From Silicon Valley to Bitcoin Core: The Story of Gloria Zhao


Lina Seiche | Dec 14, 2020 at 21:30 UTC

In a short series of podcast appearances, Gloria Zhao stepped into the spotlight this summer, revealing to the Bitcoin space a university student who had been quietly contributing to Bitcoin Core for the previous months.

Gloria’s entrance seemed sudden; few knew that her foray into the public was part of an extensive team effort to secure the funding needed for her to work on Bitcoin full-time—and it was a milestone in a long journey that turned Gloria from a Silicon Valley paragon, ready to dive into internships at Google, Facebook, and Amazon, into a cypherpunk that ditched the world’s biggest companies and instead opted to become the second female Bitcoin Core developer.

In proper 2020 fashion, we meet via video chat. Gloria, on the final stretch of her computer science studies, is sitting in a dimly lit room, post-its with Pull Request numbers stuck to the wall next to a bookshelf behind her, in an almost symmetrical pattern.

After her graduation at the University of California, Berkeley, Gloria will go straight into full-time Bitcoin Core development to work on Package Mempool Accept, a proposed upgrade that, alongside a number of other improvements, will boost Bitcoin Core’s security guarantees, thereby making second-layer applications like the Lightning Network more robust. 

I’m on a mission to learn about Gloria herself, understand how she arrived where she is today, and uncover how she ended up doing a 180 on her career plans.

“I’m from Cupertino. The number one thing we’re famous for is Apple, and number two is our competitive public schools. That’s our reputation.“

Gloria has a cheerful smile and an amiable demeanor. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she grew up where aspiring entrepreneurs dream of venturing to pursue their ideas of self-realization: Silicon Valley. Yet she sounds less excited about that than one might expect.

In Silicon Valley, the beating heart of the world’s social media and tech cosmos, and a melting pot of startups reaching for the stars and VCs scouting for unicorns, the sky’s the limit. Or, as Gloria puts it, the valley has an “obsession with innovation.”

“If you show promise, if you have that ‘spark,’ then the VCs flock to you and you’re put in a position to extract billions of dollars from the world, regardless of real impact.”

Getting discovered in Silicon Valley is the dream for college students in the region. Gloria tells me of her experience growing up in an environment that demanded consistently high performance, driven by the all-encompassing importance of a resume that has it all: difficult classes, fantastic grades, extra-curricular activities, social impact projects, and high-level internships.

The goal? Join the next unicorn. Or rather: join a startup, stay for three years, then switch to a new startup. Rinse and repeat until you find your unicorn.

Gloria says word on the street in Silicon Valley is that one in every ten startups succeeds, so if you regularly change startups for thirty years, you should hit the jackpot sooner or later—statistically speaking.

“I remember wanting it really badly, but not really knowing why I wanted it,” she says. “You just kind of put your body through really tough things. I’ve had weeks during which I didn’t get to sleep until the weekend.”

I ask her how Silicon Valley thinks of Bitcoin.

“Silicon Valley has the attention span of a goldfish,” she laughs. “They need a dopamine hit of ‘innovation’ every three months. They need to feel like they’re moving fast and breaking things, that’s the model.”

In Bitcoin, we move steadily and prioritize not breaking things over all else. Silicon Valley doesn’t have the patience to wait four years for Taproot activation.

Bitcoin is laden with the usual criticisms: lack of scalability, dinosaur tech, bad UI. Instead, the world’s tech startup mecca loves a good prodigy story. Ideally, there’s “this magic genius wiz kid who comes in and solves all of these issues with a new coin.”

Silicon Valley is looking for innovation, a simple interface, and the promise of a billion users.

I suppose that makes sense. Bitcoin is not sexy enough for Silicon Valley.

Down the Rabbithole—But Backwards

When I ask her if she had always wanted to study computer science, Gloria admits that she originally wanted to become a doctor, but went for the software engineering career given that it appeared more compatible with the Silicon Valley tech dream.

“I was new to computer science and didn’t know why I was doing it, but I knew I was supposed to join a club to put on my resume. I took systems and cryptography classes because they were supposed to be really hard and make me look smart.”

As such, Gloria applied at a number of clubs. Around February of 2017, she was accepted into Blockchain at Berkeley. The following three months, she attended on weekends, but “didn’t understand blockchain at all.”

As a group of computer science students, naturally, Blockchain at Berkeley approached Bitcoin from a technical perspective. Gloria studied the inner workings of the Bitcoin protocol, picking apart its distributed design through the lens of a computer scientist.

“I didn’t understand the difference between Bitcoin and Venmo for a long time,” she says. In fact, Venmo might have looked way more attractive at the time. If you apply the tech bro mindset to Bitcoin, seeking cost-efficiency, scalability, and user-friendliness, “it sounds really dumb,” Gloria laughs.

“Until you realize there are these social issues that can be solved very elegantly with technology—then everything makes sense.”

The plunge into the famous rabbit hole happened after Gloria was asked to teach a class on Bitcoin, which didn’t go so well: “I wasn’t very good at teaching, because I didn’t get the point.”

