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Open Source Veteran, Dirk Hohndel, Takes On Blockchain With Cardano Foundation 

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Dirk Hohndel, an open-source veteran, has transformed companies like Intel and VMware to be leaders in open source. He has devoted his time to helping companies better understand open source and create open-source strategies around their technologies. Hohndel recently joined Cardano Foundation as its Chief Open Source Officer. In this episode of Let’s Talk, Hohndel talks about why he joined the Foundation, which contrary to his previous jobs is already an open-source organization and might not have the same challenges that were there with Intel and VMware.

When asked what attracted him to Cardano Foundation, Hohndel says, “There is a lot of skepticism around blockchain technologies. And so, to me, that was a perfect combination to find a space where I could once again do my thing and help bring open source methodology into a new industry.”

Key highlights of this video interview are:

  • Dirk Hohndel is an industry veteran who has helped companies adopt open source strategies around their technologies. He discusses the reasons for his latest appointment with Cardano Foundation and what challenges he feels there are in terms of helping to bring open source methodology into the new industry of blockchain technologies.
  • Cardano blockchain is a proof of stake blockchain technology, focusing on the higher level value contracts and data on the blockchain. Hohndel goes into depth about the Cardano blockchain technology and explains the functions of the two sides of Cardano, the commercial entity and the Cardano Foundation.
  • Hohndel discusses the potential risks of decentralized blockchain in light of the current geopolitical situation between Ukraine and Russia. However, he also explains the benefits of decentralized blockchain from an immutability aspect
  • Hohndel explains the subtle difference between decentralized and distributed blockchain and why they are often confused.
  • A lot of companies in the blockchain space already have their open sources available on GibHub. Hohndel explains the other components that go together to make up a thriving, successful open source project which brings together an open source community within the right framework.
  • Blockchain spaces are expected to see consolidation as they mature; however, they are currently in an early growth phase. Cardano is putting a lot of work into creating the research papers around the new technologies ensuring what is being built is actually working and the proof that it works.
  • Hohndel discusses the challenges in the blockchain space, particularly the sheer volume of use cases and Cardano’s own bandwidth. Hohndel discusses the challenges that lies ahead of him in his role as chief open source officer at Cardano in creating a successful open source project and community.
  • Blockchain remains a relatively new technology with a lot of opportunities in the future. Hohndel discusses how blockchain could be developed and adopted in an increasingly digitalized world and some of the potential use cases.

Guest: Dirk Hohndel (LinkedIn, Twitter)
Organization: Cardano Foundation (Twitter)
Show: Let’s Talk
Keywords: Cardano, Open Source, Blockchain Technology

About Dirk Hohndel: Dirk has more than 30 years of experience as an open source developer and has been an executive leader driving open source transformations across industries for more than two decades. He is leading the Foundation’s strategy to build a third party contributory open source ecosystem for the core Cardano Protocol.

About Cardano Foundation: We are an independent Swiss-based non-profit that oversees and supervises the advancement of Cardano. We are the legal custodians of the Cardano brand and we work with IOHK and EMURGO to ensure that Cardano is being developed and promoted as a secure, transparent, and accountable solution for positive global change. The Cardano Foundation sets the direction for decentralized economic empowerment, working with regulators in different jurisdictions to shape blockchain legislation and commercial standards, and empowering the Cardano community to leverage the Cardano protocol to solve real-life problems.

The summary of the show is written by Emily Nicholls.

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Here is the automated and unedited transcript of the recording. Please note that the transcript has not been edited or reviewed. 

Swapnil Bhartiya: Hi, this is your host Swapnil Bhartiya and welcome to TFiR Newsroom. And today we have with us once again, Dirk Hohndel. Now, Chief Open Source Officer at Cardano Foundation. Dirk, first of all, it’s great to have you back on the show after a long time.

