Blockchain

Exclusive Interview with Stephen Xu Xiaolong – Former QTUM Lead Developer

stephen xu Xiaolong exclusive chipin interview

QTUM was unknown a year ago but today, the cryptocurrency has gone through leaps and bounds to become one of the hottest cryptocurrencies in the world thanks to its excellent vision and a similarly strong team behind the coin.

Recently, the team’s lead developer and prominent contributor to QTUM’s technology, Stephen Xu, announced his departure from the company in a post on his WeChat account.

He wrote, “The year since I joined Qtum from Tencent has passed so quickly. Today, I bid farewell to Qtum, but I will always remain a part of Qtum. A big ‘thank you’ to Patrick Dai, who invited me to stand beside him in battle, witnessing the growth and opportunities in this industry. Every choice marks a new beginning. From today, I will be continuing my journey in blockchain with a new identity. Goodbye, my friends, it is only a matter of time that we meet again. I will always be a member of the Qtum family.”

Thanks to the team’s graciousness, we were able to schedule an interview with Xu himself to have a chat with him about QTUM as well as his thoughts and insights on all things blockchain-related.

Hello there! Thanks for joining us today, Stephen.
Can you give us a brief intro about yourself to our readers as well as a short explanation on how you got into the blockchain industry?

Hello Daniel! Thank you and your team for having me.
Sure. Hello everyone, my name is Stephen Xu, former lead developer at Qtum Foundation, a decentralized application Blockchain platform. I learned about Bitcoin a long time ago. At that time, Patrick Dai, co-founder of QTUM, and I were doing our masters in the Chinese Academy of Sciences. I began to follow Bitcointalk (the forum) and even did some mining very early on. I put quite a bit of thought into blockchain infrastructure as I began to learn more about the technology. My spare time back then was spent analyzing the proposed framework of Bitcoin in the paper written by Satoshi Nakamoto.
I graduated in 2014 and worked on game development in Tencent. There are many kinds of virtual coins in games, which are also digital currencies if you think about it. During that time, I keenly followed Blockchain news. The birth of Ethereum triggered my thoughts on the utility and feasibility of blockchain technology – does Ethereum create other problems while trying to solve current ones? Apart from cryptocurrencies, what are some practical and applicable use cases for this technology?
In 2016, Patrick approached me to start the Qtum journey with him. It did not take me long to join Qtum and dive into blockchain. In fact, I was more than glad to finally have my thoughts on blockchain validated and manifested into actual development work.

To make a leap from a giant corporation to a relatively unknown company (at that time) must’ve not been a straightforward choice for you.
What made you move from Tencent to QTUM?
Did the vision of the project excite or did you feel that you could express yourself more as a developer while working on QTUM?
Was the process of moving from Tencent to QTUM hard for you or did the QTUM team (Patrick Dai and the team) made it easy?

As I mentioned earlier, it did not take me long to decide that I wanted to begin my blockchain journey. There are three main reasons why I left Tencent for Qtum.
Firstly, I have always been interested in blockchain infrastructure and design. I personally enjoy analyzing code and reflecting on the technology side of things. Secondly, the gaming software engineering work I did in Tencent helped me in analyzing the utility and use cases of Blockchain. In fact, Patrick and I chatted extensively about First Blood. Back then, I managed to design a simple protocol for a platform like Steam using blockchain technology. Thirdly, it was a great timing for me to join Qtum. During that period, I was beginning to realize that one needed to fully devote oneself to achieve meaningful outcomes. The same thing happened with DREP Foundation, a project that I am working on now. Personally, I do not worry too much about opportunity cost, which is a distraction most of the time. I would rather focus on what I can and should do, given the circumstances of my choices.

