Bob Summerwill: From Building Games to Building Bridges

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One would think all is love and hash on the blockchain. But when you have a decentralized system where each participant is autonomous, there is bound to be fire on the block. Bob Summerwill shares with me his story about going from building games to building bridges with (block)chains.

Trust a pro game software engineer to use words like actors and censor when defining blockchain. “You can think of blockchains as being distributed databases which let mutually distrustful actors build a shared source of information together, without the potential for that information to be tampered with, and without the potential for the information to be censored.” He thinks “that tokenized financial assets are the most compelling use case right now.”

Ten years ago, a phenomenon identified as Satoshi Nakamoto, discovered an economic innovation, creating money without the government and banks, using blockchain technology. “The simplest application which that new pattern let humans build was peer-to-peer money (starting with Bitcoin), with that database serving to record who has the money, and verifying the transactions as the coins move about. All without any central bank, government or regulators. For anybody in the world who has an internet connection. Very powerful.” Unfortunately, a large number of people still get it wrong about blockchain and crypto; “Thinking that it is real for production today. It is not. We are still so, so early. The hype has massively overtaken the reality. Hold up, folks! This is real, but don’t bet the farm yet.”

From the bar to the block. Bob’s first introduction to blockchain started with Bitcoin which someone he met at a bar told him about. “I met a guy in a bar one night and we got talking about what we each did. He asked if I had heard of Bitcoin. We had the most amazing conversation, which rolled on for hours, in which we talked through all the potential which blockchain technology had for building a new backbone for society. Through to robo-logistics, self-driving trucks, machine-to-machine payments. This was around February 2014. The guy was David Lowey. He took me to some meetups. Down the rabbit hole we go. He introduced me to Vitalik later that summer.” This makes me remember when I also first heard about Bitcoin. Although, at that time, it was shrouded in heavy negativity due to connections with Ponzi schemes. David Lowey is an early Bitcoin adopter who started his first Bitcoin trades when it was just 5 cents! He even secured the bitcoin.com domain name and later sold it for a substantial profit. Bob credits the blockchain aficionado, David, with being the reason he is in blockchain. David helped guide Bob as he took his baby steps in the decentralized space. Leading to deep technical involvement through the Ethereum Foundation and ConsenSys, most notable being the successful launch of the largest blockchain consortium in the world, the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA). In addition to David, Bob has other mentor figures who have helped him in his journey so far. “Boris Mann, Greg Colvin, Brian Behlendorf and Joe Lubin have helped me the most during my time in blockchain, all in their own ways. Wise heads and experience are invaluable.”

Most of Bob’s early activities in blockchain have been with the Ethereum Community. “I have been involved with the Ethereum community since 2014, which could be seen as the ‘second-round’ blockchain project after Bitcoin, where the pattern was generalized to make a ‘computing platform’ (like Android, Windows, Web) on which any peer-to-peer application could be built. Not just money. So, stock exchanges, insurance, land registry, sales of music, videos, digital collectibles like CryptoKitties and blockchain games. Pretty much anything you can imagine.”

While Bob still contributes to the technical aspects of blockchain, he’s a programmer after all, he spends a large percentage of his efforts in the space building bridges between other participants. “What I do, mainly, is build bridges between different groups of people within blockchain. Despite blockchain being a wonder of science and technology, many people have been treating it as a religion – as a team sport. Acting as though this is a zero-sum game, and that one project has to lose for another to win. The reality is that we are still so, so early in exploring the possibilities of this new technology for humanity. So early in its implementation and roll-out. We have years of work ahead of us before it is as ubiquitous as the web or mobile devices. So, I try to bring everyone together. To combine our efforts where we have commonality (nearly everything!) and work separately where we are exploring different approaches or trade-offs. No need to sling mud at each other, to say ‘You are idiots. Your thing will never work. It is a scam’ etc.”

It’s not a coincidence that Bob’s involvement in blockchain is deeply technical. For eighteen years before crossing paths with blockchain, Bob spent his waking hours working as a software engineer. Yeah, if you play high-level games, you’ve probably interacted with one of Bob’s creations. “I worked for eighteen years in the video games industry, with fifteen of those years at Electronic Arts, making AAA games for PlayStation, XBOX, PC and mobile.”

These days, Bob uses the blockchain to build helpful applications even as he builds bridges between the humans on the block. Bob’s experience building things dates as far back as since when he started walking as a child. “I loved Lego. I built things out of Lego every day for years on end. Then Lego Technic later – with rods and cogs and motors.” With the Legos, rods, cogs and motors, Bob was able to build anything. “They come in sets to build specific things – cars, trucks, ships, rockets, whatever, but many of the parts are just standard, so you can build whatever you like with them. Your imagination is the only limit. And they have moving parts.” Amazing stuff. “Like maybe you can move the steering wheel. Or raise the crane up and down. Or even have a little electric motor to make the car move. Or have electrical lights.”

It was only natural that as he outgrew Lego, he would advance to programming as a platform, this time, for building games. “But I started programming when I was 10, in 1984. My Dad was a religious education teacher and lecturer and, where he worked at the University, they had a library and bookshop. He taught himself how to do database programming to build a stock control system for those too. He brought home a computer from work in the evenings and I was a curious child wanting to understand what he was doing, so I got hooked early! He bought me books and magazines, and I borrowed everything they had at our local library (pretty much nothing), then spent all my pocket money on computer magazines.” In the ‘70s and ‘80s, one had to manually type in computer codes from computer magazines in order to use them. “They had program listings to type in from the magazines at that point. I learnt BASIC, then machine code.”

