This article is part of a series of interviews with our MouseBelt University Ambassadors. Our university program participants come from over 100+ schools in 24 countries! We wanted to highlight some of the awesome students working hard to make blockchain a global revolution:
UTD Blockchain connects and trains students with industry professionals and technical workshops so they can learn more about this rapidly-growing and lucrative field. To learn more about UTD Blockchain, visit their website here.
MouseBelt University accelerates the next generation of blockchain projects from the ground up. We help students with everything from meetups and hackathons to cutting-edge research and entrepreneurship. Learn more at https://mousebelt.university
Mousebelt & UT Dallas Interview
w/ Ashlie Meredith & Luis Osta
Tell me about yourself; how did you get involved in blockchain?
I am the current president of the blockchain club at UT Dallas. I've
worked as a lead blockchain engineer for Toyota, as well as for other contracts and companies, helping consult startups -- that kind of thing. I got started by some sort of serendipitous events where the PA next to my hall was an Officer of the blockchain club, and they just sort of offhandedly mentioned that they were doing an event. Since, at the time, I was generally interested in getting involved with different organizations, I inquired. You see, I'm very big on opportunity and making sure they lead me toward, not just where the money is, but toward things that are going to have the most impact. So, with pretty quick order, after talking to the president, I was able to pitch myself to become their new webmaster and I just kept following the path because it seemed that was where the most opportunity was.
What I found was that, unlike A.I. (which is something else that I was very interested in!), because blockchain is so young, there's less Gatekeepers, less people standing in the way arbitrarily. Due to that fact, it kept making more and more sense to invest more of my time both in the blockchain club and in blockchain as a technology, something that I could acquire a skill set in. So I went from webmaster, to marketer; and then from marketing, I went on to become Chief of Operations, and then from there I became the president when the previous one moved on.
That's sort of my route I took to get where I am now; that’s how things got started for me with the UTD blockchain club!
Awesome! And you're now at what stage in your academic career?
I am a senior now; I'm studying computer science. I have a lot of varying interests. One of the main reasons I got into blockchain originally was because of the impact it could have on finance. I'm very big on finance: the stock market, 401K, etc. I mean, I even competed in economic and finance competitions back in highschool. In academic decathlon, for instance, economics was always my favorite topic. So, the effect that blockchain could have in the financial sector and on economics in general was what initially drew me to it. You could say that that was my initial impetus to learn more about it. Even to this day, the FinTech projects in the blockchain space are the ones that I find most interesting.
That's so awesome. You just touched on three different things that I totally agree with you on. What I get really excited about when working with students is seeing their broad range of interests. Many students, for example, are interested in the business side and not just the engineering side. That’s why we have the technical team on the one hand, which can cater to the technical students, and then we have the business advisory on the other hand for the business-minded students. We're constantly working with both engineering and business departments, and more and more, universities are doing the same; they’re having a lot more collaborations between their entrepreneurship efforts and the actual engineering departments to start building more Hands-On emerging Tech. FinTech is certainly one of those interesting cross-sections of business and technical development. I think the opportunity is awesome and gives so many different kinds of people the chance to get involved -- Blockchain isn’t just for computer science majors, it’s everyone!
I mean, that's why we originally started our mentorship program, ‘UTD Surge’. Through my own experience in business, and in different projects, I found that as a technical person, even just a little bit of business experience goes a really long way; and likewise, as a business person, even just a little bit of technical knowledge gives you a lot more leverage all around. So we wanted to give people an opportunity to see the virtues of having a mixed bag of skills in that respect. At least in my University, we saw there wasn’t much of the collaboration that you mentioned, though it will presumably increase a little bit over time, but not as fast as it should. Really, we wanted to provide a place, in a program, where people can really understand just how you can actually be successful, and can actually increase your chances of being able to do great stuff, whether in startup space or with a project in corporate setting. And that starts with having a variety of skills.
In modern times, you see, you don't have to be a specialist, per se. Even if you are, you’re usually a specialist in 2, 3, 4 different things. In other words, even when you’re a “specialist,” you’re really a generalist in that you focus on and have several different skills. In modern times, it really is a generalist domain.
Yeah, I would like to add that (in the sense that a little bit of business knowledge for a technical person goes a long way, and vice versa) the path from a “level zero” to a basic understanding of blockchain is actually quite a quick road to travel, and it’s quite beneficial. You can get to a level of understanding where you can be contributing to the space and working on the communication side of things at least really quickly.
