What’s it like to… work in blockchain?

Interview: George Ornbo, chief technology officer at Clearmatics, offers advice on breaking into this exciting new digital industry

George Ornbo

What do you do?


I’m the chief technology officer at Clearmatics, which is a core blockchain infrastructure company. We design and build protocols for permissioned  blockchain networks. The company was founded in 2015 and was originally a research collaboration between CEO Robert Sams and UBS. The company has been heavily involved with the Utility Settlement Coin project. The goal of this project is to represent cash assets held at a Central Bank on the blockchain to improve operational  efficiency and reduce the systemic risk of inter-bank cash settlement. 


Tell us more about blockchain?


What is novel about blockchain is that nobody controls it. It’s a distributed system. People can trade peer to peer and there’s no longer a rent-seeking intermediary in the middle. They can trade more efficiently and it’s immutable – it allows digital information to be distributed but not copied or changed. You no longer need parties that verify a certain trade happened. We are looking at how this technology can help the existing infrastructure and make it safer and more efficient.


How did you get into that role? 


Like many people in this sector, I had a fairly nonlinear path. I studied English literature at Edinburgh University and joined McKinsey [global management consultants] where I worked as a research analyst for various industries, including in the wholesale banking team. I was also interested in programming so I taught myself to do that and then joined a web agency in Soho where I worked as a programmer and an account manager and really learned my trade. I learned on the job with a large element of self-directed learning. I stayed there for three years then worked as a freelance programmer in tech start-ups for a few years before founding pebble {code}, a technology innovation consultancy, which I grew from three people to 35. I now head up the engineering team of about 25 people at Clearmatics.


What attracts people to this sector?


With blockchain there’s a group of people who are attracted to it for the philosophy – the notion you don’t need a bank to trade. It appeals to people who want a fairer, flatter financial system. On the technology side, it’s probably one of the more innovative areas of software development in that it’s an emerging technology with lots of scope for creativity and imagination. And I think the people that work in the space tend to naturally think differently and want to push themselves and push the boundaries of what this technology can do. 


What kind of people work at Clearmatics?


We have some recent graduates with computer science degrees and a couple who have degrees in physics and mechanical engineering. But we also have people who didn’t go to university at all and others who have moved from related industries, such as Skype and gaming. There are no degrees for this skill set yet so I think people gravitate to it because they’re interested in it. 


We assess people on skill rather than backgrounds and we also have less technical roles, such as in the operations team or the product team, who think less about the technology and more about how the product fits the market. They need a very good understanding of the market – what people actually want and what they want to use it for. We’re about 40 people at the moment and probably scaling to about 75 by the end of the year. So we are growing very rapidly and trying to hire.


Is it hard to find people? 


Most definitely. The industry is still quite small and the skills shortage is very severe. We decided to hire high calibre graduates from Imperial College and UCL and invest in them, which has paid off. But even at the more junior level, candidates that have any modicum of experience can command a very good salary and can move between jobs very easily. 


What skills and attributes do you look for?


We want can-do attitudes. As a start-up we need people that do things rather than think about things or write lists. People need to be open minded as it’s an emerging industry and we need people to push the boundaries. We need people who are hardworking and enjoy their work with some element of passion about what blockchain is and what it can do. On the skills side, we are developing software so the majority of our workforce are programmers and software engineers. 


What advice would you give to somebody who’s interested in a career in this industry or to an educator who’s advising young people about careers in blockchain?


The fundamental thing I would advise people is just to go out there and try, have a go. People often think there are very high barriers to entry in this domain and that’s true for the experienced end, where you do need formal qualifications. But there is also a large amount of learning material online. There are tutorials, community groups and meetups that are free and open and foster learning and development on a formal and informal level. People will help you to learn as we all recognise it’s a new industry. 


Finally, how diverse is the industry?


The previous tech consultancy that I built, which was much more focused on consumer products, was about 40% female, 60% male, which was pretty good for the tech industry. However, much to my malaise, there are currently very few female engineers in the blockchain space. We only have five female employees, though we do have people from many different countries and different ethnicities and religions. However, the most acute issue for this industry to solve is the gender imbalance.