This is the human edited transcript for Episode 82 with Gloria Zhao.
Anita Posch [00:04:30] Hello, Gloria. Welcome to the show and thanks for doing this interview with me.
Gloria Zhao [00:04:35] Thank you for having me. I’m so happy to be here.
Anita Posch [00:04:37] Yes, I’m also happy that you’re here.
We have a common friend, Amiti Uttarwar. She was also a guest at the Bitcoin & Co podcast. It was episode 62. Amiti was so nice to introduce you to me and now we are here doing this interview together.
Gloria Zhao [00:04:53] Yes, Amiti’s been great to me.
Anita Posch [00:04:55] Yes. She’s, in general, great. I think.
Gloria Zhao [00:04:58] Yes, I agree. [chuckles]
Anita Posch [00:04:59] So please introduce yourself to our listeners. What are you doing? Maybe, if you want to share that, where are you living and what is your background?
Gloria Zhao [00:05:09] Yes, I’m Gloria. I’m from Silicon Valley, a little city called Cupertino and that’s where I am right now. I go to Berkeley. I’m a senior majoring in computer science. Going to graduate soon. I went to college because I was supposed to and I study computer science because I was supposed to. Here in Silicon Valley, everyone wants to know computer science because it’s the tools to build the future.
I didn’t really know what kind of future to build until I got into Bitcoin and blockchain, really.
So I got into Bitcoin basically by joining blockchain at Berkeley. I think that got me started in the right direction and opened my eyes to these technological solutions that are centered around very social ideological problems, like sovereignty, freedom, and privacy. These values have become a really core part of who I think I am and what I want to spend my life doing.
I was mostly doing blockchain, like enterprise blockchain and corporate stuff for a while until the beginning of this year. So six or seven months ago when some of the chain coders, including Amiti and Adam Jonas and John Newbery, got me into Bitcoin Core. So I’ve been contributing for about six to seven months and it makes me extremely happy. I’ve found what kind of future I want to live in and how to help contribute to building that.
Anita Posch [00:06:43] Why were you supposed to study computer science?
Gloria Zhao [00:06:49] Well, I’m from Silicon Valley. [laughs] I was born and raised in Cupertino, which is where Apple is. Actually, I was born in Mountain View which is where Google is. Basically, this is a tech heaven and there’s a very set path of what defines success.
When I was in high school, for example, all I was, was a walking college application. So I was supposed to fit perfect grades and perfect test scores and instruments and languages and art. Whatever I could stack up my piece of paper with to signal that I’m going to be a successful person or whatever but also, I think this is common everywhere. Where people are trying to be high achieving and they have a lot of academic privilege but in Silicon Valley, in fifth grade, they brought us all into an auditorium and had the speaker tell us, “Oh, 1 out of every 10 startups succeeds,” and then told us the story about Steve Jobs and Apple. All of the entrepreneurs, right, in Silicon Valley.
In high school, I did all these entrepreneurship competitions where you would create a fake business plan. Then, present it to judges and they’d see how technologically interesting and entrepreneurial you were. So this startup, entrepreneurial culture is really baked into Silicon Valley. So, rather than, “Oh, you’re Asian, you need to go be a doctor or whatever.”
It’s, “Oh, you need to go learn technology so that you can work in the tech space. So that you can create these startups, build your own unicorn.”
So the plan is, okay, you go to college, you study computer science.
Then you do software engineering for five years or maybe it’s product management or whatever it is. Then, you have until you’re, 50 to 55 years old to join 10 startups. So, you’ll switch every two to three years. Then because one out of every 10 startups succeeds, you’re expected to find your unicorn by the time you retire.
If you have extra time, let’s say you hit it on your second try or your first try, then, now you can be a VC and help others succeed and build this Silicon Valley entrepreneurship dream. It’s mostly signaling. It’s not really for me now that I’ve come this far but that was how I grew up. That was the story I was supposed to end up telling.
Anita Posch [00:09:25] I understand. Sounds a little bit like there’s a high social pressure and a little bit of brainwashing because basically, everybody wants to do or achieve the same.
Gloria Zhao [00:09:38] Yes and I think we tell the world that what we care about is this idea of innovation or social impact, for example.
Here’s a little anecdote. Right now, it’s college application season. Usually, college apps are due in November/ December. So right now, in my hometown, there’s hundreds of nonprofits being founded by 16/17 year olds.
You’re like, “Oh, that’s great. It must be because they really care about the world and they want to make an impact on it.” It’s actually because, this is a little cynical, but basically everyone has a college application consultant that says, “Okay, well you have the 4.5 GPA. You have these perfect SAT scores. You play two instruments and two sports and you speak three languages and you have all these trophies but everyone’s looks like that. So, you need a social impact piece to virtually signal that you’re also a compassionate person.”