Told by her mentor to look into the Cypherpunk Manifesto, the story of Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden’s Permanent Record, Gloria began reading up on the why behind Bitcoin, a decision that marked an irreversible turning point.

The World Through Orange-Colored Glasses

“The Manifesto… That language sits in your head,” Gloria says,“ and it starts to become applicable to many situations.”

Of course the change in perspective didn’t happen overnight. Even as she had put her head down and devoured cypherpunk literature for days, Gloria was still a student at Berkeley, a child of Silicon Valley, one eye on the resume, one eye on the startup market.

But things began looking different. Scrolling through Instagram with a friend some time later, Gloria made an unsettling discovery. As a girl, naturally, her app would present her girly ads: makeup, jewelry, fashion. So far, so normal. Until she noticed something.

Her friend, a Caucasian woman, would receive ads for lingerie, worn by women with whom nature had been generous, while Gloria would see small-chested women wearing comfortable sportswear.

“Instagram knows we have different cup sizes. And that is so deeply personal, disgusting, and uncomfortable.”

As a computer science student, Gloria knew the type of algorithm that determined her race and figure. She also knew that Facebook would use the same type of algorithm to determine who she would vote for. From age 12, when she created her social media accounts, she had been analyzed, categorized, and presented with the facts of what Facebook believed her to be. As a result, she had never seen a republican ad in her life.

“That’s scary to me.” She tells me that most of her family lives in China, where the majority of transactions is facilitated by WeChat Pay, where facial recognition is the norm, and where speeding tickets are registered and paid automatically through WeChat.

It might seem harmless and even convenient, “but the more information they have, the smaller the scope of what type of behavior is deemed acceptable.”

It’s the digital panopticon, a dystopian illustration of how constant observation alters our behavior.

“Privacy is directly related to freedom. That connection was made inside my head.”

From there, the link to financial privacy was established quickly: Gloria tells me that the financial censorship of WikiLeaks made her realize how “being able to see and restrict financial data is an extremely effective way to limit speech.”

In 2019, The Guardian published a short “dictionary” of Silicon Valley terms. It’s written with a generous touch of irony, and you should read it as such. Yet the deal with good humour is often simple: it’s funny, because it’s true.

privacy (n) – Archaic. The concept of maintaining control over one’s personal information.”

Surviving Crypto Winter

I ask Gloria how her environment reacted as she went through an ideological shift in front of their eyes. Her answer comes unexpected. “I’ve noticed that my dating options are very limited.”

“I can either date bitcoiners, or people who have never heard of blockchain in their lives. In the middle, there are many misconceptions and bad PR around what Bitcoin stands for, so they usually tell me that I don’t understand Bitcoin.”

Halfway down the Bitcoin rabbit hole, Gloria became president of Blockchain at Berkeley. “Because nobody else wanted to do it,” she says modestly. It was mid-2018, Bitcoin had just crashed to $6,000. To Silicon Valley, that meant: move on.

People would ask me, why are you still into blockchain? Nobody cares about that anymore. Now it’s all about self-driving cars.

But Gloria still cared, and so she began restructuring Blockchain at Berkeley. The problem: the interest in Bitcoin had essentially died, and the club needed to find ways to survive “crypto winter.”

“We got very blockchainy,” she says almost apologetically. Rather than requests from people looking to learn about Bitcoin, the club now received interest from blockchain projects that, Gloria tells me, would ask the students to build apps on their platforms or run a node in exchange for $100,000.

“We’re college kids; all we want to do is graduate, get a job, maybe do something cool with the world. But at the top of our minds, it’s not ‘bitcoiner versus shitcoiner,’ or even whether this is the right thing to do. It’s more whether we get a job out of this.”

Some projects would advertise hackathons that promised internships to the winners—as we recall, internships are a sought-after addition to any Silicon Valley resume.

“Basically, our time preference was extremely high,” she laughs.

For about a year and a half, the club survived through consulting work for blockchain projects, but Gloria got sick of it eventually. “You don’t just stop thinking about privacy.”

Oops, I Became a Bitcoin Core Contributor

Gloria could well be described as a Silicon Valley poster child. Come 2020, she was accepted into internship programs at Google, Facebook, and Amazon, an achievement she plays down at first, but then humbly takes credit for when I tell her what a big deal I think it is. 

“It’s lame now, thinking back as a bitcoiner, how fiat that is,” she laughs. “I wanted to put those logos on my resume, that’s why I did it.”

And for the average computer scientist, that might in fact be the dream; a melting pot of big data, the ideal environment to pursue machine learning. For many of her friends, working on ads was the non plus ultra.

“They’re building their own cages. Advertising is the cage—it puts you in a box, boob size-wise and politics-wise. And they’re so proud of it. I have a hard time understanding that as a cypherpunk.”

Although if it wasn’t for her ideological leanings, Gloria could well see why somebody would love to work for a tech titan. If campuses that equal small cities aren’t enough, the corporations know how to lure in young talent: with branded merchandise and “ridiculous compensation packages.”

