There’s one fact that you may overlook at first sight: Bitcoin is software. That means is just another application you can run on your computer, very much like Google Chrome or Microsoft Office. Of course, the functionality and purpose are entirely different, but they’re composed of the same: numbers; code that only can be read by a machine.
That code can’t be created and work completely by itself, though. There are people behind it: first, devising and building it; second, following its operations and checking if it works as promised (it may appear some evil bugs); and third, improving constantly the software with new features and stronger security.
Thanks to that, the first versions of Google Chrome and Microsoft Office (for example), aren’t the same at all as the current ones. In these cases, the companies behind the software (Alphabet Inc. and Microsoft Corp.) are in charge to hire developers that take care of the task. So… what about Bitcoin? Who is behind the code, its maintenance and improvement?
Probably you’ve already heard about Bitcoin decentralization, and how nobody owns Bitcoin as a cryptocurrency. But hey, that doesn’t mean there aren’t people at all behind the curtains, maintaining and improving the code, and even giving some money for it.
There’s no only “one” Bitcoin
For starting, you should know there’s not only “one” Bitcoin software. Satoshi Nakamoto created and published the first version of the open-source code with a free license, which means anyone can replicate, modify and even sell that software. Therefore, that’s exactly what everyone did (and that’s how the first altcoins were born, but that’s another story).
Once Satoshi was gone for good (since 2010), the version he created and maintained passed into the hands of other people, and it ended up being called Bitcoin Core. So, Bitcoin Core is the first software implementation of Bitcoin, and it’s still the most popular version. To date, there are around 10.696 nodes (computers and miners) in total being part of the Bitcoin Network, and 10.497 of them are running the version of Bitcoin Core. That is 98.1% of dominance, according to CoinDance.
So, yeah, Bitcoin Core is leading the development of Bitcoin source code. Although, that doesn’t mean they have full control of the currency. As Bitcoin.org states about it:
“Nobody owns the Bitcoin network much like no one owns the technology behind email. Bitcoin is controlled by all Bitcoin users around the world. While developers are improving the software, they can’t force a change in the Bitcoin protocol because all users are free to choose what software and version they use. In order to stay compatible with each other, all users need to use software complying with the same rules. Bitcoin can only work correctly with a complete consensus among all users. Therefore, all users and developers have a strong incentive to protect this consensus.”
Basically, this means if you don’t like Bitcoin Core, you can still use Bitcoin through another version with valid rules (there are more than five of them). However, Bitcoin Core is, to date, the safest and best-kept version.
The Bitcoin Core maintainers
Now we are going to properly answer who is behind Bitcoin. Since Bitcoin Core is the most used version, we can talk about their current developers. They’re more than 700 from all around the world because anyone with knowledge can contribute to Bitcoin development.
Of course, there’s some primus inter pares (leaders) among them. For practical reasons, there is an established hierarchy among collaborators, considering the meritocracy. This means that those who have been longer there and have contributed more to the code, also have more final decision-making power.
Likewise, we have the “maintainers” positions for the code on GitHub. These devs possess privileged access and are responsible for managing requests to include new code proposals to the main repository (pull requests). Finally, the one in the role of “lead maintainer” is ultimately responsible for the appointment of new maintainers and the last implementation of new versions.
Let’s know a bit about these Bitcoin Core maintainers.
Wladimir van der Laan
He’s the current lead maintainer of Bitcoin Core, and there’s no so much to say about him (the Bitcoin Core devs are quite reserved). He lives in the Netherlands and is developing for Bitcoin Core since 2011. He’s done 1,711 checks to the code (commits), and known pseudonyms of him are laanwj, wumpus and orionwl.
In September 2020, van der Laan confirmed he was taking a break from his duties as lead maintainer in Bitcoin Core. Maybe he’ll be back later, or maybe a new lead maintainer is on the way.
He was the QA/Testing maintainer but apparently left the role in 2018. Other reports say he’s still a maintainer, and, at least, he’s very active inside the Bitcoin repository on GitHub. He’s done 1,329 commits: beyond that, we know very little about him. According to his GitHub account, he’s from Germany, now living in New York and working for Chaincode Labs.
With a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Leuven (Belgium) and known as “sipa” on GitHub, he’s a frequent Bitcoin contributor (1,277 commits). Ideas like SegWit and Schnorr Signatures (to improve Bitcoin scalability), came from him. Wuille is also the co-founder of Blockstream, a specialized firm in sidechains with blockchain.
Swiss, cypherpunk, and hacker (according to his GitHub), Schnelli is the current GUI maintainer on Bitcoin Core, with 508 commits. He’s also the co-founder of Shift Cryptosecurity, whose flagship product is the BitBox hardware wallet. Previously, he’s developed apps for firms such as Coop and Credit Suisse.
“MeshCollider” on GitHub, he’s the wallet maintainer since 2018. He’s a Cryptography Ph.D. student at The University of Auckland (New Zealand) and has done 79 commits on the Bitcoin repository. Apparently, he’s the youngest member of the current team, if we’re guided by his profile on Twitter.
He’s the last addition to the exclusive group of Bitcoin Core maintainers, being accepted in 2019. According to his Twitter account, he’s from Australia and also collaborates with the agritech firm Hectare. Known as “fanquake” on GitHub, he’s done 477 commits so far, since at least 2013.
Additional (and important) devs
Bitcoin Core has few maintainers (because it’s required a high level of work, trust and time), but that doesn’t mean they do all the job. As we mentioned above, there are more than 700 contributors and, among them, besides the maintainers, there are some remarkable devs as well.
We can mention here a bunch of them: Matt Corallo (648 commits), John Newberry (610 commits), Cory Fields (595 commits), Andrew Chow (435 commits), Luke Dashjr (411 commits), Russ Yanofsky (366 commits), Carl Dong (128 commits), Suhas Daftuar (278 commits) and Alex Morcos (209 commits). The latter two are the founders of Chaincode Labs, a company part of the next topic to mention here.
Do the Bitcoin devs get paid for their job?
The first answer to that might be a “not” because this is mostly a voluntary job for open-source software and decentralized currency. However, even Bitcoin has its sponsors, and most of them are companies interested in its wellbeing (because they work with it).
These companies (or individual investors) donate certain quantities to the main devs or even hire them full-time as Bitcoin developers. Indeed, according to a report by BitMEX, Chaincode Labs, Lightning Labs, Blockstream and the MIT Digital Currency Initiative (MIT DCI) are the more prolific sponsors.
From the devs we mentioned above, Alex Morcos, Suhas Daftuar, John Newberry, Marco Falke, Russ Yanofsky, and Carl Dong are getting paid by Chaincode Labs. Cory Fields and van deer Laan are being sponsored by MIT DCI. Peter Wuille and Andrew Chow came courtesy of Blockstream.
Finally, Michael Ford is been funded by BitMEX itself, and Samuel Dobson by the entrepreneur and investor John Pfeffer.
It’s important to note that not every Bitcoin developer receive some kind of funding: most of them are volunteers, or, as is the case with the maintainers, they started as it and only much later received something.
There are way lot more people behind Bitcoin, but most of them are anonymous, just like its creator. We don’t know who is the major part of them, but we should thank they’re there, making it possible to use Bitcoin.