So everything that we do, that underlying ‘why’ is often just to contribute to a resume or a college application or some kind of piece of paper that’s supposed to represent who we are.
I know I sound very cynical and very mean and judgmental but it’s just like a game that we have to play. I’m very lucky that I found something that has a clearer ‘why’ for me. Bitcoin, obviously but for a really long time, I was lost. Basically, everything that I did in my life was for the purpose of my resume. My piece of paper.
Anita Posch [00:11:31] Wow, yes, that sounds a little bit frustrating and very performance orientated.
Gloria Zhao [00:11:38] Yes. [chuckles]
Anita Posch [00:11:39] Can you maybe tell me how old you are? If you want to tell me that. You’re about 20 years?
Gloria Zhao [00:11:45] Yes, I’m 21 right now.
Anita Posch [00:11:46] Can you tell us a little bit about your fellow college students? How do they see the blockchain space? You’ve been the president of Blockchain at Berkeley and did educational stuff there about blockchains.
How is the general opinion and the students to blockchain and Bitcoin?
Gloria Zhao [00:12:05] Yes. I think maybe I’ll tell the story, my story, first. So when I first started learning about Bitcoin. When I first joined Blockchain at Berkeley because we’re college students, we study it from a very academic, theoretical perspective. So, we’re all computer science students. The Blockchain Fundamentals class that we taught is through the computer science department.
So what we talk about is like, “Oh, this is a distributed state machine with a consensus protocol. Let’s talk about CAP theorem and finality and all those things.” We talk about cryptographic hash functions. Before we talk about mining, we analyze Bitcoin script for transactions, without ever sending a transaction. It’s a different way of learning about Bitcoin, I think, for most people. When I signed up to teach the Blockchain Fundamentals course, we did a dry run where I was trying to teach how Bitcoin works, I guess. I was just regurgitating facts that I knew. Well, I was really terrible at explaining what Bitcoin was. I couldn’t really tell you the difference between, say, Venmo and Bitcoin because everything in the technology stack below just sounds like implementation details, right.
Obviously, I didn’t get the point at that time. Max Fang, who was guiding me through this teaching process, he was like, “Okay. I don’t think you know why you’re interested in Bitcoin. I don’t think you’re a true cypherpunk. You need to go read the cypherpunk manifesto. You need to read Digital Gold. You need to read some Julian Assange and then, your public speaking will be better.”
That’s different advice from what I’m used to hearing which is, “Okay, put a pencil between your teeth,” and “Recite it 50 times or script it all out.”
I did that and I think that really opened my eyes because I grew up really privileged and we should be thinking about social issues like sovereignty, like privacy.
Berkeley students tend to be very socially driven. Not in the hippy liberal sense. Of course, we have that reputation as well but we talk a lot about things that are different from just the financial bottom line, not just profit. We care about those things and I was like, “Well, this piece of technology, fundamentally, has an opinion about how systems should be read.”
A lot of the questions that I couldn’t answer in my first dry run of that lecture was like, “Okay but is Bitcoin cheaper? Is it faster? Is it easier to use?” Those are the metrics that we use to evaluate things theoretically in computer science classes, as well as in Silicon Valley.
We even care about, “How many clicks does it take to create a transaction?” For example. These are UI questions that we’ll often ask in a software application. That’s not always true and Bitcoin is not always faster, cheaper or whatever but it is better in social ways, you know?
I think that caused me to just update my bottom line of how I think about technology and how I think about what I want to contribute to in the world. So that’s my story. That’s how I fell in love with Bitcoin and how I was able to answer that ‘why’ question for myself, for the very first time in my life.
To be honest, I think in college, and this is true for me as well, obviously, you come to college, your number one priority is usually graduate. Your second priority is usually graduate with a job. Number three or number four maybe is, “Okay, I want to go change the world. I want to build the future.”
All of those things, which are lovely but they take a back seat when you’re like, “Oh my God, I have midterms next week. Oh my God, what if I don’t get an internship? Or what if I can’t graduate?”
I think those are naturally your higher priorities. So for Blockchain at Berkeley, I was president for about two years and we have an application round every beginning of the semester. We’ve always tried really hard to try to pinpoint what we can do to get more students interested in applying to Blockchain at Berkeley.
