tl;dr - This post looks into major pain points that development teams experience in Polkadot, advocates for making great developer experience an ecosystem-wide effort, and proposes a strategic mindset and a few tactics to go forward
Like many ecosystems, Polkadot is feeling the effects of the bear market. Some teams are turning their attention towards Ethereum to gain exposure to its capital and users. Some teams run out of funds and head for the exit. Some teams lose access to or face significant issues obtaining Treasury funding that they previously relied on and reconsider their business strategy. Many more teams are not yet there but are already facing related symptomatic issues. These dynamics affect morale and the optimistic outlook that was previously felt much stronger.
Everyone feels this evolutionary pressure.
At the same time, Polkadot is almost universally on the leading edge of crypto research. The Polkadot 1.0 roadmap is delivered, with Parachains offering a forward-looking scalable solution to anyone wishing to establish a sovereign and reliable base in Web3. The Polkadot 2.0 roadmap is starting to shine through with concept drafts like coretime, coreplay, and corecast. Polkadot will expand its scope to support smart contracts and additional chain/rollup types as first-class consumers of Polkadot blockspace.
How do we reconcile those two perspectives?
Many great projects in history failed despite having superior technology because the market turned against them. We must not let this happen! The success of Polkadot is crucial to giving humanity a positive outlook on Web3 and democratizing the Web. While a world without Polkadot is possible, I want to see a world where the vision and passion of the people in Polkadot will have a positive impact that is recognized in history books.
In recent days, many people in the ecosystem discussed these current issues, the possible root causes, and how to move forward. In this article, I want to summarize the discussions I have observed and share my perspective. We will begin by looking at the current symptoms. Then I will put forward a few definitions that look like they could find consensus and propose a few strategic pillars for advancing the Polkadot ecosystem. We will close with a few specific suggestions for initiatives.
Let’s discuss some commonly mentioned pain points:
- Parachain development is rough
- Parachain teams feeling unsupported and unheard by Parity
- Uncertainty around Treasury funding
- Perception of Parity’s focus on enterprise vs. Web3 values.
- Polkadot’s lack of representation in the thought leadership space.
- VCs fud Polkadot
Parachain development is rough. While 1.0 is delivered, bootstrapping a chain is still incurring considerable effort and costs (running collator networks/initiatives, testnets, DevOps, QA, customer support, integration support, and Substrate maintenance) with a time to market of 2-4 years. Projects like Tanssi are removing obstacles (by supplying better templates, integration support, running collators, etc.) and reducing the time to market, and core contracts might reduce the development effort in the future, but we still have a long way to go.
Parachain teams feeling unsupported and unheard by Parity. This is not universal and teams give different accounts of this. Parity is hosting several public and semi-private formats for teams to gather around certain themes and advance them together. I for example am invited as a Mangata representative to a monthly DeFi call for DeFi teams in the space. Earlier this year there was also a survey specifically targeted at developers in the ecosystem. There is also 1-on-1 consulting with teams that have secured a parachain slot on Polkadot. I believe this issue is felt more strongly by teams that are a bit further out from the “center” of Polkadot’s attention. E.g. as a member of a team that has been building since 2020 but has not procured a Polkadot slot yet, my last official 1-on-1 with Parity was in 2020. Another common pain point mentioned in this context is that Parity strives to maintain neutrality, which results in them avoiding mentioning specific projects. The Polkadot website for example has not yet managed to explain to a prospective user what you can actually do in the Polkadot ecosystem. No mention of specific projects or products. In the year 2023. 7 years after the whitepaper.
Uncertainty around Treasury funding. Projects that have built their business case reliant on Treasury funding feel uncertain, as OpenGov is still fresh and has not established basic rails and guidelines and what is expected to get funded and what not. I have started a more in-depth discussion on the issue here: Towards a Treasury Budget
Perception of Parity’s focus on enterprise vs. Web3 values. A contentious discussion. Many cypherpunks and OGs feel that focus on Enterprise adoption has little or negative value, while others feel the complete opposite. There is a perception that this focus on Enterprise adoption is counter to Web3 values. Parity employees have rejected the notion that Parity is overly focused on Enterprise adoption.
Polkadot’s lack of perception in the thought leadership space. Some people are observing that Ethereum and Cosmos enjoy much better communication than Polkadot with those. To me it looks like this is because Polkadot has coherent tech leadership, which resulted in some amount of bubble-ification. Polkadot was a thought leader for many years focused on delivering the 1.0 roadmap and had little active communication with the remaining crypto space. Cosmos meanwhile which is much more federated has built a mental model that interacts more closely with Ethereum. I would argue that this problem has been observed already since the beginning of the year and Protocol Berg this year saw Polkadot OGs like Gavin and Rob engage with thought leaders from Ethereum and Cosmos.
VCs fud Polkadot. Some parachain project leaders report that VCs are giving them a hard time for being Polkadot projects. This indicates that VCs get nervous about their ROI and don’t see enough measurable success. I believe this has to do with narratives to a great extent, but there are still systematic causes that we need to attack.
The root cause of the issues described above is one thing: developer experience (DX). The way developers experience the ecosystem.
