Jimmy Song is, in many ways, a blockchain pilgrim. Over the past eight years he has contributed to open-source blockchain projects, helped develop bitcoin wallets, was tasked with building a credible blockchain alternative, wrote books about Bitcoin and blockchain programming, started a blockchain programming course, advised blockchain startups, and of course, became a noted public speaker. He’s really done it all at some point and at this stage, he is certainly one of the most recognizable figures in the blockchain space and not just because of his signature cowboy hat. Although he’s arguably best known as a Bitcoin maximalist and dissident of other leading cryptocurrency projects such as Ethereum and Bitcoin cash, few can claim to have done as much to raise awareness of Bitcoin as Jimmy. Furthermore, unlike many figures in the space, he actually has the resume to back up his assertions.
It’s clear he’s well-respected, as evidenced by his presence as a guest speaker at countless conferences, but also in the way people speak of him. Recently, I had the pleasure of chatting with Jimmy and I can see why. He communicates clearly, makes sound points and speaks from experience rather than just opinion. What follows are some highlights from our conversation which spanned his background, what he’s working on now, Bitcoin maximalism, price predictions and much more.
You’re currently travelling to San Francisco, what brings you there?
I’m actually here with a human rights foundation in San Francisco working on a book about Bitcoin and how it matters for human freedom. It’s called “The Little Bitcoin Book” and we’re planning to have it distributed by Amazon. It’s about ethical treatment through monetary means, how the current system is immoral and how Bitcoin makes it a lot more fair.
Everyone knows you as an educator and advocate for Bitcoin, but can you give us a bit of your background from your life before Bitcoin?
I was a math major in college and wanted to be a math professor, but as a senior I realized I was too extroverted to be a professor. I stumbled into an opportunity with a high school friend in 1998 before the dot-com bubble and worked as a programmer for start-ups for the next 15 years.
Everything that’s happened up to this point in my life, it’s prepared me for where I am. I love coding and creating and what I’m doing now is like combining that education piece with startup culture.
What are your passions outside of Bitcoin?
I only have room for four things in my life, and they all start with F. First of all is Faith, then Family - I have a wife and six children - Finances, which is where Bitcoin comes in, and Fitness. I used to be a giant sports fan, huge, but I’ve had to cut it out along with tv, video games, Facebook. I don’t do any of it because the four F’s are the most important and that’s all I can fit.
Do your kids know about Bitcoin?
My kids are aware of Bitcoin, they know Daddy works with something in Bitcoin but don’t really know what to tell their friends except that I work in Bitcoin. But my son is in middle school and all his friends know what Bitcoin is. And that’s middle school kids, people are becoming more aware.
How do you balance all the travel and children?
My wife is the hero of this whole story. I’ll go away for a week or a month and she has to take care of six children. When I’m home I try to help out and make the time count. We went on an extended road-trip for a month across a bunch of national parks like Glacier National Park, Mt. Rainier, and into Canada around Banff and Jasper. That’s how I make sure I contribute to the relationship. It’s tough, but I enjoy family.
I also love to travel and meet up with Bitcoiners. Everywhere you go, you find things in common with people whether it’s bitcoin, exercise regimens, family, dating, christianity, whatever. For example, at the carnivory dinners I do, you start talking about Bitcoin and then you end up talking about other stuff like fitness, alternative therapy, faith. People think about things critically more in the Bitcoin community and can talk intelligently about it.
Moving onto Bitcoin and your work in the blockchain space. I understand you first heard of Bitcoin in 2011 and it immediately resonated with you as a form of “sound money”. I know you’ve written about it, but can you briefly highlight what it was about Bitcoin that fits this criteria?
Hard money is the preferred term; in Austrian economics either you have sound or unsound money, it’s a binary division. Hardness is about how difficult it is to produce, as measured by the quantity of how much of that resource exists. If there’s something that is easy to produce, you can easily produce a large quantity relative to how much of it already is in circulation; if it’s hard to produce, you can only produce a small quantity compared to how much is already in circulation. That’s where Bitcoin is special, those parameters are predetermined. The stock-flow ratio is high, it’s a very tenuous supply coming into the market relative to what exists and that’s quite profound. You can try to game Bitcoin but the total supply is known and the amount that comes out at a given time is known. It’s a huge innovation on what was formerly a binary concept - either sound or unsound. Ultimately, hardness is based on the stock-flow ratio, it’s not just about being decentralized but within that how scarce it is.
You didn’t buy immediately, but given the appeal did you invest heavily when you finally did buy? Or was it a more cautious, let’s see how this goes approach?