Dirk Hohndel: Thanks Swapnil, it’s good to talk to you again.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Yeah. And as you know, once you left your previous job, I was curious what will be the next in your journey. So, I want to understand from you about this phase of your journey, why you make the decision, what got you attracted towards them?

Dirk Hohndel: I’ll answer the question slightly differently. If you look back through what I’ve done in my career, I have a habit of going places where people say, “Why the heck is he going there?” When I joined Intel in 2001, many of my best friends said, “Why are you going there? This is Intel, they’re evil, they’re part of Wintel. All they do is Microsoft.” And I joined Intel with the idea of helping them understand open source and creating an open source strategy around their technology and making them a valid player in the Linux space. And then 15 years later, when I joined VMware, I got pretty much the same responses from pretty much the same people, because at that point, VMware was not necessarily seen as a positive force in the open source space. And that’s why I joined them.

And so, I was looking for, once again, such a transformational opportunity. I was looking for something where I felt that I could help make a difference in an industry, a difference based on what I like doing with open source, bringing open source methodology, open source approaches, open source governance into a technology space that is interesting and hopefully innovative and fast moving. And so, I looked at a number of different areas and I talked to quite a few companies in the couple of months since I’ve left VMware. And meeting the folks from the Cardano Foundation was super interesting, because they have, what I believe is a fascinating technology in a certainly very hot and fast moving space. And with a lot of questions around it, there is a lot of skepticism around blockchain technologies. And so, to me that was a perfect combination to find a space where I could once again do my thing and help bring open source, open source methodology into a new industry, into a new space.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Excellent. And I’ll talk about, of course your role there, but since this is the first time, I’m kind of covering Cardano, maybe our news team might have covered them, but this is the first time I’m talking to somebody from the foundation. And since you are new there, so I’m assuming that I know about the foundation as much as you. Of course you know a bit more about that, but given that, so if I ask you, first of all, just for the sake of our viewers, tell us a bit about what is Cardano all about. Of course, there is blockchain technology, but tell us a bit more about what is the project all about. Then we’ll talk about the role of the foundation there.

Dirk Hohndel: The Cardano blockchain is a proof of stake blockchain technology that is focused on a higher level value contracts and data on the blockchain. So it’s not a transactional blockchain that simply stores transaction, a token changes ownership from here to there. But a lot of the development work that has happened in this space in the last year, year and a half, has all been about smart contracts, about scalability, about the ability to do more interesting higher value transactions on a permissionless public ledger that is actually immutable. And so, if you look at this larger blockchain space, a lot of different type of technologies are lumped into that same term. And often are talked about as if they were all the same when in fact they’re not. And so, having spent some time trying to understand more what is out there and what would be interesting for me to engage in, I was quite intrigued by what they do very much on the technology side.

Now, the setup here is slightly interesting because there is a separate company that is a commercial entity that is working on a lot of the base implementation work, and a lot of the more traditional areas of development around the Cardano blockchain so that’s IMG. And the Cardano Foundation was specifically put in place to help, evolve and grow, what is being done with the technology. And so this is why my role is actually at the Cardano Foundation, in order to help grow the opportunities and the technology base for the Cardano blockchain and help create an open source based third party contributor network around that. And so, that’s really why I ended up where I am.

Swapnil Bhartiya: I don’t want to go too much into detail of the technology, but one of the things with Cardano is also most of the blockchain is decentralized. Where we as the things are spread across the globe so it’s better than centralized now. With this war in Europe, between Russia and Ukraine, where a country can shut down the whole internet for the rest of the world, other countries might do the same thing. So at one point we felt that decentralized technology better because bits are stored in different, but if 60% of those bits are in a certain country, and if that country shuts down, then have you given any thought to the impact on decentralized technologies like these.