In Qtum, I was the lead developer in China. Apart from building the public chain for Qtum, I helped a variety of teams realize the utility of blockchain technology. I lent many of them technology support and consultation on a voluntary basis. By doing such advisory work in different fields, I was able to experience many different models and technology issues on public and consortium chains as well as dApps. My perspective began developing to ponder the development of a vertical integration protocol within the Internet space, which is the direction I am marching into with DREP.
I am the kind of person who embraces change very positively. Patrick and I have been good friends for a long time and we communicate a lot. Blockchain itself fascinates me because it requires a huge leap in the way of thinking. I feel both the excitement of being in this industry and the practicality concerns as well when I get the chance to think about the issues on both the technology and application layer while developing solutions.

Working in QTUM with a much smaller team must have been a completely different experience than working on bigger companies like Tencent or Microsoft.
What was the environment like in QTUM?
What were some things that you loved about working at QTUM and now that you’ve resigned, what were some things that you think the company could work on improve in the future?

Yes, Qtum is quite different from big corporates. In a corporate environment, everyone sits in the same building and has a clear scope of work. There is a metaphoric ‘In’ and ‘Out’ tray and you just have to finish what you have been assigned. In comparison, Qtum has a relatively smaller team. We have just over 30 members scattered around the globe. We communicate over the Internet and we give autonomy to our members in terms of pursuing work based on their interests. The overall vibe is quite nice.

Haha. My favorite is the lunch cooked by our lovely A-yi, which means ‘auntie’ in Mandarin. Blockchain technology is still itself in a very early phase. All the projects should be actively exploring new application and development frontiers not just for their projects, but for the overall advancement of the industry.

From when you first started working on blockchain-related projects, what are some significant changes that you’ve noticed in the development of the blockchain industry?
Do you think the industry is maturing well or do you think there are still problems or issues that should be ironed out before the blockchain becomes fully established?

I first ventured into the Blockchain industry in 2013, joining Qtum thereafter in 2016. Throughout this interval, the interest in and popularity of blockchain has increased exponentially. A short time later in 2017, more ICOs entered the fray and the entire industry began exhibiting a persuasive potential for a major upheaval. Promising new projects sprung up every so often with more interested parties joining this industry. Naturally, this meant that there was a parallel increase in value driven by affirmative sentiments and concrete utility offered by the new products.

The biggest development of this industry is the increased activity in the development of the concept and technology of Blockchain by the general public. In other words, the breaking through of the technology into mainstream interest and consciousness. For example, the unique value proposition of the immutability and incorruptibility of the blockchain was leveraged upon by Chinese student activists in April to spread their message while defending against potential censorship.

When I first started in the blockchain industry, the technical barrier to entry was higher. Now, there is a lot of information about blockchain grounded in everyday language for the layman. However, blockchain is far from mature at this stage – there are still many others around the world who have not even heard of it.

In terms of the development of the technology itself, it is still a distance away from maturity as well, with much potential yet to be realized. Both Bitcoin and Ethereum are not up to par with their scalability limitations. Many new projects have tried to improve upon this problem but to some extent may have compromised decentralization or security in what is now still a zero-sum tradeoff.

Regarding utility, many projects do not fully understand the pain points they can solve with blockchain technology. Many protocol level projects are simply providing an iteration with a slightly improved performance., instead of a well-considered, elegant solution. Not enough thought is put into real use-case scenarios and consumer experience. Regarding regulation, there are many challenges as well, with more countries drafting laws and regulations in this space to attempt for control over the technology.

In the consideration of the many facets and problems existing in this industry, I realized that I wanted to work on something that this space is in need of – to leverage this technology for the benefit of real-world, traditional enterprises in their overcoming of pain points and achieving win-win solutions for both the business and users.

Speaking of problems, what are the biggest problems do you think is affecting the blockchain right now from the point of view of a developer?
Are there any problems that are not happening currently but you expect will happen soon in the future?

I think the biggest problem is the scalability of the underlying technology. Many public chains cannot support large-scale businesses running. Perhaps one of the most recent examples of this problem was when CryptoKitties, a simple game of cats, brought the entire Ethereum network to its knees as more and more users began playing it. That is one of the biggest hurdles in terms of implementing the technology on a public network for existing businesses.