We’ve run all the numbers and looked at the analytics, put analytics on our website and all our social media platforms and stuff. But the bottom line by far, the number one metric for how many students apply is extremely, tightly correlated with the price of Bitcoin. So, in early 2018, when Bitcoin skyrocketed to $20,000 we were aware that more people would be interested because the info sessions, people were lining up outside the door and there was no sitting room. We had a 2,000 word essay on our application and 500 people wrote essays to apply to Blockchain at Berkeley. That was really shocking but more so is, they all had really compelling reasons for why they were interested in blockchain.
Now, like I said, Berkeley students are very socially driven. We all have a laundry list of things that are wrong with this world and you’re like, “Bitcoin fixes this.” Right?
In general, we were like, “Oh, there’s all these social impact blockchain use cases. What if we can build systems that emulate this model, this trustless model that Bitcoin has, and apply that in other situations other than money?”
So this is getting into more of the consulting area. People had really good, compelling reasons but not six months later, the price plummeted back down to, I don’t know, $5,000 or even lower. I don’t remember but when that happened, everyone bailed. We just lost all our members.
I had a lot of friends that were like, “Why are you still doing blockchain? Like, nobody cares about that anymore. It’s all about self-driving cars.”
I think I was getting labeled in a way that I didn’t really like because when we say blockchain, we’re thinking cypherpunk, we’re thinking preserving privacy, giving sovereignty back to the individual, right?
But what a lot of people see blockchain as now is this hype thing. That’s full of scams and ICOs and shills and all of those things. So crypto, winter hits pretty hard because students want to get a job after they graduate. They want to secure a future. They don’t have 10 years worth of experience or expertise in something that allows them to say, “Hey, I’ll be safe. I can continue work.” There’s no such thing as job security if you’ve never had a job before, right?
So I think all the students, they do believe in many of the same values but beggars can’t be choosers. So the person who taught me ECDSA now works at Facebook, the person who first introduced me to chain code now works at Google. It makes me really sad but I can understand not feeling safe, going into a field that has so much uncertainty.
Anita Posch [00:20:06] Yes, that’s one thing and on the other hand, like you say, you need a job. That’s a time in life where you need to make money, in one or the other way. Crypto winter then also shows who really believes and who has really understood blockchain and Bitcoin. I think people who have really understood blockchain tend to go into Bitcoin and say, “BTC is actually the only thing that is interesting to me at the moment.”
I know that a lot of very clever people also working on things like tokenization and other kinds of blockchain projects. Hopefully, something really good comes out of it but I think the most developed blockchain is basically the Bitcoin blockchain and it makes the most sense. Was this thought maybe also a reason for you to choose Bitcoin over other blockchain projects?
Gloria Zhao [00:20:54] Yes, it was. I did work with a lot of other blockchain projects. I wouldn’t say that they’re not worthwhile or they’re not going in the right direction but ultimately for me, that ‘why’ piece is what drives me. It’s why I wake up in the morning because I want to live in a world where I can be a sovereign individual. The incentive alignment with these projects weren’t exactly what I believed in.
So for example, in Silicon Valley, you start a new blockchain project. The first question is always, “What’s the profit model?”
A lot of times it’d be a very technically interesting project of course but they say, “Oh, you know, our profit model is we have a lot of the underlying token or we run a lot of the validators so we receive a lot of the underlying token as well. This incentivizes us to work on the underlying protocol.”
But for me, I don’t really believe in that because that’s a form of centralization. It’s a form of trust, in that sense. You could say it’s a necessary evil that you have to have a profit model. You have to have a way to earn money but it dilutes the ‘why’ for me.
Then the second issue that I have is often the security/trust model. So a lot of times in Silicon Valley, the narrative is very often, “Okay. Bitcoin is cool but it’s old and slow and doesn’t scale and is bad for the environment. So we need to raise $50 million so that we can build this better one that’s more scalable and is faster and solves all those problems.”
Typically, you don’t just say, “Ah, it scales.” Right? Typically what they’re doing is they’re introducing a different trust model.
So for example, it’s like, “Oh, we have a foundation run by people who are in charge of overseeing the research and development of this project.” Or it’s like, “Oh, it’s not going to be completely open. You have to send a request to the foundation in order to become a node operator,” for example.
These are introducing barriers to access and this is no longer trustless, right?
There is a level of trust required to join and thus, you have lowered the security model to, in my view, a trivial problem. That’s why you’re able to do all this scalability stuff because you’re not making the same trade-off that Bitcoin is.
I’m not saying that there’s no room for trust in systems. We’re all people, we have communities and relationships with people that we trust. That’s what a lot of DeFi and finance tries to model is risk and trust and such. So it’s not that there’s no room for that but for me personally, my ideology is aligned with the security model and the community of Bitcoin.
