The magic of crypto: minting the Coinbase story for inclusion, impact and change

Sriram V Iyer, Director of Engineering - International, Coinbase, on how great products are the fruits of great sweat and tears of techies and what it takes to build crypto with the mission of financial inclusion for all, at YourStory’s Future of Work conference 2022.
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I use technology as my hammer and everything else looks like a nail to me. So, I've been floating around if you see; I have a very diverse background from semiconductor wireless telecom, to cloud computing, automotive, fashion, ecommerce, and now crypto. One constant thread that has been running through all these things is tech. And one thing that I'm really grateful for due to my past experiences is that I've been able to see both hardware and software as a single system. While a lot of folks have experience in software, I've been lucky to be exposed to both,” said Sriram V Iyer, Director of Engineering - International, Coinbase, who leads the international efforts for the cryptocurrency exchange platform from India

Sriram was speaking with YourStory’s Sindhu Kashyap at the YourStory Future of Work conference 2022, highlighting the prowess of technology as a medium of impact. “Technology is a way for me to solve problems for people at scale. That's how I define tech, said Sriram whose personal mission is to touch people's lives meaningfully and at scale. 

Scripting the Coinbase story

Coinbase being aligned with this mission was in perfect sync with Sriram’s outlook. The Coinbase executive team completely believed in this mission of building financial inclusion for everybody in the world. And, the best way to do that was via crypto. 

“When you build something for USD, it stays within the USD domain, if you build something for INR, it stays within the INR domain, but when you build for crypto it can touch everybody in the world meaningfully. So, I'm super aligned with this mission. And I found this mission very exciting,” explained Sriram.  

Sriram recalled being a part of an interesting Twitter discussion, where somebody said, ‘Hey, this is just an evolution, right? This is just an evolution of tech.’ Sriram begged to differ. “I do not agree with that. It's a major, significant quantum step ahead. Once people get used to it, they don't feel the magic. For example, if you can send bitcoin from one person to another, like some fractional bitcoin, it doesn't matter. You actually send money or value across to people without using a central authority like a bank, which has been the traditional financial solution forever, ever since we can remember. I feel crypto is magic, [some] fairly advanced tech. So, when this opportunity came up, I said that we should take this up [the Coinbase international mission],” elucidated Sriram.  

It made perfect sense since the Coinbase executives felt that to fulfil the mission of touching people’s lives, building financial inclusion for the entire world, they should be present in more countries. And that's how the international chapter was started. 

The crypto workspace and the challenges of hiring techies 

“For the last nine to 10 months, we have grown 200 plus folks, and we are still actively hiring, we'll probably triple or quadruple this year,” said Sriram. 

What are the challenges of hiring for the crypto space? We asked Sriram, whose own journey in tech started way back in ’94, when he was in his 10th standard, and he happened to be there at a study centre where somebody demonstrated a 15-minute session on a computer. “I came out with my eyes completely wide open and my mind blown. So, they did a very simple matrix manipulation algorithm. I came back home and I told my mom that from now on, I will work only on computers and nothing else. And I stayed true to that; I still don't have any useful skills other than some amount of programming and tech skills,” recalled the tech leader.

One myth that Sriram wanted to dispel right at the outset was that contrary to popular perception, the entire Coinbase workforce is not a crypto expert population; rather they are a “crypto enthusiastic population” with a product engineering motto to “live crypto”. He said that a lot of people actually assume that everyone working at Coinbase would automatically have deep Ethereum or bitcoin knowledge, which is not the case. 

Sometimes people think that they need a lot of crypto knowledge to join Coinbase per se, so they do not apply. So I want to dispel that: if you're a strong techie, you should definitely apply to Coinbase whether you are into front end or back end databases, machine learning (ML) and stuff,” explained Sriram. 

He added that some of the best folks with genuine crypto knowledge are in colleges who take up these projects as their side projects/assignments. So, there are a lot of smart folks out there, but there are not enough, he said. The idea of tying up with universities globally where lessons in cryptography are imparted as well as research projects are sponsored in a bid to tap their student funnel, the resource base, works well. 

“Whenever a new technology comes up, for example, when IoT (Internet of Things) came up, or recently, when I was a part of the Flipkart 3D commerce [initiative], there are not enough people in the world who do enough to do it. So, there's always a bootstrapping problem,” shared Sriram. The idea is to catch young students early on and work with them to shape their interest in the product. 

Sriram also recommended organising bootcamps and on-campus engagement to access the top layer of students at institutions. “I saw recently that one of the crypto foundation tutorial programmes got 20,000 users in a single day,” pointed out Sriram, emphasising that the interest is obviously there. So, innovative hiring solutions should be the key to the future. 

The entire Web3.0 is innovative. The entire space is a complete reimagination of fintech. “Traditional finance is getting completely reimagined and what does the lack of central approving authority mean? The entire space is super innovative, but while people generally think of a DeFy (decentralised finance) protocol or building DAOs (decentralised autonomous organisations) as the key things to advance crypto, I think one thing which people are missing out on is tooling. There is a lot of innovation waiting to happen in tooling as well,” emphasised Sriram.  

These trends would continue to come but the crypto asset domain and blockchain as a domain is super new where tooling is key, he added. 

Learnings as a techie 

“Over a period of time, though this might sound very gimmicky, I found that nothing is impossible. Initially, I used to get really scared when I moved between domains but I found that by solving problems from the first principle [point of view], I got enough confidence. Further, with the right team and the right focus and the right amount of intensity, most problems can be solved,” shared Sriram.  

With an experience of over two decades across tech domains, Sriram believes that great products are actually built from the sweat and tears of lots and lots of tech folks

On a parting note, Sriram advised techies to focus on the fundamentals. “Things are changing so much but the fundamentals still stay the same unless say quantum computing comes in where even those things change a bit,” he explained. Not getting overwhelmed or carried away by specific frameworks and specific languages and technologies is also a sound bit of wisdom he left for the future players of the tech world. 

Edited by Ramarko Sengupta

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