanding of the self and sustaining your intention which requires a lot of emotional regulation,” she continued.
For those working on core full time, it’s “easy to get overwhelmed” and burned out. Bitcoin’s code is complex and making changes is a long, painstaking process.
Take Uttarwar’s projects, for example. One of these, a privacy improvement for how nodes relay transactions, has been more than a year in the making, all while working on another project for automating code tests.
Bitcoin Core contributors take their time with changes to ensure that any updates to the software are backward compatible – or, to ensure that older versions and new versions can still function with one another.
Because user optionality is always at the forefront of the design process, changes are made slowly, methodically and through a rigorous peer review process.
When you spend months – or years – working meticulously on code that is then picked over for some months more by the most brilliant minds in Bitcoin’s development, it’s easy to see how it can get personal.
“It’s this really meritocratic community that’s discourse oriented. But at the same time, this thing is emotional. Code is tangible, but contributing is still nebulous. You have to match up ‘what is valuable’ with ‘what is achievable by me.’ It’s a deeply complex program, and you have to have the emotional bandwidth to believe you can see it through. It’s easy to be timid and it’s easy to be arrogant.”
To recuperate from such a draining process, Uttarwar says spending time in natural settings helps her reenergize.
So when she’s not coding, she’s trail hiking or off-trail hiking – she likens the latter to Bitcoin Core development. Unlike hiking on a trail, you have to chart a path for yourself and simultaneously execute that path.
From student to mentor
This freedom, to work on whatever you want, is a privilege. But it’s also “existential,” Uttarwar said – like approaching a 14,000-foot mountain or a 100-mile hiking trail.
“It’s insane to look at Mt. Whitney [the tallest peak in the contiguous U.S.] and say, ‘Let’s go to the top of that!’ It takes time, practice and persistence.”
Uttarwar embodies the steadfast attitude needed to tackle such monumental tasks, both in her professional and her personal life. A few years ago she was afraid of the cold; now, she’s picked up ice climbing. At that fateful dinner with John Newbery, she wrote off her ability to contribute to Core; now, she’s working on Bitcoin full time with her third and fourth grants. She even has her own school of mentees now who, like her in those earlier days under Newbery, are searching for guidance through Satoshi’s labyrinth.
She challenges her mentees to find ways they can “joyfully contribute” to Core, aligning their development goals with their aptitude and interest.
Lest these young developers regress into burnout, striking this balance is important to retain talent.
When CoinDesk asked if anyone can do what she does, Uttarwar, ever the humble optimist, said that “if the will is there, it can be done.” But she reminded us there’s more work to be done than just technical. There’s educational work and the “social layer” that requires attention.
“I can’t imagine working on anything else. It feels like I’m just getting started,” she said of her career as a Bitcoin developer and mentor.
And it’s a good thing she’s sticking around. Her enthusiasm and infectious smile flush the daunting, mechanic world of Bitcoin’s code with warmth and affability. She inspires us to get to work, and reminds us why we have a reason to have a positive outlook while doing it.
“I think that with Bitcoin we have this huge opportunity to redefine wealth,” she said. “That goes beyond what a protocol can do; that’s about how a society adopts a tool. I think there’s this opportunity to make it better.
“A global money is inevitable. And Bitcoin is the most interesting experiment in global money because it is inclusive by design. It’s important for bitcoin to exist as an alternative. We’re already seeing people around the world who opt for this alternative when the traditional systems fail them, so I hope to strengthen it.”