Brent Xu

'10, MMS '12

Protocol Business Architect

What do you do professionally?

I work in the blockchain industry. I’m at a company called Consensys, which is one of the co-founders of the technology called Ethereum. Essentially, what we do is build just about every layer of the blockchain stack—from the infrastructure protocol layer to the application layer and different applications built ontop of Ethereum—to consulting and enterprise-related engagements helping large institutions, Fortune 500 companies, multi-nationals, government entities, as well as more grass-roots companies like startups implementing and utilizing Ethereum blockchain technology.

In addition we have a substantial investment arm that I participate in as well as a legal following that focuses on some of the regulatory aspects pertaining to this technology and how it should be treated from a legal perspective. It focuses on a regulatory compliant perspective as the technology proliferates throughout the global economy.

I wear many hats at the company. On one end of the spectrum, I focus on protocol business architecture, which looks at the underlying infrastructure protocol of different blockchain systems and assesses them based on different functionality and various layers of interoperability across different platforms and systems. I also spend a portion of my time conducting research as a chief research officer for different launching platforms based on infrastructure layer, basically conducting market research across protocols and understanding some of the underlying assessments across these platforms.

A third role is a bit of research into how this technology can be applied on the application layer based on certain nuances in structure and finance—fixed income instruments that could benefit from additional levels of transparency in order to stay in shape, more trust, and better understanding of complicated financial products.

Where do you find time for anything else?

We are a very new organization. I joined the company around early 2016 after taking Cam Harvey’s class at Fuqua. Basically, our current CEO came to our class to speak, and at the time the company was still very small; we were about 20 or 30 people and Ethereum was just launched. Subsequent to joining, today we’re about a 700-person company and we’re expanding quite a bit. In addition to building out our current business practices, we also created four different foundations that focus on the technology. They include the ABC Accounting Blockchain Coalition, the Blockchain for Social Impact Coalition, the Enterprise Ethereum Foundation, as well as the Decentralized Identity Foundation. All organizations focus on expanding the presence of Ethereum and on utilizing this new blockchain technology for various use cases such as social impact, business, and identity use cases to direct implementations within financial technology.

One idea that we as a company espouse is that this technology is more than just technological implementation; it’s also a new social, economic, and political system that can be applied across various aspects of our existing society.

Brent Xu and Cam Harvey

What’s the most enjoyable part of your job?

One of the most enjoyable parts is knowing that we’re not necessarily trying to recreate existing systems; we’re trying to create a new system, and we’re also trying to optimize it. One philosophy that we try to champion is that in order to optimize the full system, there needs to be some sort of sub-optimization of the subsystems. Meaning, we’re not trying to create a top-down hierarchical system in which there’s control that’s centralized in a few main members in the top part of the organization. We’re trying to create a more distributed system both as a technology and as an organization—that way we’re eating our own dog food. We try to create a flat organization—as flat as we can be—as well as utilizing different governance and philosophies from a holacracy, or more flat industry organizations. It’s a huge challenge because when you have a more distributed organization it can be chaotic at times and other times it might be more difficult to get certain things done. I think because we’re so open to some of these decentralized aspects of society, bringing more capabilities directly to the different users of the system as opposed to having everything controlled by a centralized party is very inspirational and it helps drive some of the adoption and understanding of the technology.

An example is that we have a CEO at our company, but at the same time we have a chief anarchy officer, someone whose main role is to, in certain circumstances, question some of the judgment of our leadership in order to keep ourselves honest.

What’s the biggest challenge you face?

One of the biggest challenges is trying to substantiate new thoughts or new ideas into an ecosystem in which there are a lot of preexisting incumbents that have similar ideas, though may not necessarily have the same philosophies pertaining to how to implement those ideas. One example is we’re creating blockchain technology from scratch, or from a very grassroots setting. We’re one of the inventors of Ethereum. There are other incumbent software development companies that are trying to create their own versions of some of this technology, and sometimes the versions that they create are not necessarily true blockchains, but rather reinterpretations of existing databases. What we have is a situation where older, incumbent companies are creating technology that isn’t necessarily as architecturally or structurally sound as what we’re creating, though they have such tremendous influence in the ecosystem that they’re able to hold sway.

One example would be interacting with competitors in the space like IBM, which claims that they have a powerful blockchain system, though when I perform my forensic analysis, I come to various conclusions about whether or not the system is truly a blockchain and what are the actual capabilities behind the platform. I’ve published papers on this via our research arm, and in continuing to do research in this area, I definitely recognize a lot of the challenges. Going up against large incumbents that have legacies and histories of creating technology is actually a very welcome challenge, because the fact that we are even going up against some of these organizations is possibly an indication of some of the potential of this technology actually proliferating into a global ecosystem.

