Building Web3: Smart Contracts, Solidity, and the Ethereum Network

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What Are the Uses of Ethereum?

Most people associate Ethereum only with its native cryptocurrency, Ether. But Ethereum, as a network, has come a long way from simply processing digital payments. A boom in DeFi applications brought in a host of extremely complex financial transactions, and a craze in non-fungible tokens (NFTs) addressed issues of digital ownership and identity. The rise of decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) now has smart contract developers completely rethinking the concept of governance.

Along the way, Ethereum and Solidity have had to push critical upgrades to keep the ecosystem secure and usable, a process that can feel a little like trying to replace an airplane’s engine while the airplane is still in flight.

Ethereum’s next major upgrade is set to be its biggest yet. The network is moving away from Proof of Work (PoW), a system of consensus utilized by cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, which comes at an enormous energy cost.

The new consensus system, Proof of Stake (PoS), will reduce the energy needed to power the Ethereum network by over 99 percent. These are the sort of changes that have smart contract developers excited: not movements in the price of certain cryptocurrency assets, but changes in how fast, scalable, and secure the underlying protocol is.

“We’re not doing this for the markets, and the markets don’t really impact us,” Heintel says. “Whatever the market is doing, we’re heads down, building, because we believe in the technology and what the technology can enable.”

The Role of the Ethereum Foundation

Most of the mainstream news around blockchain and cryptocurrency is still focused on markets, but there are more interesting developments happening behind the scenes. Many of those developments are being driven by the Ethereum Foundation (EF), a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting Ethereum and related technologies. While EF is not Ethereum—they do not own, control, or manage the Ethereum network in any way—they are one of the central players supporting and expanding the Ethereum ecosystem.

EF operates on a philosophy of subtraction: it resists the tendency of an organization to grow value within itself and instead seeks to cultivate value creation for the broader ecosystem. Divorced from concerns around market movements, they’re focused on distributing opportunities to others, partnering with charities like UNICEF, and finding ways to help Ethereum solve problems in the real world.

One of the ways EF does this is through its Ecosystem Support Program (ESP), which provides both financial and non-financial support to entities within the Ethereum community. That support can take the form of grants, feedback, direction, mentorship, and networking opportunities.

EF has also established a fellowship program to help address challenges in developing countries. The fellowship’s initial cohort is spread across the globe: they’re pursuing blockchain solutions for digital identity documents in Latin America, for microinsurance products targeted at small-scale Kenyan farmers, and for a Bangladeshi NGO that serves over 100 million people a year.

How to Get Started with Smart Contracts and Solidity

If you already have some programming experience, Solidity is relatively simple to learn. A 2020 survey of 193 Solidity developers from 48 countries found that an overwhelming majority felt comfortable and productive with Solidity in less than half a year. The respondents primarily worked in the tech industry, but others came from diverse fields such as healthcare, finance, media, energy, and transportation.

Still, Solidity is rarely someone’s first coding experience, and smart contract development has its own unique considerations.

“The major difference is that when you develop something in the Web2 world, you can easily change it,” Heintel says. “But with Web3, once you deploy something on Ethereum, it’s there, and you cannot take it back. There are some upgrade mechanisms, but the security process, the auditing process, and really thinking about what you do before deploying onto the runtime environment needs to be taken into account by developers.”

For those who want to build their own decentralized application on Ethereum, it’s helpful to have both front-end and back-end programming experience, as well as an understanding of Solidity. But most developers can get started with any back-end programming experience. And while the traditional school-to-work pipelines haven’t kept up with the pace of the blockchain industry, the Ethereum community has stepped in with its own community-based solutions.

EF’s developer portal has an array of different developer guides, each designed for developers coming from more established programming languages like Python or JavaScript. The portal also has links to coding sandboxes, step-by-step tutorials, developer bootcamps, and interactive games like CryptoZombies that teach developers Solidity.

EF’s annual convention, DevCon, meets on a different continent every year, bringing together the global community of Ethereum developers and researchers to collaborate on the future.

“The most valuable thing on Ethereum is its community,” Heintel says. “I’ve found it extremely welcoming. In terms of onboarding, there are incredible tools, tutorials, and learning games. Whenever you have a question, there will be somebody who will help you. So don’t be shy. We’re very friendly people who look forward to new people joining.”

Resources for Blockchain Developers

If you want to get involved with smart contracts, Solidity, and building on the Ethereum network, there are plenty of resources to help you get started right away. Tap into the broader community by checking out some of the links below.

  • Solidity: As a young programming language, Solidity is changing at a rapid pace. Their blog and their Twitter are the best ways to stay informed about new updates, and their website offers several resources for getting started with using Solidity.
  • Ethereum Developer Portal: Part of an educational initiative by EF, this is one of the major hubs for resources related to development on the Ethereum network, including documentation and tutorials that range from the introductory level to the advanced.
  • Guide to Full Stack Ethereum Development: If you’re overwhelmed by the documentation, and wondering how to put it all together, you’re not the only one. This guide follows Nader Dabit’s journey from zero experience to full-stack development on Ethereum. Catch his Tweetstorm about it here.
  • Ecosystem Support Program Blog: The ESP blog is a hub for news about the bleeding edge of smart contract development, keeping you updated on what ESP grants have been issued, and what past ESP grantees have been doing with Ethereum Foundation support.
  • ETHGlobal Online Hackathons: If you learn best by doing, you can join one of the ETHGlobal Online Hackathons, which onboard thousands of developers into the Ethereum ecosystem and connect newcomers with an established community. Each hackathon has a different theme, covering an area like NFTs, Web3, or Ethereum Scaling. The fifth Hackathon of 2021, HackMoney, was focused on DeFi and took place from June 18 to July 9.
  • MIT OpenCourseWare Lecture on Smart Contracts and dApps: Recorded in the fall of 2018 as part of a course on blockchain and money at MIT Sloan School of Management, this lecture on smart contracts and dApps is led by Gary Gensler, who is now chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law. It’s less technically focused than the other resources on this list but offers an overview of what a smart contract is and isn’t—especially in the eyes of the law.

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