Anita Posch [00:24:26] Can you tell us a little bit more about that, please? What is so interesting for you in the community aspect?
Gloria Zhao [00:24:34] Yes, well, I’ve worked on a lot of open-source projects but Bitcoin core is what I focus on. I don’t want to say all of Bitcoin because they’re all other implementations and communities but of course, I work on Bitcoin Core. There is no company that bankrolls all of development or sets the vision or has the project management agenda for all of Bitcoin Core.
You could say that, “Okay, without a profit model, this might not be as sustainable,” but this is what we believe in. What I really appreciate is, in this case, it’s not only open source but everyone in Bitcoin Core just does whatever they want. What that means is they’re doing what they believe makes Bitcoin Core better.
They’re all aligned on this same ideology. I don’t want to speak for everyone of course but the bottom line is, “Does this make Bitcoin Core better?”
It’s not, “Does this help me get my paycheck?” Or, “Does this help me increase the number of commits that I have in Bitcoin Core?” and, “Does this help me look better on my performance review or make my boss happy or want to promote me?”
Whereas those are often the motivations in a company, in any company where you’re working for a boss who is in charge of salary. So for example, one of the first comments that I got on one of my PRs was, “Oh, Gloria, in your commit messages, it would be better for you to explain why you’re making this change instead of what you’re doing.”
So, what I’m used to is, “Okay, boss told me that I need to fix this bug or make this feature.”
So I’ve never had to explain why and I’ve never had someone say no to one of my pieces of code, right. So this was a very new exercise for me but now, again going back to that ‘why’ piece, it’s like now that I always know why I’m doing something it’s like life is so clear. There’s this North star that I’m following.
I think it makes me a better engineer as well from a personal, individual career standpoint. Getting used to defending my ideas and explaining why I’m doing something makes me happier, obviously but also just makes me more productive and think more critically about what I’m trying to do.
Anita Posch [00:27:20] Yes, it’s cool to have a common vision. Also, as you say, a North star in your life because it makes life so much easier. If you know where and what your goal is, you can answer so many questions that might be distracting you otherwise. So many decisions you have to make, you can answer them with a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’. I think that is so important and also for me, I found a Bitcoin very much later than you did because it didn’t exist when I was 20.
We didn’t even have the internet but I found that too, the North star, in Bitcoin. Or you can also call it the ikigai which is a Japanese thing for you found something that you really embrace and as you say, you wake up in the morning and you know what you want to do and what you are there for. What the purpose in life is for you. It sounds cheesy but it’s like that.
Gloria Zhao [00:28:12] Yes. For most of my life, I felt like I was on this hamster wheel of, “Oh, get this score, take this test, join this club, get this internship, get this job, do this interview.”
I don’t think I ever got anywhere and I don’t think the world became better from me taking standardized tests, you know? [laughs] But now I feel like I’m moving, which is a completely different feeling.
Anita Posch [00:28:34] Have you felt a little bit like an outsider or outlier in the college?
Gloria Zhao [00:28:40] Yes, a little bit. It’s like I said, my friends would be like, “Why are you still in blockchain?” It doesn’t have the best reputation and you often get labeled for something that you don’t align with but that applies to all of life, I think. I’ve had friends unfollow me on Twitter because they’re like, “Oh, you’re like a crypto spam account.” [laughs] And I’m like, “Okay, sorry. Follow me on Instagram or something.”
But it’s okay and when I first started talking to about working on Bitcoin core, full-time, I canceled my Facebook internship so that I could spend more time on Bitcoin.
My parents stormed into my room and they were like, “Gloria you’re talking nonsense.”
They staged this intervention, basically. My parents are Chinese and obviously, the reputation in China is not super great either.
“Gloria, we just, we want you to be happy and if you have all this Bitcoin blockchain stuff on your resume, most companies will not want to hire you.” Then I looked at my dad and I was like, “Dad, I won’t be happy working for most companies.”
Then he was like, “Huh?”
My parents made a lot of sacrifices because they were born in China, to come to the US. A lot of what they had to do was make sure that they got the right credential. In China, a lot of your life is determined by the test scores that you get when you’re young. So for them, their North star was if I don’t work this hard, I will be stuck in a communist country for the rest of my life.
So they made a lot of sacrifices to get to a place where they would have more opportunities. I was like, “You know, dad because you covered this part of the journey, of getting out of a communist country, I get to cover the next part of the journey which is fighting for sovereignty and privacy.”
Because if I were born in China, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I don’t know if I would ever really learn about Bitcoin beyond knowing about the name or the price or something. Yes, it is tough. I think there’s a lot of social pressure to get back in line. When I started, when I didn’t quit blockchain as soon as crypto winter hit, people were really surprised.
