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Kaveh Tehrani

Polkadot Blockchain Academy

Published on
☕☕10 mins read

Two days ago, I graduated from the 5th cohort of the Polkadot Blockchain Academy (PBA). As I sit in the Singapore airport lounge waiting for my flight, I thought to use this time to reflect on the past five intense weeks at the academy. The days were long, the material was challenging, and sleep was in short supply. And I would do it all over again.

The best part, as it always is, is the company you are with. My fellow students, from every continent on the planet, made the long grind of the academy an amazing journey. The instructors were top-notch practitioners. The operations team, led by the ever-smiling Erin, made sure everything ran smoothly. After a decade out of school, it was fantastic to be back in a classroom setting. Goodbye felt only like a "see you later".

Why Polkadot Blockchain Academy?

The vast majority of people attending the academy were developers, some already working in web3, some already working in the Polkadot ecosystem. I was somewhat the odd one out, a quantitative finance guy who wanted to primarily wanted to understand the technology better. My job as a researcher in the crypto space means I had spent quite a bit of time understanding the Polkadot ecosystem and the role of DOT in it. I have thought for some time now about entrepreneurial pursuits in the web3 space, and learning Polkadot from the people who built it from the ground up seemed like a no-brainer. In ranks consistently as one of the top developer ecosystems in the crypto space.


It also appears fairly consistently in the top 10 holdings of crypto hedge funds over the years, generally the largest allocation after Bitcoin and Ethereum.


I first found out about the academy while doing research on Polkadot and Kusama in January. I applied in February and received an entrance exam invitation.

The Entrance Exam

The PBA qualifier exam in itself is worth taking even if you solely are just a Rust enthusiast 🦀! In the words of the academy itself:

This exam is maintained by the Polkadot Blockchain Academy, for the benefit of the entire Rust community. The Academy accepts individuals modestly skilled in Rust, and maintains this exam to help everyone assess their proficiency being of a level we would consider for the program.

I learned coding first in C++ and then mostly in Python/MATLAB working as a quant. I had no previous experience in Rust before receiving this exam. Rust has been ranked as the most loved programming language by developers for the past six years or so. Particularly in the blockchain space it is gaining rapidly over Golang. I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to see what all the hype is about. After all, once you know C++, any other language should merely be a matter of learning syntax.

I had ten days to complete the exam. I spent 8 days learning from the superb resources at The Rust Programming Language, and two days completing the exam. It was quite a jammed ten days but man was it worth it! I think Rust is a fantastic language, and I look forward to using it in my daily work.

I would say that Rust makes a terrible first language to learn programming, but an excellent second one! In my opinion, you can only understand and appreciate rust concepts such as lifetime and borrowing if you have seen the problems they solve in other languages, in my case C++. If you are a beginner or coming from a super high level language like JS, I think learning rust would be a fairly bumpy ride.

After submitting the exam, I had a video interview with one of the PBA staff. A few weeks later I received my acceptance letter to start the academy in May hosted on the National University of Singapore campus.

What I appreciate the most about the entrance exam is that it is not a bunch of leetcode. It is a thoughtful and thorough exam that tests your understanding of the language and emphasises the parts that would be the most relevant to the academy. If you have ever done a developer / quant interview, you know what grinding leetcode / brain teasers is like. In my view, they are also a poor indicator of your ability to succeed on the job, merely your ability to have grinded enough beforehand to know how to solve the specific problem.

The Academy

The academy itself is an intense, no BS, five weeks program. It covers seven modules:

1- Cryptography
2- Economics and Game Theory
3- Core Blockchain Concepts
4- Governance
5- Smart Contracts
6- Polkadot-SDK: FRAME, Pallets, and XCM
7- Polkadot: Cumulus, Parachains, etc.

Before the academy started, we had an introductory call and some pre-reading material to get us up to speed. In the famous words of Nikos, the key to success in the academy is "Rest & Rust"! If you want a flavour of what the academy coursework is like, I highly recommend you check out Dot Code School as well my favourite blockchain learning activity: Blockchain From Scratch.

