A Paradigm Shift

(I would have liked to have come up with a more original post title, but found myself unable to escape this one’s event horizon)

I’ve been at Xapo for a bit over a couple years now, and it’s been pretty great. Earlier this year, we’d been coming up to performance review time, so, as you do, I’d been thinking about what changes would be cool — raise, promotion, different responsibilities, career growth, whatever — and, largely, coming up blank, particularly given we’d recently taken on Amiti as an additional dev working on bitcoin upstream. I mean, no one’s going to say no to more money for doing the same thing, but usually if you want significant changes you have to make significant change, and I was feeling pretty comfortable: good things to work on, good colleagues to work with, and not too much bureaucratic nonsense getting in the way. In many ways, my biggest concern was I was maybe getting complacement. So, naturally, come Good Friday, after responding to a late night ping on slack, I found out I was being fired — and being a remote worker, without even a kiss on the cheek as is traditional for betrayal at that time of year!

Okay, that’s not a precisely accurate take: I got made redundant along with plenty of others as part of a pretty major realignment/restructuring at Xapo. This was pretty unexpected, since the sale of the institutions part of the business to Coinbase had seemed like it had given Xapo a really long runway to avoid having to make painful cuts, though on the other hand I had been concerned enough about the lack of focus (or a nice brief elevator pitch for what Xapo was) to have been mailing Wences ideas about it last year, so some sort of big realignment was not a total surprise either. It’s summarised in a post on the Xapo blog in May as “relaunching as a digital bank” which I don’t think is really all that clear; and there’s a later post with a bunch of FAQs which is helpful for the details, but not really the big picture. The difference between “custodial wallet” and “bank” has always seemed pretty minor to me, so Xapo’s always seemed pretty bank-like to me anyway — although it’s still worth distinguishing between a bank where all the customers’ balances are fully backed, and the more normal ones with fractional reserve where funds in deposit accounts are mostly backed by other customers’ debts, and are thus at risk for bank runs, which requires deposit insurance backed by central bank money printing and so on.

I think it’s fair to describe Xapo’s new direction as a change of focus from something like “bitcoin’s cool, we’ll help you with it” to something like “protecting your wealth is cool, we’ll help you with it” — but when you do that, bitcoin becomes just one answer, with things like USD or gold or even some equities as other answers, just as they are for Libra. That’s also a focus that matches Wences’ attitude (or life story?) better — protecting you from currency collapses and the like is a mission; playing with cool new technology is a hobby. And while I think it’s a good mission in general, I think it’s particularly timely now with governments/banks/currencies facing pretty serious challenges as a result of response to the covid19 pandemic. It’s also a much tighter focus than Xapo’s had over the time I’ve been with the company — unless you’re a massive conglomerate like Google or Disney, it’s important to be able to say “no — that’s a good idea but it’s not for us, at least not yet” so that you limit the things you’re working on to things that you can do well, so I think that’s also a big improvement for Xapo. And as a result, I can’t even really object to Xapo not retaining a bitcoin core dev spot — in my opinion a focus on wealth preservation for bitcoin mostly means not screwing things up (at least for now) rather than developing new things. Hopefully once Xapo reopens to new customers and those customers are relying on bitcoin as a substantial store of wealth, and the numbers are all going up, it will make sense to have in-house expertise again, but, well, one of the benefits for companies that build on open source platforms is that you can free-ride for a while, and it doesn’t make much sense to begrudge that. I think it’s definitely going to be a challenging time for Xapo to re-establish itself especially with the big personnel changes, but I’m hopeful that it will work out well. I have exercised my stock options for what that’s worth, though I don’t know if that counts as skin in the game or a conflict of interest.

Wences was kind enough to provide a few months’ notice rather than terminating the contract immediately (not something that he was able to do for many of the other Xapo folks who were made redundant around the same time, as I understand it), and even kinder to provide some introductions to people who might fund me in continuing in the same role. It’s certainly a bad negotiating tactic, but the Paradigm guys (they’re a California based company, so guys still counts as gender neutral, right?) were Wences’ first recommendation, and after getting some surprisingly positive recommendations about them, talking to them, and reading some of their writings, I didn’t really see much need to look elsewhere. Like I said, complacent. (Or, if you prefer, perhaps “lacking even first-world problems” is a better description). Once word filtered through the grapevine a little, I did get an offer from the Chaincode folks to see if I needed some support so that I didn’t have to worry about urgently getting a new job in the midst of a global pandemic, but I figured it’s “better for bitcoin” for a company like Paradigm that hasn’t supported development directly until now to get some experience learning how to do it than to join an existing company that’s already doing pretty much everything right, and it didn’t feel like too much of a risk on my behalf. So maybe at least there I managed a not-completely-complacent choice? And while there’s no particular change in job description, I’m hoping working with folks like Arjun and Dan might help me actually finish fleshing out and writing up some ideas that aren’t able to be directly turned into code, and I’m hopeful for some cross-pollination from some of ideas in the DeFi space that they pay attention to, which I’ve mostly been studiously ignoring so far, so I hope there’s a bit of potential for growth there.

Anyway, given I’m doing the same job just with a different company, there wasn’t really any impetus, but I’ve been using it as an excuse to get some of the things I’ve been working on over the past little while actually published; hence the ANYPREVOUT update and the activation method draft in particular. Both those I’d been hoping to publish at or shortly after the coredev meeting in March, but covid19 cancelled that for us, and the times since have been kind of distracting.

In conclusion, the moral of the story: take performance reviews more seriously in future.

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