My friends call me a Bitcoin maximalist and they think it’s entertaining or funny when I talk about it. Now I just don’t care. I’m like, “Eh, whatever.” So they just think I’m a lost cause and they don’t try to push me back into where I’m supposed to be or whatever anymore.
Anita Posch [00:31:56] It’s great that your parents let you do it and did not intervene anymore but do they still say you shouldn’t do it?
Gloria Zhao [00:32:04] I think they’re coming around. I think me talking about why I’m so happy and that this is the next step of their journey, which gave me a really huge leg up. Allowing me to pursue these different things. I think they understand that and they just want me to be happy. I figured out what makes me happy and hopefully, they understand.
Anita Posch [00:32:33] That’s great that they see it’s important that you’re happy. Not everybody has parents like that.
Anita Posch [00:33:39] So your parents came from China. Is this maybe also a reason why you have a very strong opinion about privacy in the digital space, in general, and especially in Bitcoin and in financial transactions?
Gloria Zhao [00:33:53] Yes. Well, so right now, China is rolling out that digital Yuan. I have a lot of relatives that still live in China and they make the vast majority of their payments through WeChat. They’re also installing facial recognition and all that social credit store score stuff. That terrifies me because imagine being born today and every single transaction you’ve ever made, everywhere you’ve been for every single minute of your life, the government has a record of that.
Where do you go from there? That allows the government to have an incredible amount of control over you. It’s hard to reverse something like that.
Also, the world that we live in, on the internet for example, is almost very similar. Maybe not in the governmental control surveillance kind of sense but in a sense of Facebook has a very detailed history of all of our pictures, of our friends and who we talk to, even the messages that we send between our friends for half of our lives. I can’t remember when it was founded but I deleted my Facebook recently and I downloaded the file and I was like, “Oh my God, this is a lot of information about me.”
For as long as you’ve had a Google account and maybe a Google device, you can see the history of where your geolocation was in 2009, for example, and that is really, really scary. Then same thing with Amazon, right. They know exactly what you want to buy, your trends, a good representation of your transaction history.
Now a lot of people have Alexas in their house. So they get a heads up when you’re talking to your friends about like, “Oh, I kind of want to buy this thing.” Then, they would know exactly an email to send to you to recommend, “Oh, you should buy this on Amazon.”
That’s all fine and dandy when you’re able to say, “Hey, I want to switch this off.”
Or, “I want a private setting. I’m going to go incognito mode,” for example.
It’s not an option. By default, everything is surveilled. Instead of by default, everything is private. I think that should be the case. So yes, it’s really scary to me and you can’t unsee that. One time it’s like I’m on Instagram, right?
I get all these ads for makeup and girly things because they can tell that I’m female. Then I was scrolling through Instagram with my friend, for example, and we both get hair and makeup. Then, we realized that we’re getting marketed different underwear brands based on our bras size and that’s so uncomfortable. Instagram knows my bra size. That’s ridiculous. So once you’ve realized that, it’s really hard to be like, “Oh, I’m fine with this.”
Anita Posch [00:37:13] Yes and even more. Think of the fact that there are all these menstruation apps out there that record your period. So Facebook and Instagram might also know when you have your period.
Gloria Zhao [00:37:27] Yes, it’s ridiculous.
Anita Posch [00:37:28] Yes, completely. I agree with you. It should be the default that they don’t collect data. if we want them to know something and to collect something about us, to send us better recommendations or anything, then we should be able to allow that and not the other way around.
I’m also really sick of this push marketing, you know? I’m interested in things. I will research it and then, if I ask them for information, then it’s okay but not this complete surveillance.
If we think about the financial system that is checking every and each transaction that is going on around the world. People are sitting there and filtering transactions and deciding if this is a valid or a good transaction or a bad transaction and combining these data sets with a social credit system, like in China. That’s really frightening. I really do not know why people do not care. Most people just do not care.
Gloria Zhao [00:38:27] Yes and I think a lot of times we’re like, “Oh, so what?” There’s this meme that I really, really hate. That’s like, “Haha the FBI agent assigned to watch me through my webcam was be so disappointed that all I do is watch Netflix all day.” I really, really hate that meme because one, there is not someone watching you, not because you’re not being surveilled. But because they don’t need human eyes. That’s so not cost-effective. A machine can watch everyone at the same time and pull up your entire history and make a decision about how to control you like that. I think people also don’t understand the implications of that, of someone having all this information about you.
