Busting blockchain myths at Rakuten Blockchain Lab

  • Photo: Rakuten’s Mark McKillion

    Sync NI’s Brendan Drain interviewed Mark McKillion, Senior Software Engineer at Rakuten’s Belfast-based Blockchain Lab, to discover more about working with blockchain and the massive innovative scope granted to Rakuten by the technology.

    It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost a year", began McKillion. "You know the saying ‘time flies when you’re having fun’? Well it really does!

    "I have been in the IT industry for the past six years after graduating from University of Ulster with first-class honours. I started out in CVS Caremark as a graduate -- and also worked with Rapid7 and Total Mobile -- before taking up my current role here in Rakuten. In my previous roles I gained experience in IoT, cyber security, and healthcare, however I had not worked with blockchain until I joined the lab."

    McKillion’s day-to-day tasks are varied and interesting, something he was sure to make clear during the interview. In the same day, he can go from analysing requirements for a new project solution to building out and improving Rakuten’s current microservice infrastructure using Docker, Kubernetes, and Azure. The Belfast team rapidly adapts to trends in emerging tech and isn’t afraid to switch up its stack or methodology to create the best solutions.

    "The main goal of the lab is to develop APIs on top of different public and private blockchains so that Rakuten business and technology teams can take advantage of blockchain without having to understand the complexities", McKillion explained. “Rakuten is a large company with over 20,000 employees that has been around for over 20 years.

    "Before joining Rakuten, I only knew it as the shirt sponsor of FC Barcelona and had no real idea what it does. The company started in 1997 as a Japanese ecommerce company but it has become so much more than that, with services available in a number of different industries across the globe, from online video streaming with Rakuten TV, messaging with Rakuten Viber, and online reading with Rakuten Kobo."

    McKillion was keen to dispel the myth that blockchain and cryptocurrencies are one and the same, especially since the two terms seemingly go hand in hand in mainstream media.

    Understanding the wider implications of blockchain, he explained, is key to fully exploiting the technology’s full potential.

    "It is important to separate cryptocurrencies from blockchain technology as their futures are not necessarily intertwined.  Cryptocurrencies are made possible as a result of blockchain technology, but the opportunities for blockchain go way beyond cryptocurrencies.  I recently attended the Dublin Tech Summit, where around a third of the content was about blockchain and companies beginning to use the technology for a wide range of different use cases. Bitcoin introduced blockchain technology to the world back in 2009, but it has come a long way since then and it continues to grow."

    Rakuten’s Blockchain Lab opened in August 2016 with three employees and has since grown to 16 engineers with a plan to be at 20+ by the end of the year. McKillion gave an excellent overview of his current projects and the skills needed to make a splash within such a reactive, trailblazing area of development.

    "Currently we are working on a digital asset exchange called Rakuten Wallet, which is due to be launched in Japan later this year. It has already had a lot of press coverage and the application will enable Rakuten customers to buy cryptocurrencies through a company that they trust, which has the potential to be a game changer in the cryptocurrency space. In the blockchain lab we have built the backend services for this exchange, which has involved learning how the various cryptocurrencies work and how to integrate with the associated public blockchains.

    "It has been a steep learning curve for me as I had no previous experience working with blockchain technologies. However, the people in the office are very knowledgeable and approachable, which makes for a great working environment."

    Perhaps one of the most surprising discoveries to come from the interview was that much of the tech stack used by the Rakuten team is reassuringly familiar to those who work in modern web development.

    "There are lots of different blockchain protocols and platforms now and part of the challenge is deciding which one best meets the requirement”, McKillion continued. “We use the latest cloud technologies such as Docker and Kubernetes, and all of our microservices are deployed in the cloud using Azure. I had dabbled with this type of technology before and it is very interesting coming into a job where the latest technologies are used."

    The nature of cutting-edge development such as that conducted by Rakuten’s blockchain lab means that on-the-job training and continual development is a must.  Just as the solutions created are dynamic and inherently practical, McKillion described the development process as flexible and hands-on.

    "The approach to training and development is based on how individuals learn best.  On-the-job training and learning from others is in my opinion one of the most effective methods. We also have access to online tutorials and whatever books we need. Members of the team stay up-to-date with what is happening across the blockchain and wider technology space by attending conferences such as Kubecon, Microsoft Build, Consensus, and Devcon (Ethereum)."

    To end the interview, McKillion gave some expert insight into the future of blockchain and explained its advantages as a field of interest for truly brilliant software engineers who wish to work in the most disruptive new IT career on the 2019 jobs market.

    "All of the major cloud providers are offering BaaS (blockchain as a service) now and every day we see more and more big companies making press releases about blockchain projects they are working on.  It is extremely difficult to predict the future of blockchain technology, but maturity of the tooling and adoption by large organisations is sending a message that it is here to stay.  I believe that all businesses should be exploring the disruptive potential of the technology."

    In December, LinkedIn described the job position of blockchain developer as the number-one emerging job and said the number of positions open had grown 33-fold over 2018.  There are not many opportunities in Belfast to experience working on this technology, so seize your chance.

    "Right now, we have a number of open software engineering vacancies in the Blockchain Lab and we want to hear from people who are keen to embrace this emerging technology and are not afraid to get involved in all aspects of the software development lifecycle.  The reward is a really interesting job where you learn in a challenging but supported environment and have an opportunity to work on some of Rakuten’s most strategic products."

    This interview originally featured in the summer 2019 edition of the Sync NI magazine. You can download it here and sign up to receive the next magazine here.

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