The first thing you’ll notice about Amiti Uttarwar is her warm smile. The second thing you’ll notice is the gracious humility with which she steers a conversation, quick to give credit and hesitant to take. Persist, though, and despite the sleight of hand, an undeniable fact quickly comes to the fore – Amiti Uttarwar is the face of The New American Dream.
The daughter of Indian immigrants from western Maharashtra state, Amiti is the first confirmed woman developer of bitcoin, a $170 billion market cap asset changing the face of privacy, security, and value. Though born and raised in the bay area, the geographic and spiritual center of disruptive tech for the past half-century, she has a global perspective stemming from myriad experiences working, studying, and living across the country or with others across the world. Fiercely determined, Amiti is a breath of fresh air compared to the common, tired tropes of Silicon Valley today. Her commitment to high quality work while extending the ladder to others has been a through line of her entire life. She’s carving a new path now, not just blazing trails as the daughter of immigrants, but creating new models for work while supporting the open source tech she believes in.
[Ed note: Investing in cryptocoins or tokens is highly speculative and the market is largely unregulated. Anyone considering it should be prepared to lose their entire investment.]
Daughter of a Dirt Road
Like many immigrant families, the Uttarwars came to the US in two parts as they gained a toehold into America. Her father emigrated in 1984, attending FIT in Florida for his masters before making it up to Sacramento and, eventually, the bay area. Mom followed in 1985, a gap of a year during which they had to overcome challenges beget by distance that are unfathomable in an era of ubiquitous communication technology. There was no glitz or glam, just sweat, persistence, and the smell of cow dung in the summer that wafted off the homes in the tiny dirt road village from whence they came.
Like many from back home, the marriage was arranged. Her mom had Amiti’s older sister at age 21, and Amiti would follow four-and-a-half years later. Despite the distance and hardship, they built a life in a foreign land that is no longer foreign today. Unstoppably hard-working, it’s apparent that Amiti owes a debt of gratitude to her parents. A debt she is more than happy to honor and pay.
“Their journey is amazing. Anywhere I could go in the world today would be less unfamiliar than the US was to my parents when they came,” she marvels. And she’s right. In many ways, Amiti’s parents were the last wave of emigration as truly blind exploration. There was no Google maps, no Tripadvisor. When he stepped onto American soil, her father had no way to contact his ride even were he to have one. Nay, your options were be patient, be hopeful, and, barring that, create reality.
The soft clay of Amiti’s dedication to building has been evident from early in her life. During elementary school, she would participate in fundraisers like the American Heart Association’s Jumprope for Heart. Throughout middle school and high school, she was a member and eventual board member of Girls For A Change, a national 501(c)3 based out of San Jose, CA that “seeks to empower girls and young women by inviting them to design, lead, fund and implement social change projects that tackle issues girls face in their own neighborhoods.”
Always dedicated to change, Amiti was fascinated by reconfiguring models and finding a sustainable way to effect realistic progress that fit into the realities of a market economy. She was active in D-Rev, a non-profit focused on designing marketable product solutions for health and human needs in emerging economies. “They would innovate really cheap versions of technology that could be used for purifying water or farming technology or irrigation or stoves that were much more fuel-efficient,” she says. “It was much more targeted at people below the poverty line but using the consumer model so people would purchase these tools that would help them. It was to create something that was accessible and to empower individuals by giving them tools at their level and that suit their needs. There’s a mission that’s centered around social change or improving our societal structures but the way we are seeking out this mission isn’t purely altruistic or charity-driven. There is a business, but that’s not the sole focus”
To absolutely no one’s surprise, it didn’t take long for the fortunes of the Uttarwar family to propel upwards. By second grade, she was accepted to The Harker School, a private, co-educational institution in San Jose, CA known as one of the nation’s top college prep academies. Post-secondary, though, her path and passions were still developing. “Coming out of high school mostly I was grappling with existential questions, trying to understand what the world is like, trying to understand what the self is like. Mostly it was a time for self-reflection” she says. An avid yogi now, the seeds of that physical and spiritual exploration were planted during this period.