When I say privacy is a human right. That is sometimes controversial when I’m talking to my friends who are involved in other political movements as well. I say, “Well, yes but it’s not as important as freedom of speech or the freedom to not get shot down by police for whatever reason.”
I hope that I don’t say something dangerous here but my TLDR is not that it’s more important or that there is any hierarchy of human rights, of course but that you can’t have any of them without the others.
So for example, in the most extreme case, if you’re Edward Snowden or Julian Assange or a whistleblower in a totalitarian regime, you have to use technologies like Tor and Bitcoin and WikiLeaks to have a voice. So, in that case, privacy is directly linked to freedom of speech. Even if you aren’t someone who exercises their freedom of speech in this way, you want to exercise your freedom to hear other speech without being silenced by the government. So financial censorship is really real. At some point, WikiLeaks, all of their bank accounts were being frozen. So one of the only ways to donate would be Bitcoin.
Even today, I think at least in America, it’s becoming more common to participate in protests but no matter what side of the political spectrum you are or what issue that you’re protesting for, the advice is to not take pictures. To not let someone take a picture of you because getting doxed can have really real, terrible consequences for you in real life. So that part of being anonymous but still being a part of this movement, is important to a lot of everyday people as well. This is regardless of what your political opinions are. I say this to people and then they’ll be like, “Oh but you know, I’m a good citizen. I don’t have anything controversial to say. I don’t have anything to hide.”
Well, being a good citizen, this quote-unquote ‘good citizen’ term is defined by your government or whoever is in charge. The more information they have about you, such as maybe every single transaction that you’ve ever made or everything you’ve ever said to someone on the internet. The more information they have about you, the more they’re able to control you and restrict that definition of what a good citizen is.
Anita Posch [00:42:03] Very well said. I couldn’t say it better. [chuckles] You never know. As you say, governments change. In Austria, we have a dark history. I can very well remember the stories that my grandparents told me about the Nazis when they came into power here, in 1938. How their Jewish friend warned them to not come into her shop again because otherwise the Nazis might send them to prison or something like that.
So these situations change so fast. I can remember my grandmother also told me the story about how they were listening to BBC radio. About how the war is going on and what is happening outside of Austria and Germany but it was not allowed. It was actually illegal to listen to BBC radio and if their neighbors or somebody else would have doxed them. They would have gone to prison or into a concentration camp or something like that. These are situations. I heard that and I learned that as a child and I will never forget that. So privacy is very important to me and to be honest, I also learned a lot about that when I got into Bitcoin.
Gloria Zhao [00:43:15] Yes, same. I don’t think I would have noticed these things if I hadn’t gotten into Bitcoin. For example, in college, going back to the question of what it’s like to be in college. The holy grail for a lot of people is to work on ads at Google or Facebook. That sounds insane to us.
It’s like, “Oh, you want to build your own cages?”
The idea is “Oh, this is like machine learning. It’s data science.” Data science is all about the data and Google and Facebook have the best data. So if you are interested in very technical, interesting topics like machine learning, that is the holy grail and that makes sense.
I often talk to them and I’m like, “Wait but you’re a computer science student. You’re not nontechnical. You know how these things work. How are you still okay with this?”
Then they’re like, “Oh, I have not thought about this before.”
Then they say, “Oh, but this is just the way things are.”
They often think that privacy is too hard. Like, “Oh, I have to trade off. I won’t be able to have a social media account. I won’t be able to talk to my friends or I’ll have to live off the grid. I won’t be able to just use credit cards,” for example. That’s not the case and I’ll be like, “Well in Bitcoin privacy is the default. Let’s download Keybase or Signal or something and let’s talk using an encrypted chat app. It’s pretty much the same user experience.”
Then they’re like, “Oh, I didn’t know that this was an option.”
I’m like, “Yes because by default, there is no privacy.”
Anita Posch [00:45:08] Yes, exactly. Now, let’s get back a little bit to the question. What got you into becoming a Bitcoin Core developer? How did this work out?
Gloria Zhao [00:44:18] I have been studying computer science for a while. So I think I did have a good foundation but I didn’t know that you could work on Bitcoin Core until very recently. So last year, I was feeling really disenchanted with blockchain and Bitcoin in general. I was thinking of just taking the Google job or the Facebook job. I was lost. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or why I wanted to do anything.
I got an email from Adam Jonas at Chaincode and he said, “Hey, Gloria. You applied to the Chaincode residency last year. We’d like to see you apply again.”
I was like, “I’m not really sure. I don’t really know why I’m in blockchain anymore. I’ve been disappointed over and over again by all these blockchain projects. Every year is supposed to be the year where we move away from proof of concepts and actually deliver on the products that all those ICOs promise to build and it just never happens. I don’t really know Jonas and I’m not that interested.”