Launching a parachain is hard, expensive, and takes at least 4 people and 2 years (except GM chain). And somewhere along the way, many teams realize that they probably didn’t need to build a chain to build an app to begin with.
There is definitely a market for parachains, appchains, rollups, etc. We need them to extend the ecosystem with additional processing capabilities and features. An analogy is how we extend computers with new components like CPU → GPU → TPU, HDD → SSD to gain new, better properties. Parachains also offer better sovereignty.
But at the same time, it is clear that many apps don’t need to be a chain and will revert to being smart contracts, go chainless, or become a secret, third thing eventually. Operating under these conditions is tough. Crypto is volatile and working on the bleeding edge makes it even more uncertain.
I want to offer an alternative perspective and then explain why we should work towards it…
Imagine a world where Polkadot has become a rich marketplace of experimentation and innovation. Prospective developers find a lot of helpful resources and documentation. They have the tooling to
- (fast) try out building in virtual environments that show immediate results,
- (powerful) access all of Polkadot’s primitives and parachain features,
- (easy) have access to unified APIs that capture many use cases, and are able to deploy a new parachain within minutes, and
- (fun) there are tons of great people who share a vision and positive spirit that makes you want to stay forever.
Such a place would give a great impression to developers and would provide a strong foundation for organic growth. There would be lots of experiments inspiring each other and an influx of great minds.
But why should we focus on DX and not on onboarding more users or a big enterprise push?
When is the ecosystem successful? You can pick many KPIs and they will all correlate on a large enough time horizon. Price of DOT, blockspace sold, on-chain volume, TVL, number of users, etc…
I argue that the best measure of success is the number of new and diverse apps being deployed. A big number of new apps means we did a lot of things right in the past in terms of acquiring new developers:
- they became aware of and interested in(!) the ecosystem and started to build
- they had access to resources like documentation, developer relationship advocates, other teams
- they actually were able to build far enough to eventually deploy
A large number of new apps being deployed means there is a great chance that some of them will be successful and that we are creating an environment that is inducing experimentation and innovation.
It also ties in and correlates with many other KPIs. If we have many apps:
- Polkadot sells more blockspace
- It will attract new users of the apps
- There will be speculative volume around those projects, attracting more TVL
Considering everything that has been said so far, there is one conclusion:
Positive Developer Experience must be the #1 priority of our ecosystem.
Memorize the 3-2-1 rule of developer satisfaction. There are:
- 3 tiers of Polkadot technology
- 2 types of developers we want to speak to
- 1 common goal: PMF
3 tiers of Polkadot technology: Polkadot consists of 3 tiers of technology:
- The Polkadot relay chain: The thing that produces blockspace.
- The parachains and other future blockspace consumers
Parity and the Polkadot fellowship are building (1). It’s a complex machine and nobody should be forced to hear about it unless they want to. Parity’s original job was to promote Polkadot to parachain builders (2). This was sufficient for many years. But our ecosystem has grown and now that parachains are here, we as an ecosystem need to focus on delivering actual apps (3) to end users. So the requirements on ecosystem marketing are splitting and now targeting…
2 types of developers we want to speak to: There are chain developers and app developers. For a long time, we as an ecosystem conflated the two and assumed that everyone wanting to build an app in Polkadot would want to build a chain. But that is not right. As a dev, you should always only put as little effort as necessary into the environment. Your core focus should always be the pure app experience. Thus we now arrive at the these two types of developers that we want to make happy.
This implies a perspective shift: Instead of just chain developers, we need to think about the whole value chain and how app developers that build apps for the eventual end user are catered to. We do this by focusing on…
1 common goal: Product-Market Fit: Polkadot has not yet reached product-market fit. PMF means that the product has found a sufficient market. It’s unclear if Polkadot is already there. Who is the market? Since we define ecosystem success as many devs building many apps, the market is app developers. Devs still have a hard time building apps, so we can safely say that we don’t yet have a proper product-market fit.
The basic mindset to converge toward product-market fit is: Talk, Learn, Improve. Talk with as many devs as possible. Learn from the conversations. Improve the process to make the product work better for them. Our goal is to make the developer experience as good as possible by talking with developers and learning how we can do better and implementing it.
There are 4 specific improvements that were mentioned by ecosystem actors in the previous days. I am adding my own, fifth suggestion at the end:
- Ask Parity to prioritize customer success with dedicated key accounts for as many prospective developer teams as possible
- Increase Polkadot’s visibility in events and discussions. Establish more thought leadership across ecosystem boundaries.
- Embrace cross-collaboration and cross-seeding of ideas by inviting members from other ecosystems to our events.
- Highlight existing Polkadot projects much more
- Make Developer Experience a priority that Polkadot Governance demonstratively puts on the agenda and funds activities for
I know that it is easy to point fingers at some parts of the ecosystem and say: “They should do better.” But the truth is: We all are Polkadot. Polkadot’s biggest asset might not be its tech, but the people that are here. We all share the vision of a Web3 that puts ownership of the web in people’s hands and allows everyone to shape it. Polkadot is rich in people who carry that vision and make it a reality. It is upon all of us to help other devs join the ecosystem and create an environment that kicks ass in terms of developer experience.
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