While in high school, and in keeping with the focus of her non-profit and community work, Amiti both enjoyed and excelled at math and computer science. It didn’t hurt to be growing up in the heart of the tech revolution, the influence of which has come into sharper relief as she looks back. Amiti reflects back on her time growing up in the bay, saying “What I realized as an adult that I didn’t as a kid is how much exposure to the tech scene there is”.
That exposure would lead her to Carnegie Mellon, another institution with a sterling reputation in the math and the sciences. It was also a growing tech hub, with outposts by such venerable names as Google, Uber, and SAP looking to capitalize on the strong talent being nurtured at CMU. While there, she majored in Information Systems. Although not the more narrowly defined and better known Computer Science track, it fit her. “The idea of the major is bringing together business and computer science with a focus on practical application and answering the question of how do you build the right technical solution,” she remarks. Six years later, she’s doing exactly that, with the headline tag from her LinkedIn reading “Professional Problem Solver”.
Back to the Bay
Close with her family, passionate about solving problems with technology, and perhaps just a little bit missing the weather, Amiti headed back to the bay after graduation in 2014. She quickly found herself working for a few startups, learning what she did and didn’t want to pursue.
She landed first at Wanelo, a “shopping app for Generation Z”. She loved the engineering culture, describing a high trust environment focused on solving problems and not assigning blame. Yet, she was unfulfilled. “I struggle with how fundamental consumerism is in our social interactions and was searching for something different,” she explains. Simbi, her second job, was just that. According to their LinkedIn profile, Simbi is “an online marketplace that runs on talents, services, and skills, not cash, credit, or check” that “provides a way for freelancers and independent workers to turn their unbooked hours into real economic value.”
Although much more chaotic in the classic startup sense, this was the type of community she was looking for. “I’m very into the mission of human-to-human interaction. Rebelling against consumerism, and finding an alternative. A murder mystery party is something different, it’s a fun way to explore an alternate model of social interaction, we can co-create a story for a night”
The engineering team was primarily based out of Russia, presenting no small set of challenges for a software engineer still early in her career. However, the platform and the company were full of passionate people looking to share those hobbies. The grassroots nature of the platform and network meant participants weren’t necessarily optimizing for value, but rather, according to Amiti, “just looking to interface with strangers about topics they enjoy.”
Six months later, and bitcoin was booming. Although not yet fully bitten by the crypto bug, at Simbi Amiti “Was able to wrap [my] head around how alternative economies already exist, and how they scale.” Things moved quickly as they are wont to do in crypto, and “Suddenly everyone in San Francisco worked in ‘the blockchain scene’” she says, laughing. Although slightly sardonic, her wry smile begets a more fundamental, moving truth. Thousands of miles from their birth home, Amiti’s parents had given her something neither she nor they could ever have anticipated. She was in the heart of it, and she took notice.
At this point, Amiti was hooked. She loved her work and the platform Simbi was building, but it wasn’t compelling in the way cryptocurrency was. She started working nights and weekends, reading the bitcoin white paper and educating herself on the ins and outs of the network. It was the first time she had found something this professionally captivating that would dominate her time outside of work.
Looking around, she saw Coinbase had a great network and received good reviews from friends. She interviewed at a few other places to prepare, but the goal was clear, and Amiti applied to their crypto team. Unfortunately, her resume ended up in a pile, and was initially rejected. Back to the drawing board, or, in this case, the whiteboard.
San Francisco being the forum of static electricity it is, Amiti eventually met a Coinbase manager at an offsite she was invited to. That’s not to say this time was any easier. She wasn’t spared a coding challenge, a couple of on-sites, and a few tough interviews. But this time, she was in.