Right, you don't have to, you know, read the technical “white papers” in order to understand blockchain’s value and how it can be utilized -- that's not a requirement!
Haha! Exactly! And I've almost passively become aware of that fact in my own case as University program director. Every other day, I’ll Google, for example, ‘blockchain university news’ just to see what's going on. So, in whatever you’re doing, you can just passively take in what sorts of issues need attention, what is being pursued, what is not, where is the demand, etc. What I've seen is that, pretty universally, if there's at least a blockchain club on a campus, there's a big demand among students to actually take a course, and not always on the technical side. Following that up, usually you can end up with a course opening with 60 registrations, and that's all tuition going to the department.
Can you talk a little more about your experience actually being in a blockchain club. Are there any existing courses at your campus?
I can't speak too much to the experience of being in the blockchain club except from the side of an Officer. As long as I've known about the club, I’ve been an Officer. But we always focus on an interdisciplinary approach and working with the faculty wherever possible. I would say that Business Schools actually are able to pivot and get involved a lot faster than engineering schools.
Now, on the Masters side of things, there are some courses that are focused on cryptography, and some of the aspects of blockchain regarding the mathematical properties. But in the actual Business School here at the University, I found that there are entire Masters programs where a big chunk of it is learning about blockchain and smart contracts, and how you can implement these technologies. The point is, a lot of people at the undergraduate level are involved, but this is primarily in the Business Schools.
I've actually TAed for a few of the courses over there, and I found there was a strong amount of interest. Any technology always has its main attractors, like AI, but you have to understand that AI has been established for the last 40 years, unlike Blockchain which is relatively newer and there's still a lot of unsolved problems which attracts a lot of people.
So I would say my main feeling regarding all of this is that I’m just surprised at how quickly it's grown, and how quickly the interest has grown with it!
Maybe that's a consequence of where we are in our technological era. Things just do move so much faster, and we have distributed teams across the world. Mousebelt is a good example of that. You can take the concept of an accelerator, for instance, and ask: what are all the things that slow down acceleration? Its relocating founders to a certain place in the world, like San Francisco; it’s needing to provide your own office space; it’s needing to be in the same room to have a meeting -- all of these things take money out of your business investment funds, time out of your day commuting through space. The point is that as our technology and global connection with the internet grows, the quicker we can get things done, and the quicker the technologies we are developing come quicker in turn. It’s a technological feedback loop!
And not to mention, when you save time and money with better technology, it frees you up to offer your clients things like engineering hours, Capital for business development, etc. You know, we're starting to integrate all of the different parts of Mousebelt where we can accelerate companies and get them engaged with our student Community, and none of this now-a-days requires that we all be in one central location. The rapid growth of technology and the sort of distributed-team organization that comes from that allows us to reach many more people, and this is good news for students of blockchain specifically.
But this brings me to another point: One of the things that I've seen is that there’s not a lot of Hands-On developer classes for undergraduates out there in the University, and this is why we feel our efforts are so necessary. I was wondering if your school had anything like Hands-on engineering courses for undergraduates, even though they may be scarce?
Well, again, on the Masters side, I believe so. But not at the undergraduate level. Unlike the business classes, which are made to be much more “practical,” there is still a lot of Academia woven into the ethos of the engineering departments for undergraduates. Maybe schools like Stanford and UC Berkeley have been quicker to transform, but I mean there’s still a lot of engineering departments that don’t even have Artificial Intelligence courses, of all things.
So, unless there is an entire cultural shift in the way that Universities structure their undergraduate degrees to keep up with the rapidly evolving world of tech, students are going to get left behind. An exception in Texas I believe is UT Austin -- they have been making a move toward adding at least more of these “practical” electives.
Again, unless we get that culture shift where practicality or modernity is valued higher, I think it's going to be difficult. As you mentioned, in technology everything moves very quickly, and the universities that can adapt to that speed will succeed, and those that cannot, won’t.
Speaking of UT Austin, I know they were thinking about doing a hackathon, and I know you guys recently had a hackathon -- Can you could speak a bit to how the Emerging Tech event went, and whether you plant to do any cross campus collaborative events with other UT campuses?
We would love to work with other campuses more! We have a lot of respect for the people running the blockchain club at UT Austin. I’m sure they have quite a difficult time competing with all the other breadth of clubs that we have here in the DFW area! So yes, we would love to collaborate with them more. Sadly, however, we haven't been able to schedule a time that works with both of us.