He says, “Okay if you’re going to be at the Stanford Blockchain Conference, would you be interested in meeting a couple of Bitcoiners?”
I was like, “Oh yes, of course. Hell yes.”
I think in my mind I was imagining the stereotypical Bitcoin maximalist. So I thought it would at least be an interesting conversation where I would get to, I don’t know, argue with them or something like that. So I met John Newbery and Amiti Uttarwar at the Stanford Blockchain Conference and they’re like, “Oh yes, we work on Bitcoin Core.”
I’m like, “You can do that? What?” Because Bitcoin has always been this magical thing, even as a computer science student, who’s looked at code a lot. It didn’t occur to me that Bitcoin is code. Obviously, you know that but it was this abstracted magical thing. Talking to them gave me hope because it was the first time I was at a blockchain conference where these were clearly two very technical people. They knew what they were talking about and yet they believed in Bitcoin. I had never actually encountered people like that before so it was a really different experience for me.
Amiti said, “Look, you know you’re a computer science student. Bitcoin is code. You can download the repo and look at it.”
The barrier there is not a technological one. It’s a psychological one. Where I was like, “Okay. I don’t think I can but I’ll try.” So my journey into Bitcoin Core, a lot of it was reviewing PRs, joining the peer review club, talking about code with Amiti. We’d have like a shared session where we could look at code together and she’d give me like a guided tour of a certain piece of the code. In a way, reviewing PRs is also like that. It’s like a guided tour through some functionality of Bitcoin Core. More and more, I started to realize all of those things that I learned in class, file systems and operating systems and very primitive. How do these computers work? How do you control synchronization? Like cryptography, even. I had learned a lot of math to understand cryptography but I had never understood why I was learning all of these concepts other than, “Oh, I need to do something hard and get a good grade so that I can look smart on my resume.”
All of these concepts were coming together in a really beautiful way that is designed for a social goal that I personally really care about. So it was like all of it perfectly lined up in my head. Where I was like, “This is where I want to be.” This sounds really cheesy but it’s like my whole life has led up to this. It must be destiny. It’s like falling in love and yes, I fell in love with Bitcoin. That’s what happened essentially. I don’t look back anymore. This is what I want to do.
Anita Posch [00:50:03] Yes, I completely understand that. I also fell in love with Bitcoin. Are you doing the developing or the coding work on the site? Because as far as I understand, you are graduating at the end of 2020.
Gloria Zhao [00:45:17] So yes, over the summer it was my side gig. You asked me earlier if I was an early riser and it’s a habit I picked up over the summer because I wanted a good chunk of time to work on Bitcoin stuff, every day. I wanted it to be when I had the most energy in the morning.
Work starts at nine. So I would get up at 4:00 AM or 5:00 AM and do Bitcoin.
Then now because I have that habit. I do school as a side thought but my main thing, because it’s everything that I want to do and everything else feels like a giant waste of time. I’m just kidding. [laughs]
Anita Posch [00:50:59] What are you planning after graduating? How can you be paid for Bitcoin Core development? Is there a way? How will this play out?
Gloria Zhao [00:51:09] I know of some Bitcoin Core developers who are funded for their work. Either they work for a company or they have grants. I haven’t personally thought about the money that much. I just know that I want to work on Bitcoin after I graduate. So whatever that takes. Well, I’ll figure out how to do that.
Anita Posch [00:51:30] Do you maybe have a message for people and other women who want to come into the Bitcoin development space? Any hints? How can they start?
Gloria Zhao [00:50:40] Yes. My first thing would be to not assume that you can’t do something until you’ve tried to do it and failed. I think the barrier is often most significantly a psychological one. Might be confidence, might be imposter syndrome. For me, at least, it’s a very significant barrier or obstacle and so, addressing that in a tangible way is often a key part of succeeding. Is if you wake up in the morning and you’re like, “Oh, I feel a certain way that’s preventing me from doing what I want to do, figuring out ways to tackle that.” For example, Amiti taught me about meditation. Sometimes I just do something scary, like go skateboard. That helps eliminate the fear of commenting on a PR.
Maybe in a more context piece of advice, there’s a lot of onboarding ramps into Bitcoin Core development. The good first issues, just reaching out to someone on Twitter or IRC or whoever. I personally would love to see more women or more people in general. Then, there’s the peer review clubs. All kinds of ways to get started. If you’re before that then okay, reading, Mastering Bitcoin, subscribing to the Optech Newsletter and brushing up on those technical things. Either way, there is a ramp to get started. To go from wherever you are to contributing to Bitcoin Core.