Another potential issue would be the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) coming into effect later this month. This will definitely change how organizations handle the personal data they collect and use. To some extent, blockchain and GDPR are contradictory because data logged onto the blockchain is immutable while GDPR mandates that data be removable. This will inevitably bring some challenges to blockchain project teams and it will be interesting to see how regulation will spark innovation in this aspect. We are also working on providing a more private way to store the data so that even if it cannot be redacted, it is not traceable.

A big change that we’re seeing right now is that countries all around the world are starting to slowly accept the use of the blockchain in things like government processes or departments.
Even QTUM itself is working on plans to collaborate with local governments and other institutions like banks and corporates.
Why do you think this change is happening and what are your personal thoughts and comments on this situation?

Blockchain technology is well-suited to be employed by governmental processes due to its transparent and immutable nature. Governments naturally have to be open and transparent with their people. Blockchain technology can effectively reduce unnecessary friction and overall inefficiency, something many public processes suffer from. Some time ago, Dubai announced that by 2020, they aspire to have every governmental transaction executed digitally on blockchain. While these commitments are forward-looking and encouraging, risk factors such as money laundering, manipulation of market prices and fraud require significant government intervention. So, I think it is very natural that we will be seeing more projects forge partnerships with institutions and governments.

We all know the potential of the blockchain in popular industries like finance or banking but from your experiences of working in QTUM, what “hidden” or unknown industries do you think will benefit greatly from the blockchain?
Have you worked on any of these applications during your time with QTUM?

The technology can be implemented across a variety of industries. Apart from financial services, blockchain can be useful in areas such as gaming, user-generated content (UGC) platforms, IoT, supply chain, and government administration. Throughout my career, I was fortunate and privileged to have worked with numerous teams developing a utility for blockchain application across gaming, market forecasts, copyright transactions, content distribution, and many other interesting fields.

One interesting area for me is in quantifying online reputation and aggregating discrete, user-specific data indicators to address the problem of user acquisition, traffic monetization and low retention/engagement rate that many content platforms face.

While there are plenty of good projects revolving around the blockchain, we’re also seeing more and more projects that use the blockchain and launch ICOs without any substance behind them.
Simply put, there are ICOs and DApps that launch just for the sake of it and earning ridiculous amounts of money for projects that can also be launched without the need for a blockchain.
What are your thoughts on this and what do you think is a good way to prevent “useless” ICOs from happening?
Were there preventive measures or steps in QTUM to ensure that only high-quality DApps are developed in the platform?

Much like the Internet back in the 80s, the early stages of development for new and exciting technologies tend to fill itself with all manner of beings. Perhaps the phenomenal speed in which ICOs and DApps have come to the forefront of the start-up fundraising scene has led to a somewhat inevitable consequence of scams and illogical technology implementation. The infancy of this industry is further reiterated by the emergence of a supposed ‘bubble’. Many do not really know what it is, but still, try to be a part of this blockchain sensation.

As time goes on, projects without the requisite technical expertise will eventually fail. A greater public understanding of the technology will also reduce the number of scam victims. Nevertheless, anyone looking to explore this space should be extremely cautious and conduct their own due diligence on the technical soundness of projects to determine if the promised product can ever be delivered. Along with that, stricter regulatory oversight around the conduct of ICOs is needed to help filter the noise away from the real benefits of blockchain.

Let’s talk about VeChain, NEO, and TRON—essentially coins that are related to the China and its market.
The community always seems to pit QTUM as well as other coins against each other even though QTUM is a Singaporean-based company.
Do you think that comparing between coins should be stopped or is it something that will always happen in the crypto industry?
On the same topic, what are some false assumptions or myths by the community about QTUM that you want to debunk or correct?
What are your thoughts on future and current growth of other China-based coins?