Amid the conveniences of working for Facebook or Google, however, “what you’re building has a bigger impact than you realize, and not in a good way… a mass surveillance system, for example.”

During her internship, Gloria received an email from Chaincode Labs—more specifically, Adam Jonas, who asked her to re-apply for the Chaincode residency following an earlier application in the previous year.

“At the time, I didn’t even know Bitcoin was actively developed, believe it or not.” Gloria laughs awkwardly. “Everyone said Bitcoin is at a standstill, it’s old and dead. I should’ve just looked it up, but I bought into the talk.”

That assumption was turned upside down when Jonas introduced Gloria to Bitcoin Core developers Amiti Uttarwar and John Newbery. She remembers her reaction as if it was yesterday.

“So you believe in Bitcoin? You’re Bitcoin maximalists?”

She laughs again, thinking back to her own disbelief. “I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know Bitcoin was going anywhere at the time. I should’ve verified for myself, but I didn’t know that it was okay to like Bitcoin.”

Gloria’s interest was reignited when Uttarwar suggested she clone the Bitcoin repo and try building the code, a task that was followed up with a number of occasional test exercises for Gloria to become acquainted with Bitcoin Core.

“It wasn’t as complicated as I had thought it would be,” she says, “I guess I was just intimidated.”

With Uttarwar’s guidance, Gloria opened her first Pull Requests. “Because I enjoyed it so much, I spent more and more time on it, while Amiti kept giving me little ‘nibbles’ to get familiar with Bitcoin. I gobbled them up because this was the first time I had ever gotten to see file systems, modular arithmetic, and semaphores used outside of class.”

Three months later, Uttarwar sent her a link. It showed her commits to Bitcoin Core, eight at the time. “You’re now a contributor,” Gloria recalls her saying.

Realization hit her. “For the most part, I wrote my own code, did my own research, and didn’t expect to become a Core developer for a long time. I was just having fun, I was very much in love with everything that I saw. And I accidentally became a developer.”

HODLing Over Googling

By the time July came around, Core contribution had taken over the better part of Gloria’s free time. “There was nothing quite like this,” she says. “I got to think about really cool computer science stuff all day, and it perfectly aligned with the social issues that I care about. It made me so happy I wanted to do it every day.”

In hopes of figuring out a way to monetize her work, she sought advice from Newbery and Uttarwar who promised to look into her options, provided she would continue focusing on honing her skills and contributing to Bitcoin Core in the following months.

“Having that patience from Amiti and John was very valuable,” she says. In fact, it isn’t the technical support Gloria values most. “More significant was the emotional support, deep trust in mentors who genuinely wanted me to succeed.”

Halfway through her Google internship at the time, with Facebook and Amazon next in line, Gloria had reached a crucial crossroad: she could continue pursuing the Silicon Valley path that she had been walking masterfully up to this point. Or she could pivot to open-source development, not knowing what awaited her, not even knowing if she would have a paid job by the time she graduated.

Gloria made the decision to go all in. She reneged the Facebook internship she had planned to kick off in fall, dropped her double major in psychology, and adopted a new schedule for the next three months: get up at five, review code until ten, attend to her internship, come back home, return to the code.

In two guest appearances on the Stephan Livera Podcast and Anita Posch’s Bitcoin & Co., Gloria made the jump into the public spotlight and introduced herself to the wider Bitcoin space.

Meanwhile, Newbery had begun setting up Brink, a non-profit to support Bitcoin developers, with his co-founder Mike Schmidt. Together with Uttarwar, Newbery helped secure Gloria’s funding from the Human Rights Foundation and Square Crypto. It was official: she would graduate with a job—the Silicon Valley dream, just a little different.

The New Silicon Valley Dream

“It sounds cheesy, but I feel like everything led up to this,” Gloria muses, by now comfortably sitting in her chair, one knee propped up, radiating a sense of accomplishment.

And indeed, you could look at it that way. “I just happened to join Blockchain at Berkeley, and I just happened to meet John, Amiti, and Jonas. I magically took the exact computer science classes that applied perfectly to Bitcoin.”

I ask her where she sees her professional career going from here. Can she imagine herself ever adopting Silicon Valley’s startup hopping lifestyle, or does she consider Bitcoin development her perfect endgame?

“I want to work on Bitcoin as much as possible,” she says, pauses, then adds, “I work on Bitcoin for selfish reasons. It’s not for a piece of paper that might make me happy one day; it makes me happy today. It’s the only thing that makes me feel like I’m doing something useful for the world.”

All that computer science knowledge would be wasted if I didn’t use it to protect myself in this digital age.

Maybe it wasn’t the story she was supposed to tell: one of hard classes, projects with self-driving cars, internships at the world’s biggest companies, positions at ten startups, the hunt for the unicorn.

But you would have to be blind not to see that Gloria has found what makes her happy. In fact, I realize she may have simply skipped a few steps in the Silicon Valley timeline, when she tells me with a big smile:

“Bitcoin is my unicorn.”

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Lina is an editor and managing director at the BTC Times. She enjoys writing about Bitcoin and financial sovereignty.

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