Originally British, Bob “was born in Leeds, in the north of England, and grew up in England and Wales. I moved to Vancouver, Canada, fifteen years ago and still live here now.” He is the proud father to two sons, who are six and four, and have already begun taking their own baby decentralized steps with coaching from their dad and the ever-supportive community. In addition to the gentle urgings from David, his sons were also a motivating factor for why he joined the blockchain revolution. “So, I became involved in blockchain because I wanted a better world for me and my children. I am not interested in supporting monopolistic, hierarchical, status quo companies. It has never been about the money for me, always the potential for social impact. I only want to work with people and projects with aligned interests. Financially I would have been a lot better staying at my role at Electronic Arts.  Or working for a bank. But that would not have been spiritually satisfying.” We all want a better world for ourselves and ours, but how will blockchain make that a reality? Bob says he hopes “to see serious impact within five years, even if only in a few places.”

Like me, Bob is also convinced beyond all reasonable doubts that blockchain is not a fad and is here to stay. “I have committed three and a half years of my life to it so far. There is huge potential here.” Following the block (rather than the money) led him to leaving his otherwise successful corporate career path. “So I worked for myself, helping and volunteering on Ethereum and the HyperLedger Community. That turned into a contract at the Ethereum Foundation, working on the C++ client. Then at ConsenSys working on the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance. Then at Sweetbridge working on supply chain / blockchain. Most recently as blockchain lead at Quantfury where we are building the fairest trading platform you can imagine, with truly $0 fees. Using blockchain so we Can’t Be Evil.”

Bob is also an ambassador for Cryptochicks, an outfit geared towards increasing the number of female participants in blockchain. Most recently, and co-founded with Alison Alexis, a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and a Chartered Accountant (CA), Bob is the CTO of a blockchain contracting and consulting company called Varro Technologies.

If ever there is anyone so good at building and maintaining online relationships, none is better than Bob. A perfect example is his four years online contract with Carsten Munk before ever meeting in real life. “FOSDEM my first meeting with Carsten Munk, formerly of Jolla. Now Zippie. He has become a real friend. We had deep online contact for four years before ever meeting in person. But since met again in New York and recently here in Vancouver.”

There’s a reason crypto is sometimes referred to as the Wild West, what with being the most volatile market ever in history, where prices can go from $1 to almost $20,000 in a couple of years. Bob shares some funny, interesting and ridiculous events he has experienced in the decentralized space. “Talking to Michael Trout in the rooftop bar in Shanghai and meeting his potential investor who was the closest to a parody of a Grand Theft Auto gangster that I can imagine. 2016 was wild. Living through the DAO with a front row seat too.”

Very few people put the community before their own personal considerations. When I asked Bob what he thinks his impact on the world will be as a result of his work, he was quick to decentralize the attention. “Oh my goodness, that is a hard question. I try not to think of things in such personal terms, because what is unique about blockchain is the community. That we are looking to do more as a collective. To break past kingdoms and tribes. Together I think we can all make a huge difference. At Ethereum Community Conference I said we are all superheroes. Never let anybody make you feel like a powerless pawn. We can all change the world. We just need to choose to act. That does not mean it is easy. Far from it. Your own story shows you that. But you pick yourself up and carry on.” To better buttress the point of placing communities over an individual, Andrew Keys’ reply to Bob’s share of an old tweet about EEA, says it all: “It takes a village.”

As he devotes his time, resources and talent to blockchain through myriad projects, Bob hopes the legacy he makes on earth is contributing to a world where abundance is equitably distributed or, if you will, decentralized. “I would love to see a world where the abundance we have means that nobody needs to worry about starvation, homelessness, lack of access to basic health facilities and education. To see if we can shift our expectations of a few things to Maslov’s hierarchy of needs. Anything I can do to help that would make me very happy, and I think that community and associated movements can make a difference. See also Radical Markets.”

Just a few days ago, I got an email from someone I once volunteered for. I was convinced that this, and my moderate attempts at visibility, is why she remembered me in connection to a vacancy. That’s the difference between chasing jobs and jobs chasing you. Bob’s advice for newcomers to blockchain can be summarized in two words: visibility and value. “Firstly, I would suggest finding a local Meetup to connect with people near you with common interests. That network will be invaluable. And then learn everything you can. Understand different projects, different technologies. Volunteer. Help. In whatever way you can. Be useful. That will lead you to work. Turning up ‘for a job’ sets an unrealistic expectation. You need to demonstrate enthusiasm and knowledge first. And be known and liked.” In other words, like I also tell newbies: learn before you earn. “Right. And that is not to say this is charity work and not something you can have a career in. Just that it is so new and so many people have so little experience that you can really distinguish yourself with this approach. And it will make a big difference to your chances of getting hired. Go the extra mile. Not only will you get better results, but you will have fun doing it and have more satisfaction.”

You can follow Bob Summerwill’s activities on Twitter, LinkedIn, and read recaps of events he attends on his blog.

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About Author

Faith Obafemi is a digital content consultant whose work revolves around FinTech, cryptocurrency, blockchain and smart contracts. For the past two years, Faith has been providing educative and engaging content for projects in the space. She helps to filter the hype and highlight the potentials of the novel technology. When she's not hashing content for her clients, you can find her learning Solidity and HyperLedger Fabric, or watching Korean series!

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