In my time as president, my focus has been on stabilizing the blockchain club here and on increasing our presence within the university. With that, we can build out a network of clubs within the Dallas Fort-Worth area. Part of that effort means that we keep good relations with the people over at UT Austin, and then hopefully once everything stabilizes, we can work on making more complex and more comprehensive collaborative events. The difficulty is to organize, but yeah - we’re working on the state-wide events! Right now, we’re focusing on our own hackathon.
Can you tell me a bit about your hackathon? Then we can go to predictions -- I want to hear about your crypto predictions for 2020! But right now, what’s up with the EmTech Hackathon?
Yeah, so the original hackathon was originally run and set up by the previous club president, which I was helping to organize. At the time of initial planning, it was called (I believe) Proof of Hack, which is sort of a play on words; you know, a crypto inside joke punning off of “Proof of Work”, “Proof of Stake.”
We were happy with the way the event went, but when I became president, I decided that I wanted to rebrand the hackathon. The “rebranding” would be part of a bigger strategy of trying to shift the way we talk about blockchain. A lot of the time, we talk about blockchain as if it were a specific thing used -- as if it were like a programming language, such as Java. Blockchain, rather, is something much more like a platform, a code-pattern that is much more like a digital foundation. It’s like the Cloud, at least in the way that it does what it’s meant to do. You don't, you know, say that you’re going to use “the Cloud” like you say that you’re going to “use Java.”
The benefit of blockchain is that it handles very unique problems in a very, very elegant way that previously wasn't a possibility. And so I changed it to an Emergent-Technology hackathon, and the hope was that with this rebranded title, it would invite the idea that blockchain is useful because there's a whole new set of problems, in fact, that are represented in the emerging space that can be solved with this sort of platform. I wanted to present it as a tool, but not like it's a hammer - it’s more like a systematic approach to addressing the problem. Less like a hammer, and more like a way of hammering.
Again, it’s not really like using Java for projects , and it’s not really like using a different kind of database. Certainly there are ways to complexify that statement, but the point is we wanted to shift away from the thought that it is a specialized skill like learning a script language. If you’re going to be a blockchain engineer, you're going to need to have other skill sets. If you want to be able to build out a product using blockchain technology, you need to know more than just a “programming language.”
Besides some of the workshops you’re working on behind the scenes, is there anything that you're excited to try out with Mousebelt in the next year, perhaps with any of the partner companies in our Network? Anything you'd like to see on the University side, either at UT Dallas or on a more cross-campus level?
I'm excited to work more with Stellar and Orbs, certainly.
I want to build a better relationship with some of these companies, so that we can possibly provide them with talent if they need it through the mentorship program. We really want our mentees to get some real work experience! So, I would say my main focus for the rest of the year is to be able to really refine the educational research you guys provide, for instance, and build and refine the relationships with some of the companies that we have on board to get their technologies tested, We want our mentees to be able to learn how to actually build a real product, and to get some good feedback.
Can you say more about your mentorship program?
Certainly! UTD Surge -- we basically find a bunch of educational resources with actual mentors that we know, such as business people and engineers that I’ve personally had the chance to get to know through my being involved in the space. From this pool, we pick a very small group, between 9 to 12 people, and we divide into groups of three and then we help the mentees from the ideation phase to the development phase. We focus on things like: thinking about the technological architecture; how the business plan affects their architecture; how to test the business plan; introducing them to BC, helping them understand the best way to structure their page and the best ways of approaching the whole project from the ground up.
We have a few senior developers that help them understand, for example, clean code and fundamental architecture. We hold workshops on the practical stuff like getting set up with Google Cloud, getting started with React and Node.js, and integrating that into the microservices architecture. I believe it’s an eight to ten week course (depending on how skilled they are) to try to get them to a point where they're really good, and help them get their product from start to finish.
Since I've already had the pleasure of being mentored by other people, I wanted to build a system and program where we could utilize all the resources we've gathered and pay it forward. On that note, the Mousebelt courses have been incredible -- you guys have really one of the more comprehensive course lists out there on this specific subject matter.
**Beautiful! And of course we’re glad that we can be of service to the mentorship program in that way.
Now lastly, the big question: Have you any predictions for 2020 in crypto?! We just did the year in review for Coindesk, and we said that 2020 would be the year of education, just based on what we've seen the last few years. Any predictions from you? BTC price by The Halvening?**
Ha! I'm not in the forecasting game. But if I had to predict: unless there is a recession, I think 2020 will see the the expansion and unveiling of a lot more serious blockchain projects from the corporate world.
Wonderful! Well thank you so much Luis, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you!