Interview Series: Matthew Mcilwham, Founder of Newcastle University Cryptocurrency and Blockchain Society

Tell us a little about yourself, how did you get introduced to the world of cryptocurrencies and blockchain?

I’m a recent graduate from Newcastle University, and completed a quantitative finance and risk management degree. The first time I learnt about cryptocurrencies was back in 2015, where a friend introduced me to bitcoin, and how it was possible to send money cross-border with extremely low fees. Initially, I was buying and selling Bitcoin,however, towards the end of 2016 I started to research the technology more and more, and this is where my real interest began. The technology has great potential, in the way it can encrypt information, reduce the difficulty of audit and disrupt the current means of payment.


How did the society start?

While I was completing my final year, I decide to make use of the opportunity which I still had being a student at Newcastle University.I realized there was a great gap between people who knew about the blockchain and people who wanted to know about the blockchain. Therefore, I realized the best way to connect the two,was to build the Newcastle University Cryptocurrency and Blockchain society. This would be the best way to create a network of students who wanted to share knowledge on the Blockchain.  


What does the society do? What backgrounds are involved within the society?

Every week, usually on tuesdays,we would meet and cover the most relevant topics in the industry. The community members are actually very varied,there are members who are very interested in Blockchain and continue to research it actively, and there are students who have heard of it for the first time six months ago. In terms of background, we have people from computer science, business, finance, law… there is no limitation really, there are people from a variety of backgrounds, which is good to see because blockchain can be applied to any area to be honest.


In terms of the content covered during the weekly meetings, would you say that the focus lies more on the technical side or the non-technical?

We try to keep it half and half. Every Tuesday I put an hour into providing information on the technology, potentially breaking down a white paper or explaining how the technology works. We speak about how blockchain works in Bitcoin, how smart contracts work in Ethereum, how the tangle ledger works in IOTA. The other half we would spend covering cryptocurrency trading and the social aspects. The group is still at very early stages at the moment, we have I would say about 30 regular members and around 100 overall.

What are some of the main topics you cover at events?

The main idea is to found a ground foundation of interests, so we try to provide a basic introduction to how a coin’s technology works, and people can build upon that if they have further interests. We touch on the basics of every aspect and in the future we might develop these aspects further. The main point is to circumvent the barrier of entry where people want to know about blockchain but may find it difficult to understand some of the existing research. It’s a beginners introduction upon which people can build on in the future.   


What are the plans for 2018? In what direction do you think your society is heading towards?

I like to keep the society quite tight in the sense that I don’t want people coming in just for trading, as you might know there are people that are just looking for the profits and react negatively when the cryptocurrency market has a bad day. This is not going to help the long-term growth of the idea. What I like at the moment is that all the people do have an interest in trade but they are actually are also interested in the technology and understand that it needs time for it to prove itself. I think 50 members is a good aim for this year and hopefully the society will grow next year as crypto sees more mass adoption, we will probably keep the same structure in terms of teaching.


Have you done any workshops with companies in the industry? If you were to do more in the future, what sort of workshop would you be interested in doing?

At the moment we are still in the process of organizing workshops. We have one with Oracle which is going to be like a coding workshop, potentially a hackathon. It would essentially be a coding workshop where you can create something simple on the blockchain, build a smart contract, we would like to build our own trading bot with our own API keys.

We’ve got a talk from Oracle and how to integrate the cloud within blockchain. I’ve been trying to chase up IBM to talk about the Hyperledger, and how they are using it to advance blockchain between companies. I would also like a bank to come in such as the Bank of England that has been trying to implement a cryptocurrency for a long time. Also, it would be interesting to hear from a audit firm to come in and explain how blockchain could impact the future audit.Lastly, I believe that an IoT company would give us an interesting angle to blockchain , and obviously CryptoTalent. The attempt in trying to find blockchain-oriented jobs for students, is an obvious gap so we would definitely benefit from your concept.

Do you work with other student societies on both the local and national level? How are blockchain societies progressing in the UK generally speaking?  

We work in collaboration with the Newcastle University Computer and Technology Society. I have also tried to reach out to different societies that might have interest in crypto, which could be the finance society, entrepreneurship society, investing society and Northumbria University, which has identical societies to ours.

When I first started setting up I reached out to Leeds University Cryptocurrency and Blockchain society, there were in a similar boat to us. They were also trying to convince Leeds University to make it a ratified society. Furthermore,we have social media channel connecting various universities in the UK such as Cambridge, Oxford, Liverpool, which are also Universities with either blockchain or cryptocurrency societies.


We’ve seen that in many universities, students are aware blockchain but do not know how to get involved. Would you say this is the case in your university?

I would say that a majority of students don’t know about anything about cryptocurrencies or blockchain. There are a few people that have heard about Bitcoin and they would like to no more, and I would say that people that do know about it simply see it as a way to make profit. It is quite hard to find people that are genuinely interested in the technology. There is a very few number of people that are aware that this technology may be implemented in their working life later on.

In general, are your club members interested in getting employed in the blockchain sector? What is the image that they have in regards to job types, salary levels?

I am exposed to friends that work in recruitment and when they talk about jobs in blockchain they talk about the average salary being £150,000. This only applies to an experienced backend developer. For students quite a lot of people are concerned that there are no entry level jobs. I think there is a bit of a gap for students to find a graduate job in the blockchain industry at the moment.Due to businesses wanting to hire experienced developers that can be cross-trained instead of bringing in new people and training them from scratch. They need a team that already know what they are doing. However, I imagine there will come a time where students will have access to entry level jobs in the near future.

Interested to read more on the Newcastle University Cryptocurrency and Blockchain Society? Click here to visit the societies page

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