Dirk Hohndel: I’m always worried when we try to be too naive in our approach of thinking about an interesting technology and what it means for the world and a specific in this case, highly volatile political situation. I mean, the war of aggression that Russia is forcing on the people in Ukraine is horrifying. And I certainly want to do everything to help end that and return Ukraine to its independence, but I don’t think that’s what this technology’s about. But on a more abstract level, the idea of decentralized technology and the idea of having a distributed ledger that makes it impossible for an individual power to go in and say, “Oh, we can just change the records. We can pretend that these ownership records that are here in the public ledger are no longer there.” There is a lot of value to that.

And obviously in the run up to the war, and now in the first few months of the war, a lot of us talked about the fact that records that are in a blockchain cannot easily be falsified by an aggressor, by a superpower. And that to me has a lot of value, but the core to this value to me is always about people and not about politics. So how can we use this to actually create interesting solutions, something that makes a difference to people and not try to get carried away with slightly larger goals than we can actually achieve. One of the things that people confuse is distributed and decentralized. If you have distributed data where a chunk of the data is everywhere, but you need to have all of these chunks in order to have all of the data that creates a very fragile environment.

The odd thing about the way the decentralized computing in most blockchains is implemented is that the complete information is in multiple places. So even if someone gets control of one of the copies, they can’t do anything to change history because there are so many copies of this round that it will be immediately obvious if someone tries to falsify data. So the decentralized nature here is very much about redundancy and about immutability. It’s that immutability, that makes the technology interesting, to be honest.

Swapnil Bhartiya: No, and thanks for once again, explain the kind of slight difference between decentralized versus distributed and we often make mistakes of bundling them together. Now, going back to the foundation part of course, Cardano is an open source technology either way. So when you talked about Intel, when you talked about VMware, of course, those companies were not known for open source. They might be doing a little bit of open source, but now they’re doing a lot, but here there’s already a lot of open source going on. So the challenges for you are not as big as they were in the previous roles. So talk about…

Dirk Hohndel: Interesting statement, because one of the things that you and I have talked about a lot over the last few years is that open source is more than, “Oh, my sources are on GitHub.” In the blockchain space we have a ton of companies who have their sources available in GitHub and they are under an open source license. And so a lot of people say, “Oh, it’s open source.” Well, maybe, but of course the question becomes, what is your governance model? How can someone contribute? How are decisions made? How is the roadmap decided? How is the community working together to define the next milestones? What is the ability of an individual to add certain APIs that they may need to the infrastructure? And then, of course, how do you actually get from those sources to something that you can run?

Are the sources actually delivered together with all the tools and all the scripting that are needed for you to then take use of that and make something of it. And so the… A lot of people seem to think that it’s that releasing of the source code on an open source license. That’s the hard part because in many companies, the lawyers saying, “No, we can’t do that,” makes that seem like the big hurdle. But if I look at the large space of open source software out there, and the relatively small number of truly successful open source projects, I always think it’s that other part that is really hard. Getting the governance right, getting the community right, getting the engagement models right, making sure that you bring the right people together within the right framework and can create a thriving, successful open source project. And so sure the challenges are different, but I think the challenges are no smaller than they were in my other jobs.

Swapnil Bhartiya: And once second, you said this already, and we have talked about that other jobs. the code is actually, if not the least not the most important part of open source community is as you mentioned, the people, community collaboration, governance, those are the things that ensure the sustainability of that code that was created in the first place. So now going back to the… And this question, once again, it depends on how you want to look at it, is that blockchain technologies is finding its niche in a lot of industries, but then there are a lot of you can also say competing technologies, they can be complementing their different foundations. Also, there, since you have been in space for so long, you have seen how there are different projects trying to do the same thing. What do you see in the blockchain spaces going on to further either help with consolidation? Because when there is too many projects, adoptions can become a hindrance as well.