What sorts of interesting places has your position taken you, and do you have a favorite?

Definitely! There is a lot of travel related to this type of job because we’re constantly traveling to different countries and regions implementing technology into various systems and as an organization we are fairly decentralized, so we have about 700 employees distributed around 30 or so countries, and we’re also a remote-first organization. We’re very respectful of our remote employees, and we try to create a culture that is conducive towards this type of work. Recently we built an office in Dubai, we’re opening up a presence in India, and we’ve recently opened up London and Paris offices; we have a pretty significant presence in Singapore, Australia, and the Philippines, and I was also one of the founders of our China office.

I’d say one of my best experiences was a pretty significant product delivery that took me to continental Europe, and I spent quite a bit of time based in France. The project took us to Nice, wine country, and prior to the project we were very excited. We were thinking it’s a beautiful country, we can visit the beaches and Monaco, and we can drink wine every night. Turns out, we worked nonstop every day for upwards of 16 hours a day on this project delivery. It wasn’t as relaxing as we initially thought, but we did end up going to Monaco for about eight hours, which was nice.

What’s the best professional advice you’ve received?

One of our top managing members of my company, who was one of the original Java/Oracle developers and did his MBA at Oxford, told me that when conducting projects to front-load a lot of the effort. Basically, proper planning is able to help alleviate a lot of the future stresses of something, so being able to foresee what’s going to happen with a project delivery will better prepare you for executing. One of the underlying things he told me then is that experience makes a huge difference. Having the experience of delivering a project basically prepares you for the next project, and part of the experience is that you have to do them on your own, otherwise it’s just not something you can read from a book.

We’re big fans of the idea of experiential learning—the idea that we’re constantly training, and hopefully through a lot of these interactions we’re able to become stronger business professionals. The idea around preparation is integral, and part of that is making mistakes. Another thing he told me is if you’re able to make all the mistakes that you need to make within a business environment, it helps prepare you for future situations in which you can better avoid those mistakes. I’m a big fan the idea of developing experiences in a business settings.

Aside from your current role, what is your dream job?

I’ve definitely had aspirations to go out on my own and possibly implement some of this technology, though I currently think that a lot of the technology is not yet ready. It’s not only the technology that’s not ready, it’s also the social dynamics of how people treat this technology. We live in a space in which there are a lot of not so scrupulous ideas, or projects that are focusing way too much on the marketing aspects as opposed to the technological aspects. We’re hoping for a bit of a correction in some of this over-speculation, and hopefully that will give teams that have legitimate technologies and products the time to better assess how best to implement them and to utilize them in the proper business models.

There’s a new social dynamic to a lot of this technology because this is one of the first times that value was able to be instantiated in a digital form. What we’re creating with blockchain is basically these digital tokens that are worth money, and anytime you have something that is worth a piece of monetary value, the dynamics shift entirely. In fact, during the .com bubble, the value of companies were determined by equity, so basically you had various levels of retraction away from the technology in which only the venture capitalists and the investors were speculating. Now, you have a direct environment in which value is directly instantiated within these digital assets to the point where the systems that are created have this rehypothecation of value into the digital asset that can be traded, creating very complicated dynamics for how human beings interact with these digital medium goods.

After we solve some of these problems, I’m hoping to create a company that can utilize all the learnings that we developed from having built a lot of these systems to better optimize certain facets of our existing capital market structure. I definitely have aspirations to go out on my own. Our CEO encourages it as well; I think at the end of the day he wants all of us to become serial entrepreneurs, or to create certain projects of our own.

What do you like to do outside of work?

We do work quite a bit. It’s a very demanding job, but another thing that’s special is it’s also a very flexible job. We don’t necessarily have set hours that we work in because we’re distributed throughout so many different countries in the world. We kind of transcend some of the basic nine to five job aspects to try to create an environment in which we can create our own schedules. When I’m not working or thinking about work, I do try to relax in certain settings.

One type of project that we focus on is around the idea of crytpoeconomics, which is creating mechanism-designed or game theoretical models that can instantiate certain economic behaviors that can exist within a system or a subsystem. It’s basically the idea of creating various Nash equilibriums within a system to instantiate positive behavior, or in some aspects, creating schelling points, or focal points, which is another game theory model for determining the right chosen outcome for certain situations. What a lot of this study and introspection leads me down towards is games of risk or games of expected value, so I play some poker.