Never Look Back, Never Settle
At Coinbase a little over a year, Amiti barely took a breath. It was clear this was her passion, but she wanted to make it her life’s work. The ecosystem around bitcoin development, however, is still nascent, and though there are amazing companies and and opportunities, the reality is she wanted to go deeper. A theme that continues to crop up in Amiti’s life, over and over again, is the inability to settle for anything less than excellence at the most foundational levels.
While Coinbase is a blue chip name in the crypto space, the most pressing work to her seemed to be on the protocol underpinning bitcoin itself, known as Bitcoin Core. With over $170bn in market cap value today, bitcoin was quickly becoming one of the most important projects in the world for defending freedom of expression, privacy, and security. Yet, despite billions in transactions on the network daily, there is merely a handful of developers working on the code full time. Amiti, however, would not be deterred.
One of the few fully-funded projects in the space is Chaincode Labs. Co-founded by Alex Morcos and Suhas Daftuar in 2014, Chaincode is a research and development center based out of Manhattan. Much as The Lost Generation flocked to Paris between the wars, Chaincode Labs has served as a Schelling Point for the furtherance of bitcoin development, consistently attracting the hottest and most sought after talent in the space. When they announced their Chaincode Residency for 2019, the speakers and mentors list was a veritable whos who of virtually every single one of the most important names in the space. But one name was missing: Amiti Uttarwar.
Not for long though. Like the Little Engine That Could, Amiti kept chugging along. Realizing this was her opportunity to get closer to the heart of the code base, she spoke to her managers at Coinbase about applying. In a testament to her drive and talent, they quickly agreed to a short leave of absence while she completed the program. She was accepted to the class of 2019 residents, finding her calling at the atomic level of the protocol. She was torn, as she still loved her job at Coinbase. Once she got a taste of the base layer, though, she never looked back.
Post-Chaincode has been a whirlwind for Amiti. Her demo day presentation for Chaincode has been shared across the industry, and her talk “Attacking Bitcoin Core” is one of the more comprehensive yet accessible presentations on the bitcoin network, specific issues in securing it, and general philosophy available today. Amiti has rocketed to the upper echelons of the industry, with invitations to speak at the largest bitcoin VR meetup and a guest appearance on Marty Bent and Matt Odell’s highly-regarded (and extremely cheeky) podcast Tales From The Crypt. Just one of numerous media appearances, what separates Amiti from others who have walked her path is not just the technical skill set she possesses but the earnestness with which she builds her case for the technology. It doesn’t hurt that she’s a charming, witty, and humorous guest speaker to boot.
For most of the past year, she’s been sponsored by Xapo, a Hong Kong-based crypto wallet and banking company founded by serial entrepreneur Wences Casares backed by some of the largest investors in the space. Most recently though, she found herself back in the news as the recipient of a landmark joint $150,000 grant by OKCoin and HDR Global, the parent company of the BitMEX exchange.
Focus on Privacy
Her work focuses on two main areas of the network – privacy and test coverage. From the privacy perspective, she has worked on reducing the speed and frequency of message rebroadcasts of unconfirmed transactions. And while at first it may sound boring, her work on extending and deepening the test connections available in the network is widely considered some of the most critical progress being made. For software development, you can never guarantee a piece of code or software will do what your client wants. You can only guarantee it will do what you say it does, and that comes via testing. For platform apps like Facebook or the latest note taking app, if it crashes or glitches, it might irk users and slow down revenue. But for a piece of mission critical infrastructure like bitcoin, life savings may be at risk, and everyone from the Federal Reserve to users buying a coffee are watching and relying on the stability of the network. By putting in the time and thought to open connections to test corners of the network as to now uncovered, she is clearing the brush for more features and ensuring reliability well into the future.