Dirk Hohndel: So we often see consolidation in spaces as they mature. And I think right now we are still very much in the early growth phase of the blockchain space. A lot of fascinating new ideas are being tried and some of them fail. Some of them succeed. We see a lot of experimentation. We see a lot of wild, wild west in this space. And we also see some super cool technologies and we see some ideas that we haven’t seen in the past. One of the things that attracted me to the Cardona foundation was this fundamental belief that if you’re building something like this, that is all built on the idea of cryptography and on the math behind this, that you should really start with the research paper. You should start with creating the research that figures out, how do you actually do this correctly?

And then take it from there to an implementation, ideally in a way where you can prove the correctness of your implementation. And so the Cardano ecosystem is built around more than a hundred research papers that have started as the underlying body of material to make sure that what is being built actually works and that we can prove that it works. And then that the implementations that are being created relate directly to this research. Now, this sounds great, right? But of course, there are a couple of downsides to this approach. A, it takes a little longer, it means you need to spend the time to get this right. Also, one of the challenges in this space is that the programming languages that are being used to do this, to implement these mathematical proofs and to do this in a verifiable manner, tend to be not our most popular programming languages in this space or in the larger industry.

So a lot of the code for the Cardano foundations actually implemented in Haskell, which is not one of the top 10 programming languages that you read in all the curricular if you look at the universities. And it’s not one of the hot growing, it’s not rust, it’s not gold. So there are some challenges in this, but the underlying value that we are creating here, I think absolutely makes it worth it. And so we’ll need to figure out how do we bring more people into this space? How do we get more people to be comfortable Haskell developers? How do we create a larger community around that? Because we are creating software stack, we’re creating software that shows that the approach is correct. One of the big reasons for pride in the Cardano Foundation is that this blockchain has not gone down.

So this blockchain continues to run and to execute the transactions that are being sent to it without embarrassing, “Oh, right now, sorry, you can’t transact because our blockchain is down”. So, there is a lot of value here. And for me, again, I’m fairly new to all this, and I’m still learning every day. We all make this joke about drinking from the fire hose. Right now, it feels like drinking from multiple fire hoses, but fundamentally everything that I’ve seen so far around the technology is super interesting. And now I want to take that and bring this to my vision or the shared vision of a lot of people around how open source can thrive, how open source can make an interesting technology into a successful movement that makes a difference.

Swapnil Bhartiya: That actually does bring us back to the point of when you were talking about the challenge at VMware or Intel we’re different than here. But the big challenge with the… Whenever technology is at early stage, the challenge actually becomes same as with open source in the early days, a lot of education is needed. A lot of misinformation is there, a lot of communication is you have to build a lot of communities. So from blockchains perspective, what are some of the challenges that you do see in this space? Because first of all, adoption is already there, but it’s niche. The financial FinTech and all those they’re using it. But broadly speaking, you talked about, of course, languages are there. So from your perspective, or within your role that you’re like, “Hey, these are the challenges that I do see, and these are the ones that I want to handle or tackle.”

Dirk Hohndel: So there are a lot of challenges that I see that I will not be the lead person to handle their challenges around regulatory aspects. There are challenges around just creating more business opportunities and engagements with the existing players in the financial services’ industry, but also in just software industry and enterprise. There are so many use cases that I think our biggest challenge is our own bandwidth. Our ability to engage with all the people with this would be an interesting technology to talk about. For me personally, what I look at as my first challenge is of course, this whole space of creating a healthy, thriving community, creating an environment where we attract more developers and creating an infrastructure, a governance, a larger space for lack of a better term that can be seen as the center of where blockchain technology, where the Cardano technology grows and has its home.

And this sounds very subtle and weird but to me, in my experience, the idea of having a place where people feel this is where this community comes together. This is where we as a community, make the decisions of where we are taking this, where we can have both the technical, but also the strategic and philosophical conversations around this technology. That in my experience is a big part of creating a successful open source project, a successful open source community. And frankly, this is where I have a lot more to learn about what exists today, where are we, what is the status quo? And then I want to bring in some of my experience and some of the things that I know work in this space and help foster more growth.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Now, this is a kind of higher level discussion or question where I just it’s more of an opinion that I want to ask you, is that what role do you see of blockchain technologies in our digital lives? In general, we talk about metaverse a lot these days in the early days. If you look at, when we are talking about encryption, it was more or less A, “Hey only specific business use cases.” But now everything is getting into an encryption. So do you also see that blockchain technologies, users will become, and it might actually become a de facto or default where we create it doesn’t matter what kind of transaction we are doing today because everything is becoming digitized.