What’s the most important thing you learned during your time at Fuqua?

I’ve been part of the Duke community for a very long time. I grew up in Durham, North Carolina and went to Duke for undergrad, then moved to Fuqua for my MMS program. During my undergrad I had a professor who introduced me to Cam Harvey, and basically during that time we were going through the 2008 mortgage crisis. I learned about economic recessions and we felt it in my own household; my father was a Duke researcher, and we even encountered a situation in which his labs were running out of research grant money. There was a time where he actually lost his job due to the fact that some of the research labs were closing down. We felt some of the global reverberations of this crisis at home. Upon learning a lot of this, I did dedicate a substantial amount of my life to trying to understand these mortage-backed security bonds. In fact, after Fuqua I transitioned into finance from a more biology and chemistry-focused major. I actually worked in mortgage-backed securities, with structured finance products, and basically creating these and understanding some of the nuances of them. I spent a good half a decade pricing these securities and creating quantitative models around them. This led me down the path of connecting with professors like Cam Harvey and Doug Breeden on understanding the various nuances around these products.

One dynamic that I got from working in this industry was that there’s just so many layers of complication affiliated with these products, and these complications can basically obfuscate certain levels of value pertaining to them. After I left the structured finance industry, I promised myself that never again would I want to join an industry with a huge bubble. Eventually, I did get to blockchain and I kind of had to break my promise. I was actually somewhat disillusioned when I was working in structured finance because I noticed social dynamics that didn’t really make sense. Because everything was so top-down driven—the people at the top weren’t able to see exactly what these mortgage bonds were valued at. The valuations were still somewhat obfuscated. I got to see firsthand some of the blatant disregard for assessments of these securities. I say during my over half a decade in the structured finance mortgage-backed securities space I learned why these things caused a global financial crisis, and I became very disillusioned with some of the integrity of our global financial systems construing that.

Something that Fuqua taught me that gave me hope was that through innovation in classes like Cam Harvey’s innovation and cryptoventures class, there are going to be ways of solving a lot of these problems. There are going to be ways of mitigating a lot of the risks and a lot of the impending downturns that can happen from these financial products. It’s just a matter of innovation and technology. Fuqua taught me to obtain a little bit more hope into some of the systems that can be built around preexisting financial structures and global economies. Definitely learned a lot here.

Who was your favorite professor?

I guess I can’t say Cam Harvey because that’s the obvious answer. I learned quite a bit from Bob Nau class in decision sciences, and we had actually connected after my graduation from Fuqua. At the time, I was very interested in game theory, and we talked about different forms of Nash Equilibrium. I also reached out to Professor Nash in Princeton before in the past in trying to get some of this thoughts regarding some of these dynamics, but we had done this prior to even knowing about blockchain. At that time, I was very intellectually curious about some of these mechanism designs that can exist within a system. I’m very interested in some of our practices in the decision sciences space.

What’s your favorite Fuqua memory?

There are so many great memories! In addition to doing the MMS program, I have spent some time working with different professors here, and I think one of the best memories that I have is helping to implement one of the coding examples for the innovations and cryptoventures class this year. I worked with a Duke senior undergrad in computer science and we created a coding module for the class in which we facilitated an Ethereum transaction utilizing one of our tools. We created a test ether environment where the students could program their very own smart contract within a browser application, and basically interact with Ethereum watching. I was very excited about that. I thought that it was a great opportunity to showcase some of this technology to existing students, and it felt very good knowing that this tech was being utilized in a global business setting at Fuqua. It’s always great being able to see some of the work utilized in a real-world scenario. It was great.

What does Team Fuqua mean to you?

Team Fuqua feels like a community. Growing up, I was a bit more of an introverted person, and I didn’t really recognize the importance of being part of a community until really finding a way to fit in with one. Duke and Fuqua have been tremendous parts of my life growing up in a business setting and developing as a professional and as an individual. Team Fuqua is recognizing the strength that a community can bring to various business settings and scenarios, especially in support of the professional endeavors and developments in innovations and new technology. It’s been so tremendous knowing that there’s a school, an organization, that is both prominent as well as open-minded and innovative. Knowing that there are opportunities created within a globally recognized business school is pretty tremendous and opens up more and more opportunities. I see so much value in being a part of that community. Like I mentioned before, one of the main things I learned from Fuqua is that there is always hope for instantiating various forms of change and innovation. I think the community definitely provides a lot of meaningful insight pertaining to that hope and understanding of society.