Definitely the latter, very few people have that much conviction. It took me a while and I regret how long it took. I tried to buy Bitcoin but it was hard, you had to send a transfer to a third party which would then send money to Mt. Gox and then a few weeks later you could buy; there weren’t many other ways. Months later it went up to $30 and I had regret over not buying and figured this is really scarce, I really need to learn about it. Finally I got money into Mt. Gox and did buy, but it’s crazy how much it’s increased since then and I’ve definitely benefited from that.
I definitely didn’t get in as early as you did, early-2017, so can definitely relate to having regrets about not getting in earlier. But even with all the sell-off recently, I’m still doing pretty well from original buys. What are your thoughts about what happened with Bitcoin price last year?
The bear market has thinned out people and that’s a good thing. It produces people that have conviction, it culls out the weak.
Were you always a Bitcoin maximalist or did you dabble in other cryptocurrencies when you first got involved?
Colored Coins was the first open-source project I worked on - proto-ICO stuff - the ability to do alternate assets on the Bitcoin blockchain. I learned my Bitcoin chops from that. It wasn’t until later that I realized no one was using the platform that I built and I had to reflect and came to the conclusion that it’s not about just building something, it has to be something people want.
But a lot came out of Colored Coins. Mastercoin (OMNI) came out of it, and that now houses Tether (USDT). Actually, the guy who wrote the whitepaper for Colored Coins, we confronted him about design decisions he had made and ultimately he decided he wanted to do his own coin. That guy turned out to be Vitalik Buterin, and well, that thing he wanted to work on was Ethereum.
Really, so you worked with Vitalik Buterin before Ethereum? What were your thoughts when you found out about Ethereum?
Well, I wasn’t actually working directly with him, he wasn’t coding on the version I was working on. But I didn’t invest in Ethereum, it didn’t make sense to me and it was too complicated. Honestly, I’m surprised, given all the vulnerabilities, bugs and complexities, that it hasn’t really come down in price more. I mean there was the DAO and Parity Bug, mini crashes, but no complete and sudden collapse like I expected. The engineering behind Ethereum is sloppy, while Bitcoin core is extremely well vetted. Ethereum is full of neo-maniacs, they want to make everything themselves. I mean if you get one letter wrong on an ETH address and send it, that Ethereum just disappears. The design decisions are mind boggling and confusing.
So what do you think about Ethereum moving to Proof of Stake?
It’s already centralized, so I guess it’s no difference; it’s controlled by people who get to sign the transactions. Whatever, I mean good luck trying it, I don’t know why they keep up the dog and pony show. It’s clearly centralized, they might as well issue tokens and go from there.
What about other altcoins, did you ever invest in any?
I originally bought some Litecoin, I don’t have that anymore though. I did some work on btcd, an alternate client to Bitcoin core but I’m not involved in that anymore. I also looked at Decred, which I was briefly an advisor for and actually bought some, but sold those a long time ago.
Now all these years later you’re still here and still holding Bitcoin. Have you ever sold off a significant amount of your Bitcoin holdings, or is it largely untouched?
I had to sell some, it’s my second biggest regret aside from not buying earlier. You should try not to put yourself in a position where you have to sell, but I learned an important lesson. You need to leave some runway.
So let’s hear it, what’s your long-term price prediction for Bitcoin? You’re certainly more qualified than most to make one.
PlanB’s (@100trillionUSD) model of Bitcoin price is the only one that made sense to me, scarcity is the driver of price. The current price is roughly in line with what it should be and the fair price by May 2020, according to the model, is $50-80k USD. I’m not a financial advisor, but that figure seems entirely reasonable given the very low amount of Bitcoin available.
At what point did you start to think about getting involved in a professional capacity?
I was doing a 40-hour week job during the day, then 40 hours in the evenings doing open-source work. Something had to give.
Speaking of your early career in blockchain, you started at Monetas in 2014. Was this your first full-time professional role in blockchain? What led to you starting here?
Yea, this was my first full-time professional role. I met people at an Austin meetup who had heard about my work with Colored Coins and I was happy to get paid to work on something in the space.
Next was Armory where you worked on developing a Bitcoin wallet. How did this experience compare to Monetas?
At one point Armory was considered the most secure Bitcoin wallet, so it was pretty notable. I was VP of Engineering, it was pure Bitcoin, learning about how the protocol works. Great experience, I became really good friends with Alan Reiner.
Monetas was a bit of a mess, Johann Gevers of Tezos was the CEO. I don’t reflect on it with pride, it was just a chance to get into the industry. I knew early that something was deeply wrong which is why I started working at Armory part-time.
On that note, you’re more qualified than most. What storage method do you use for your Bitcoin? Or what do you recommend people to use?