The instructors are all blockchain experts, with the majority coming from Parity Technologies or the Web3 Foundation. There are assignments / activities / quizzes every week which will require your complete and undivided attention. You have ~8 hour of lectures every day (sometimes Saturdays too) with coursework to complete pretty much right after. At times it felt like drinking water from a fire hose, but the camaraderie of the group made us push through. There are also office hours every day where the instructors are available to help you with any questions you might have. To my surprise, not only were the instructors approachable and helpful, they also went our of their way frequently to burn the midnight oil well into the night both in person and on Discord with us.

The emphasis throughout the academy is on learning by doing. Economy module? You will be playing a variety of game theory games with your classmates with real money on the line. Blockchain module? You will be building a blockchain from scratch with live-coding during class. For the assignment we built a comprehensive UTXO wallet that had to mimic the functionality of a real-life wallet that deals with chain reorgs and double spends. Governance module? You will be participating in a mock council meeting. Smart Contracts? Here is a node running with some vulnerabilities, now go drain the funds. You get the idea. The final assignment was building a pallet for the Polkadot runtime using FRAME for an option of your choosing, all which are real-life applications and not some highly stylized unrealistic case.

The PBA is funded by the Polkadot Treasury. There is no cost to attend the PBA other than arranging for your own travel. The academy provided student accommodation in the dormitories and food vouchers to spend on campus. I think it is a fantastic initiative that removes the economic barrier and makes the program accessible to people from all geographic and economic backgrounds.

Lastly, in case you are worrying that this is some sort of indoctrination camp for Polkadot, it is not. It is run by Polkadot but the emphasis is on learning the technology and the blockchain ecosystem in general. You don't even talk about Polkadot until the last week of the academy! There are certainly opinionated views on the concepts and what the best approach would be, but that is to be expected in any educational setting.

The People

Arguably the best part for me. You are surrounded by people passionate about the blockchain tech and web3 in general. It truly was a diverse group of people as young as 19 all way into their 40s. We had about 90 people attending in person, and another 50 attending remotely. You didn't really have to know much about blockchain to attend. It certainly helped, but it was not a requirement. The academy is designed to be accessible to people from all backgrounds. The only thing you needed was a passion for learning about web3 and having learned enough Rust to not get stuck during the academy.

There were also quite a few opportunities to have fun with the group. We had a few social events, a beach day, tons of time eating together, and my favourite part on the last day for a meme competition!

The last day of the Academy we had Gavin Wood walk us through the Gray Paper. Finally, graduation ceremony was held at the National Gallery of Singapore followed by a party where Gavin DJed for us. It was a fantastic way to end the academy! Waking up hungover the next day, it wasn't the easiest of goodbyes after spending five weeks with the same people every day with a singular focus on learning!

There were quite a few digital nomads in the crew who were planning to travel around Asia after the academy. I look forward to reconnecting with the people who made the academy so much richer than the sum of its parts for me.

Final Words

I, along others, put my life pretty much on hold for five weeks to attend the academy. There have been a number of sprints in my life professionally or academically where I dedicated so much time and energy to a single goal. The academy certainly ranks amongst the top of those sprints. I am grateful for the opportunity to have attended the academy and a huge shout-out and thank you to all the PBA staff and instructors who made this possible. I am not aware of any other industry-led program that offers such a comprehensive and hands-on approach to learning the blockchain technology. The fact that it is funded by the Polkadot Treasury to make it accessible to all is a true testament to the ethos of the empowerment of the individual in the web3 space.

I am looking forward to applying what I have learned in the academy in my daily work and utilizing the amazing network that was cultivated during our time together. As far as I understand it, the academy will only get bigger with a heavier focus on remote learning to further democratize the access to the program.

Now I will take a few days off to recover from the academy and then get back to work. I have a few ideas that I am exploring in the web3 space, and I am excited to see where they will take me.

Rest & Rust!

Further Resources

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