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Braving ‘Boken bros to learn blockchain coding at Jet.com’s offices

We attend a coding event in Hoboken and even the trip there was eventful

Hoboken

Hoboken: the city that gave us Frank Sinatra. Also, Hoboken: The city Frank Sinatra once called “a sewer” (via Pixabay).

After reading about blockchain and cryptocurrencies for the past several years, it was time to dive into the technology, albeit in the shallow end, and experience firsthand some programming for blockchain.

The occasion for doing so was Jet.com’s recent “Learn + Code: AI, Blockchain, and Ecommerce” code-along event in Hoboken, New Jersey.

That’s the hat we wore. Yay, swag!

As with most born and bred New Yorkers still living in the city, it’s a rare occasion when we get to visit the mainland of America from one of our relatively small urban islands. So we put on our tech hat (we have collected many such swag hats from tech events around NYC), steeled ourselves for any possible culture shock, and towards the end of the evening rush hour dove into the PATH system or the “alt-subway” as we like to call it.

That culture shock was immediate even before we reached the right bank of the Hudson. We were the first to enter the train and took a seat as the car quickly filled with “bros” and a few “bro ladies.” It seemed much more crowded than it should have. That’s because all of the standing bros kept their backpacks on their backs, a no-no on the New York subway for what we always thought were obvious reasons. The subsequent jostling and surprised faces as other bros had trouble getting by the big backpack bros while entering and leaving the train car were worth the price of admission. We chalked up the show to these alt-subway bros most likely being right out of the “bro box,” in other words, new to the region and certainly new to public transportation. One ride on a crowded New York City subway ought to fix the standing backpack problem should they ever venture there.  

The alt-subway deposited us in Hoboken, and we made our way past New Jersey Transit commuter trains, each of which was covered with large graphic instructions on how to disembark: “Watch Your Step.”

Hoboken Land Building

Jet’s headquarters is on River Street, a short distance from the Hoboken train terminal. On the way, we walked past the Hoboken Land Building but did not notice a Hoboken Water Ferry by the river.

The elevator up to Jet transported us across the continent as we seemed to enter Silicon Valley, both the region and the HBO television series. It’s not surprising that there is feedback from a popular TV show or movie to the industry it depicts, but it was striking to see it in action again, this time at Hooli—um, at Jet. Even into the early 2000s on Wall Street trading floors, we watched as new hires had to memorize and recite Michael Douglas’s “Greed is good” speech.

Just before the event started.

Chris Shei, a software engineer at Jet, led off the evening with a talk on e-commerce—no surprise since that’s what Jet does for the most part. He briefly described some aspects of artificial intelligence and related sectors like machine learning, natural language processing, and image recognition along with some applications to e-commerce.

Shei also gave his definition of blockchain which began with “a chain of blocks that contain information.”  Obviously, Jet is very interested in supply chain applications for blockchain technology given the nature of its business. However, ranging a bit further afield, Shei believes it’s unlikely that cryptocurrencies will become anything like mainstream fiat currencies in the short term, especially since they are currently taxed as capital assets.

Next up were simultaneous code-alongs for blockchain and AI. We were lucky enough to have found a good seat for the e-commerce  talk which was also the location of the first blockchain workshop, so we opened up our laptop and got ready.

The workshop was run by a couple of guys from Brooklyn-based BlockApps, Eli Mernit and Dustin Norwood. BlockApps describes itself as the first company to “incubate out” of fellow Brooklyn company, Consensys, in order to create a blockchain platform which developers can use to build, manage ,and deploy blockchain applications for the enterprise. Earlier in the day, we had been told to download the BlockApps STRATO CLI tool for developing enterprise blockchain applications onto our laptops, but we didn’t actually use it.

Instead, we coded along with Norwood in a training space or safe sandbox on GitHub, using the Solidity programming language. Solidity is used for writing and implementing smart contracts on the Ethereum blockchain and is not without its detractors, but that story is for another day.

We have programmed in C++ in a previous life and have seen JavaScript code before, both of which are described as looking somewhat similar to Solidity. We couldn’t argue with that, but we’d certainly hope that the Ethereum blockchain would reject all of the typos and mistakes we were making in designing our first smart contract. In fact, about two-thirds of the way through the exercise, we completely lost the plot as Norwood quickly jumped between various parts of the sample smart contract to add or remove snippets of code.

This didn’t go as planned, but at least we had beer.

Fortunately, Jet had provided several coolers of craft beer and trays of hot food, so we grabbed some “coder chow” and popped open some Ballast Point Sculpin. We just watched the rest of the workshop and promised ourselves that we’d try the exercise again from home.

Last but not least was Kunal Batra from Clarifai, to lead us through the building of a computer vision model using convolutional neural networks with open source tools and then with the Clarifai API. Alas, the Jet Wifi ground to a halt and, in the grand tradition of live demo tech problems, Batra had to describe what we would have been doing had the Wifi been working.

We actually had spent many years in image processing programming back in that previous life and would have enjoyed coding for this workshop, but instead settled for another Sculpin and planned to also run through this exercise at home one weekend.

Michael Hillmeyer has primarily been an independent consultant in the financial services, technology and healthcare industries since 2004. Prior to this, Michael was a senior sell-side equity research analyst at Merrill Lynch covering several technology industries. He owns no positions in any cryptocurrency but writes the “Distributed Leisure” column for Modern Consensus.