Dirk Hohndel: Well, so this is one of those interesting questions where you can take the answer in many different ways. I love the enthusiasm that a lot of people in the blockchain space have, and the enthusiasm is infectious. And it’s wonderful to see where people believe that every problem in the world has a blockchain answer. I’ll admit I’m a little older, and I’ve been around a few technology revolutions in my life. I have a slightly more pragmatic approach. So, I don’t think that we have the solution to every problem. Now we just need to tell you how to change your problem. So it fits our solution. So I much more think there are a lot of problems out there for which blockchain actually is a great solution. And I think there are more than enough spaces that have that characteristic to keep us busy for many years to come before we need to try and evangelize the world to everything needs to be blockchain.

Having said that if you look at some of the fundamental characteristics that we are… Where we are looking for in the blockchain. So immutability the idea that when you record something, it cannot be changed. And by the way, there are blockchains out there that are maybe not as immutable as they should be. And that have incidences in the past where they decided to rewrite their history. Well, then maybe you aren’t really as blockchainy as you claim to be. The other thing is the ability to actually have deterministic execution. So if this happens and this other thing happens, and this third thing happens, then the following outcome is recorded. And so, again, this is the idea of a smart contract where you can embed certain conditions in a transaction, and as these conditions become true, the transaction happens. And if they don’t come through the transaction is unbound.

A lot of this technology has direct applications in a lot of real world scenarios. Obviously, everyone talks about the “Oh, I give you a loan. And here’s how we structure things. And here is how the decisions are being made about collateral and all that.” And obviously that’s a very easy to understand use case, but there are many more use cases along the very same lines where you want to be able to respond to outside indicators and then make decisions and have different actions happen as part of a contract, as part of something where you don’t need a central trusted arbiter, a central instance that now suddenly is in a position of control. But instead where you have two parties working at arms lengths with each other, using the technology to ensure that what they agreed upon upfront then actually happens at the end. So these are two of the typical use cases that we talk about.

Another one that I talk a lot about is this idea of being able to document transactions in a way that allows traceability of what has happened. A lot of people always think that blockchain is all about untraceability and total anonymity. Well, actually, that’s not what they’re about. And that’s how they’re hyped. That’s how they’re often used as a way to anonymize transactions. But fundamentally there is an ID attached to every transaction. That’s how it works. And so the question is, can a blockchain be part of an identity solution? So you create a digital identity through a blockchain, and then you can use that to do other transactions in the digital world, or maybe even in the non-digital world.

So there is a lot of opportunity here. There is a lot of interesting use cases, and there are a lot of use cases that people are just starting to glimpse and are just starting to look at, “Oh, here are all these things that we could do if we spent more time on this.” So I think there is a huge, huge opportunity here. And as I said, its young technology. It’s something that’s just starting to gain traction.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Dirk, once again, thank you for taking time out today. And of course, talk about the foundation, your role, and I to be honest, more importantly, the role of blockchain in our world, what are the things that we should be getting excited about and what are the things that don’t make much sense. So thank for sharing those insights. And of course, I would love to have you back on the show when you have much stronger grasps on this foundation and [inaudible 00:24:21]. Thank you.

Dirk Hohndel: Thanks as well. I always enjoy our conversations. And I find it quite encouraging that with all the changes in what I’ve been doing, the core topics that we’re talking about still are community and open source and how to create great technology so that red threat seems to keep going on. So look forward to more conversations. Thank you.

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