I am actually well-acquainted with the teams you have mentioned above. The community has notoriously been fond of comparing across existing projects and value propositions. If I am to be honest, these comparisons are not particularly meaningful because each project has a unique positioning, proposition and outcomes. You and I both know that many of these comparisons are only done to speculate on price action!

Blockchain is a global industry in which China is an important player. We have seen the emergence of digital giants from China with the likes of Tencent, Alibaba, Huawei, etc. Their success is largely due to the huge commercial potential and high-quality technology talents available there. China has an astounding advantage in terms of market potential and I just cannot see the Chinese economy taking a backseat in any aspect of blockchain technology development.

QTUM is the first platform to offer Proof-of-Stake (PoS) smart contracts and that sets you apart from other coins in the market.
From the point of a view of a developer, why was the PoS model used in QTUM and what is the difference between this and Ethereum’s Casper?
Does it offer any significant benefits over the Proof-of-Work model or other models?
What was your contribution to this model and can you give us your thoughts on the viability of PoS smart contracts in real-world uses?

QTUM’s PoS model is an improvement from Blackcoin’s PoS 3.0, which is called Mutualised Proof of Stake (MPoS).
Ethereum’s Casper is based on a staking and reward mechanism. Validators get rewarded as blocks they validate get added to the chain. If any malicious behavior is attempted and detected, the staked deposit will be forfeited. This deposit mechanism increases the threshold for validators to participate in the network and shuts out many smaller users. In contrast, the classic PoS does not require deposits and tokens can be removed at any point without affecting the stability of the network. Regardless of how many Qtum tokens you own, it is possible to participate in network validation, making the entire network more egalitarian and by default, distributed.

PoW is a cumbersome and inefficient process due to the sheer amount of power required to drive the network. This also means that a person or organization with more capital resources can increase their mining success rate with more powerful ASICs, leading to a network that is not as distributed as it should be. PoS is a lot friendlier to the environment and we can even use a Raspberry Pi as a full node to participate in mining.

Can you share with us some upcoming technologies or features in QTUM (or even the blockchain) that many people may not know about?
What future advancement or upcoming technology in the blockchain field are you the most excited or interested in?

I cannot steal the thunder away from Patrick! What I can reveal is that Qtum is developing an X86 virtual machine that will improve Programming Language Support, Standard Library, Optimized Gas Model, etc. compared with the current EVM.
Personally, I am very interested in identity management with blockchain, the concept of a stablecoin, tokenization of Internet reputation and interconnectivity. I will be exploring all these aspects of the project I mentioned earlier. I strongly believe that something valuable and most importantly, relevant, can be created with some iteration of the areas I just shared.

How much do you think working at QTUM has benefited you as an individual? Do you leave QTUM as a different man than when you first joined the company?

I think perhaps the greatest impact for me was that I was able to act on many of my thoughts and ideas in a meaningful and productive way and, in some way, contributed to the broader blockchain infrastructure and design conversation. To collaborate with other like-minded developers and watch the implementation of our work also brought new perspectives to me daily.

Working with a range of projects allowed me to develop greater understanding around the more intricate nuances in token economies and feasibility concerns across different industries. In an organization with so many high-quality people, it is inevitable that I matured very quickly in terms of technical and application knowledge. I am pretty much the same person, only significantly more self-aware in terms of how I would like to contribute to this industry. This is all thanks to the wonderful people I had to privilege of working with at Qtum.

Finally, what other personal goals (besides your career and the blockchain) do you have in life? Is there anything else in life you want to achieve?

This industry really consumes all of you. It has an unexplainable power of drawing anyone who is willing deeper into the whole ecosystem. A personal goal of mine is to eventually establish an incubator for students to access the requisite resources for developing their projects. I have had the privilege of speaking to tertiary students on several occasions and I thoroughly enjoyed the conversations I have had there. In the end, I would like to think of myself as a conduit for the technology to reach the masses by aiding the development of relevant products using blockchain technology.

That concludes our Interview with Stephen Xu. Thank you very much for your time and good luck with your next venture

More Interviews to come

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