Anita Posch [00:53:28] I think an interesting thing about learning about Bitcoin is it doesn’t follow a strict curriculum in that way. So you approaching Bitcoin from different perspectives. You really, like many people say, you fall into this rabbit hole then you are digging deeper on the one aspect and then, on the next. On the technology, on the economic side, on the mathematical side, on the code side and something like that. Then you learn more and more about it but it’s not linear learning and it’s not like in school.
Gloria Zhao [00:53:05] Yes, definitely. I think there’s so many different paths to Bitcoin. Mine is probably very different from yours and the next person’s. For me, one thing that caused me to get lost is, and I sound like a broken record now, is just not knowing what the purpose is. So, there’s millions of blockchain projects, DeFi projects, Ethereum dapps that exists. There’s so many things that are commanding attention and they all look shiny and interesting and cool. I’m sure a lot of them are but finding focus is really difficult.
For me, it was the ‘why’ piece. So, if you’re not sure why you’re getting into Bitcoin it’s like, “Okay, go read 1984 or watch some Black Mirror.” Or for me, my favorite movie is Fight Club because it makes me angry at the world and want to do something about it. Then, once you’ve answered that question, then you’re ready for whatever it takes to tackle those issues that you care about, I think.
Anita Posch [00:55:18] Yes, I think it helps if people look at their own personal values to know themselves better and what their real interests are. I think then you’ll find out if you’re interested in the basic philosophy behind Bitcoin or not. So do you have any recommendations for our listeners to get to know more about Bitcoin books, websites, videos, or maybe things for developers?
Gloria Zhao [00:55:43] Yes. So for the ‘why’ piece, I did mention more personal ones but I do think everyone should read and, or memorize the cypherpunks manifesto. [laughs] Like Sovereign Individual, Permanent Record, these are all good ideological pieces that help set the tone. Content wise, again, I like Mastering Bitcoin. We used to have this textbook. We called it the Princeton textbook. It was called, it was like Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technologies. Something like that. That was a really good technical introduction. Chaincode has a hub page with curriculum and they also have a study groups repository that has a lot of really focused material that I don’t think I would have found if I just Googled terms. So I would recommend the Chaincode labs GitHub. I think that would be a good list to start.
Anita Posch [00:56:48] Okay, great. I will put all of this into the show notes for this episode. We’re coming to an end soon. My closing questions. First one is what do most people overlook when they talk about Bitcoin or what is missing in the public discourse about Bitcoin?
Gloria Zhao [00:57:07] I think there’s a lot of people who are interested in Bitcoin. Whichever reason that you’re interested is fine or how you contribute is fine but I think a lot of times the language that is used is, “Convert your US dollars or whatever Fiat currency to Bitcoin now so that you can convert it back to more US dollars or currency later.” I think that’s really missing the point. We want Bitcoin so that we can use it, not so that we can sell it for more Fiat. We want this option. Bitcoin is better. Maybe not in all ways right now but in some ways, depending on what your bottom line is. I think it’s time for everyone to have a more socially driven bottom line, especially if you talk about it a lot, then we can’t keep measuring technologies or applications based on how convenient they are or how cheap they are.
We need to start thinking about how private they are.
Anita Posch [00:58:22] Yes, I completely agree and that they enable an uncensorable payment worldwide because there are many people who do not have the possibility to do so.
It’s something that we very often overlook and take for granted in our Western hemisphere, in our developed world because we have all those things. We have Apple Pay, we have Venmo, we have Paypal but billions of people don’t have that and they don’t even have a bank.
So a second question. If I would buy you an ad on all social media platforms and you could decide on the message that we are showing to the whole world, what would it say? What do you want people to know?
Gloria Zhao [00:59:07] I would say privacy and censorship resistance should be the default and can be the default.
Anita Posch [00:59:15] Yes, thank you, Gloria. That was a great conversation for me. I hope for you too. I find it really, really impressive. You’re so clever at such a young age. When I was 21, I think I was not that clever and I think even now, I’m not that clever.
Gloria Zhao [00:59:36] I’m lucky. [laughs]
Anita Posch [00:59:37] Please tell us where can people find you and follow your work?
Gloria Zhao [00:59:41] Yes, I’m on Twitter @glozow. G-L-O-Z-O-W and my GitHub is also called the same thing. So that’s where you can find me.
Anita Posch [00:59:50] Okay. Great. Thank you very much and have a good day. Bye Gloria.
Gloria Zhao [00:59:54] Thank you so much. It was a real pleasure speaking with you.