Most hardware wallets have some vulnerability, it’s hard to know what’s in the hardware and it’s not exactly open-source or doesn’t match open-source specs. Probably the best answer is to use the bitcoin core wallet offline, then use some way to transfer the transaction to an online computer and broadcast it there; but that’s not easy, and it’s only for the hardcore. For normal people, a hardware wallet might make sense, but it’s possible to lose Bitcoins due to vulnerabilities. It depends on the amount and how much you’re protecting. Some people may want to hire people to secure it for them, or some organizations will host it for you. There’s better solutions coming but if it’s less than $1,000 a hardware wallet is fine, under a few hundred dollars then a phone, $50 or so then on an exchange is probably okay.
Your last gig as a developer was at Paxos where you worked as the Principal Architect. What did that role entail?
(Laughs) I tried to make a non-bitcoin blockchain project work and I couldn’t do it. I really tried, I looked into stuff, but it just doesn’t work. Decentralization is exceedingly difficult to produce and Bitcoin is in a way miraculous, everything else has failed spectacularly and is not decentralized. I tried to make it work. I had to learn a lot more about Byzantine fault tolerance, consensus algorithms, had to get down into the guts to understand and teach others which was a great foundation for my classes and writing.
These days most your time seems to be spent educating and speaking. Do you miss the development work or is this a welcome change?
I’m still doing development work. I had to code a lot to for my class, now I’m making a second class and it’s a lot of development work. I’m learning a lot about hardware, that’s where my gaps in knowledge are. One of the projects I want to make is my own hardware wallet and be able to fully understand it at the hardware level so I can fully recommend it and teach people to build their own. So I’m still doing lots of coding, learning to interface with hardware, it’s all important.
You’re also a Bitcoin Fellow at Blockchain Capital. What exactly does that mean? They invest in a number of altcoins, do you have any say in that?
I have no influence over their holdings. The idea is that I’m there to be a way to relate to the open-source community. It makes sense for a VC, I can provide introductions, put them in touch with a dev who wants to do a start-up, I can tell them what’s coming down the pipe. I’m more there for info purposes and as a resource. I don’t make money off their investment decisions and don’t get involved. But they want to support the Bitcoin community because the open-source community is so important and they want to contribute to it which is admirable.
You started Programming Blockchain, a course in which students pay to learn blockchain development from you. How many students have you taught so far?
It’s over 500 students. I haven’t counted in a while but 550ish I’d say.
Have any gone on to work in the blockchain industry? Examples?
Lots of them. There’s two people at ChainCode Labs. One at Blockstream, a ton of people at BitGo. I’ve taught people at ShapeShift and some people at HTC and Fidelity. A lot don’t necessarily tell me where they’re from or what they go on to do but two are graduating from the ChainCode residency. One student, Stepan, started his own hardware wallet company. Justin Moon was a student and now he’s educating more people. Yan Pritzker, the writer of “Ïnvesting Bitcoin” took my class, as did Steve Lee, the project manager leading the effort at Square for the Bitcoin development of the Cash app.
There’s a large number and I couldn’t be prouder. My intention was always to shore up the development talent and create a deeper bench so to speak. It takes time, lots of people I taught a year or more ago, now they’re starting to show up in the blockchain industry.
Besides taking your course, what would you recommend to people looking to get involved professionally in the blockchain space?
Just get involved. My book is pretty accessible if you’re a programmer and once you’re done it you’ll know more than 80% of blockchain developers and can start contributing to open-source projects or apply to jobs. Plenty of room in the industry.
Alright, changing topics. Bitcoin has rallied from around $3,000 and altcoins, including Ethereum, aren’t really recovering in the same way. Furthermore, IEO’s seem to be taking over the role of ICO’s; given all this, you must be feeling more confident than ever about your bet with Joseph Lubin.
As far as the bet, we have a referee. Believe it or not, we’re still working out little things. Once it’s worked out, will be announced publicly. I can already kind of say I told you so, I knew most of these projects didn’t make sense as an investors and now even the people working there are starting to realize it doesn’t make sense.
Lastly, you’ve had the chance to interact with a lot of well-known people in the blockchain space. Is there anyone you want to call out as playing a major role in the adoption of Bitcoin, maybe someone that doesn’t get enough credit?
The most obvious answer is Cory Fields. I always ask people who Cory Fields is and they don’t know. He’s one of the top contributors to Bitcoin Core by any metric, and nobody knows who he is because he’s not on Twitter or anything. His only Medium post is the show-stopping bug for Bitcoin Cash that was reported anonymously. He’s what I would call the selfless core developer, he just puts his head down and works, gets no recognition and nobody knows who he is, but he’s constantly working. All the core devs know and respect him, but outside the core dev community they don’t know or care. They may praise core devs but they don’t even know who’s behind it.