Few people will ever have the kind of Twitter interaction developer Mikera Quintyne-Collins had this week.
A conversation was taking place among Ethereum developers about the transition to Ethereum 2.0, a significant upgrade to the Ethereum network that will provide scaling solutions and a transition to a proof-of-stake mining system.
SpankChain CEO Ameen Soleimani asked what the bottlenecks to development were. Working other full-time jobs, replied Prysmatic Labs’ Preston Van Loon. In swept Vitalik Buterin, a tousle-haired deus ex machina, with a tweet out of the blue: “Just sent 1000 eth. yolo.”
Vitalik posted an Etherscan link to the transaction, showing the equivalent of over $100,000 sent to Van Loon. From her handle @badcryptobitch, Quintyne-Collins replied to the tweet: “I will quite literally drop out if we got $100k in ETH.”
After some back-and-forth, Buterin proceeded to transfer another 1000 ETH to an address posted by ChainSafe, Quintyne-Collins’ employer. In her final year of a Maths and Statistics program at the University of Toronto, the student had been working on Ethereum projects in her spare time—but was now ready to ditch the degree and turn pro.
In the wake of this unprecedented gift from the famous “Non-giver of Ether“, BREAKER spoke to Mikerah Quintyne-Collins about dropping out, studying cryptography, and what the self-taught programmer plans to do next.
Hi Mikerah. It must have been a crazy few days for you. How are you feeling?
I’m excited. At first it was a bunch of emotions, but that high has gone down and I’m pretty much back to normal. Really I’ll just be working on some stuff over the holidays and into the new year. And since I don’t have any more school work to deal with, I’ll be focusing on what matters.
Today was the day you told U of T you were dropping out. How did that go?
Yeah, I did it earlier. Well, I get refunded half the money back, and my advisor told me that I probably should have dropped courses during the semester if I knew what would happen, because now my grades are affected. Apparently I had decent grades but I didn’t think so. She told me I had a 3.0 but now it would come down.
In your tweet to Vitalik you seemed pretty eager to drop out. Is that a fair reading?
I did send it jokingly, but I was serious at the same time. That day I’d had a final exam where if I’d memorized the text book I would have done extremely well, but I didn’t feel like it tested for if I really understood the material. In the context of how I was feeling that day, and then sending the tweet and actually getting the money, I thought, “Yeah, I’m gonna do it.” It just made sense.
There have been some negative reactions to this act of generosity, like people saying Vitalik is ruining your life. What do you make of that?
The only person who could ruin my life is myself! [Laughs.] The university will always be there. I used to work in I.T. for the university, and there were always people from the ’90s calling who wanted to come back and complete their degree—usually for a program that didn’t even exist any more. They were able to do it, so I’m sure I can come back if I want.
In terms of learning, school has never been for me. I barely showed up to high school. I taught myself how to code when I was 13 by taking out books from the library. All my knowledge of computer science and maths comes from the internet and books. I know myself well enough to know that this is better for me, rather than taking courses I’m not interested in.
How did you get into the crypto and distributed systems area of programming?
I remember learning about bitcoin through the news in maybe 2011 or 2012. It was at the start of high school, and the price of the coin was a few cents. I heard the stories about people buying pizza with bitcoin, or throwing out hard drives full of bitcoin, but I didn’t think much of it at the time.
A few years later I learned about the Thiel Fellowship, and how Vitalik won it to work on Ethereum. I was into cryptography already, and I started reading white papers. The bitcoin white paper was very accessible to me as a high school student, but the Ethereum white paper was hard for me, so I put it on the back burner. Later I came back to it in university, mostly reading up on the economic aspect, and I tried programming some smart contracts.
Then at the end of my second year of university during finals season, Vitalik came to the university to give a talk on crypto-economics, and that’s when I really started to get more involved. The person who organized the talk was a professor at the university, and that summer I worked with him on a research project, done in conjunction with his lab and ChainSafe Systems where I currently work.
Can you tell me more about ChainSafe and how you’ll be using the ETH to support your current projects?
ChainSafe is a dev shop and consultancy. When we started doing research with them, they weren’t much, to be honest. I don’t think they were even incorporated at the time. We worked together, then were out of contact for a while; then in January of this year I was planning a hackathon and reached out to them to provide mentors, and they offered me a position to work there, which I accepted.
Do you have advice for people who are trying to weigh the choice between a university course and getting real-world experience in programming?
University is certainly good for connections. Depending where you go you might meet the kid of somebody who’s famous, or well-known in your field. You might also meet someone who you want to start a project with. But the learning portion is not so good. I would say a lot of places have lowered their standards. As a student, I see that when you go back and try to do past exams you can’t do them, because a lot of that material isn’t even being taught now.
There are a lot of good resources online now: MIT has a great series of computer science lectures you can watch, Harvard, too. A lot of top universities have material online for free. GitHub is also very useful, and you can learn a lot by reading other people’s code and then contributing to projects directly. A lot of people get hired based off that nowadays. If you’re not at university you can make connections through events, though that’s easier to do in a larger city like Toronto.
Also bigger events in the ecosystem are important, like ETHDenver or ETHCapeTown, and they tend to have some form of scholarship program for people who don’t have the resources or come from underrepresented groups. Those are some of the ways to meet people if you decide not to go the university route.