For her part, Amiti is quick to lift all voices, emphasizing the distributed nature of the bitcoin community and all its myriad contributors. “Even if there’s 30-40 people contributing to Bitcoin Core full time, there are so many layers of participation. People who participate in the mailing list discussion, researchers, people that do technical writing about changes that are happening, people that are educators either via a podcast or reporting and spreading the message. People that are making art which I think, personally, is so important and interesting. There are so many people involved in the bitcoin ecosystem that make changes possible. That’s why I value these educational aspects. Understanding enough to cast your vote at whatever level of interaction is of interest to you is really important to my version of bitcoin being successful.”
In her talk “Attacking Bitcoin Core” , Amiti has identified five design principles for peer-to-peer (p2p) and the bitcoin network, namely that p2p should be reliable, timely, accessible, private, and upgradeable. One of those goals, though, stands out for her. “Accessibility is one of my five p2p design goals, but I also see it as a human goal in creating educational content and mentoring people onboarding to bitcoin, ensuring that people can participate in the ecosystem.”
As an independently funded bitcoin developer, when not focusing on outreach and education, she spends most of her days reading code, reviewing pull requests (PRs), and generally figuring out how things work. It’s an exploratory process more than anything, and she has great fun doing it. But that doesn’t mean she expects others to have the same passion. For Amiti, her work is meant to enable others to contribute in their own ways. She’s focused on growing the pie, instead of taking home the biggest piece.
“To me, it’s not enough to say, read the manual. Or read the source code. Like, I’m down to read the source code but I want to do it so you don’t have to. I want someone else to focus on monetary policy, or developing applications for different geographic locations. I want people to focus on where they can make an impact. There are also human interactions that surround it. Fundamentally what I want is a money that is global and inclusive. And that is on so many layers.”
Hard Things The Hard Way
Amiti has never shied from a challenge. From her earliest days, she’s been a warrior focused on lifting others up, building products, and fundamentally altering the fabric of a community to create a sustainable way forward for progress. After years of searching for her ikigai, working on bitcoin has provided a vector for holistic, growth-oriented innovation coupled with a market component that has always fascinated her. Through her work on bitcoin, she is able to integrate her interests and talents with her values. “I think the cornerstone of it is the best way to be selfish is to be generous. When you can align what makes you happy with what helps the world around you, you can live an exuberant life. If you believe that, that can be a guide for manifesting your passions” she affirms.
Despite myriad technical challenges, Amiti is fearless in the face of the intricate, interwoven, and complicated nature of the bitcoin network, while cognizant of the great responsibility that comes from ensuring its security and survival. “With engineering, these are systems that humans have made up. There is always an answer. Part of being a good engineer is that attitude that I can solve it, I can figure it out. And that is totally what allows me to work on Bitcoin. If I am willing to be calm, be focused, and put in the work, I can figure it out. And then it’s my choice whether I want to or not.”
With the kind of moxie and determination she has shown over her short but storied career, it’s no wonder she feels this way. Amiti is a growing voice of leadership for bitcoin, and a gracious one at that. She is also a voice for a holistic view of wealth and health. As she rises towards becoming one of the premier developers in the space, one would not be surprised if she were glued to her phone to an unhealthy degree. But Amiti has a calm presence and balanced outlook only possible from deep spiritual reflection. An avid backpacker, she was recently off the grid for four days over the July 4th weekend. Thanks at least in part to some of the work she’s done, bitcoin didn’t blink.
Though she speaks to the contributions of other stakeholders in the system, it goes without saying that Amiti and her work are a driving force. She walked away from one of the hottest unicorns in the business to work independently on open source software and follow her deepest held convictions. That’s a lesson for all us. It’s easy to get jaded about motivations in crypto, and too often the question is if someone is in it for the money, or the tech. Without the critical infrastructure work that those like Amiti and her fellow Bitcoin Core developers do, there would be neither. Those of us in the community can only thank our lucky stars that when she talks about attacking bitcoin, at least in this case, the call is coming from inside the house.
Disclaimer: Rory is an active trader and investor holding positions in several cryptocurrencies as well as equities and other private investments at any point.