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For better or for worse, everyone will notice the same thing about Auryn Macmillan the first time they meet him: He’s very tall. So tall that it’s no surprise he spent years as a professional basketball player, thundering down courts from his Australian homeland to Germany and beyond.
These days, Macmillan is a key player in perhaps the single most exciting sector of blockchain development – decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs). He was in the orbit of the original, ill-fated Ethereum DAO, and over the years has contributed to projects including First Blood, Gnosis, Ethercamp and Colony – some, you may note, more successful than others.
This article is part of CoinDesk's Future of Work Week.
Macmillan was also a cofounder of DAOhub, one of the first DAO-focused information aggregators, in 2016. (That project was handed over to a team now going by DaoBase and hosted at DAObase.org. It is not affiliated with Daohub.io.) Most recently, he’s the co-founder with Kei Kreutler of Gnosis Guild, a unit of Berlin-based startup Gnosis focused on building tools for DAOs. (Disclosure: I’ve been invited to join a planned DAO affiliated with Gnosis Guild’s tooling work.)
Macmillan’s path is in many ways characteristic of an earlier era of crypto, when passion and curiosity were much larger motivators than any short-term payday. But even with today’s higher stakes, increasing corporatization and increasingly prevalent bad actors, he stands behind his approach to career-building.
That approach was built on the same principles that make a great ballplayer: obsession, curiosity, creativity and flexibility.
Be a tinkerer
Though his basketball turn is eye-catching, an upbringing that revolved around doing things with his hands was much more key to Macmillan’s path. He grew up in Christmas Hills, a small village in Australia’s wine-producing Yarra Valley. His parents are both musicians, and his father ran a recording studio at home.
“He used to build his own equipment, and from exposure to that I learned a little bit about that [electronic hardware] side of things,” he said.
Also with his dad, Macmillan said he converted three diesel Mercedes-Benzes to run on used vegetable oil. They’d collect used oil from local restaurants to fuel the cars. Nearby wineries also got a share of his interest: In his teens, he washed dishes for a half dozen of them, and for a time considered a career as a chef.
But you can already guess what really enthralled his tinkerer’s brain.
“I’ve been pulling apart computers since I was 11 or 12,” Macmillan said. “We had maybe a 386 [Intel 386-based desktop], and since then I’ve been obsessed. I’ve always been a nerd at heart. I was a nerd before I played basketball.”
Despite that early clarity of vision, you might say biology had its own plans. At 16, Macmillan took up basketball, and things went in an unexpected direction.
“I got really good really quickly, mostly because I was tall and fairly athletic,” he says.
That’s a bit of trademark humility from Macmillan. For those not familiar with high-level sports, 16 is quite late in life to start playing basketball. Many U.S. basketball training programs suggest starting kids on fundamentals as young as 8 years old. All-time great Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon is often described as having started learning the game “late” at age 15.
It takes more than being “fairly athletic” to overcome such a belated start: It takes incredible dedication, even if you are 6 feet, 8 inches tall. (Macmillan is, for example, still at least two inches below the listed 6-foot-10-inch height of Larry Cermak, the Block’s director of research and another basketball-to-blockchain transfer student. Yet Cermak didn’t go on to a pro career. Interesting.) Thanks to his hard work, basketball swiftly became more than a game for Macmillan. It actually sidelined his longer-term passion for computing – something he now sees as a misstep.
“After graduating from high school, I did one year of computer science here [at Swinburne University] in Melbourne, then I dropped out to take a basketball scholarship in the U.S.,” at Gardner-Webb University outside Charlotte. “They didn’t have a computer science major, so I ended up majoring in psychology. I was focused on basketball, and I got into psych because it was easy. That was a bit of a mistake, in retrospect.”
Though he never made it to the NBA, Macmillan would spend the next few years on an intense, global basketball circuit, often spending full seasons in the U.K. or Germany, then heading back to Australia in the summer to play offseason ball closer to home. Starting in 2010, he played for teams including the Australian national team; the Kilsyth Cobras and the Illawarra Hawks; Germany’s Langen Giraffes (“which was pretty funny”); and England’s Plymouth Raiders.
Then, in roughly 2013 or 2014, the big moment came. “I stumbled across Bitcoin. I fell down the rabbit hole through discovering the deep web,” said Macmillan, “discovering Tor browser, and discovering all these marketplaces denominated in bitcoin. So I had to figure out what the hell a bitcoin was.
“Then I relatively quickly stumbled across a bunch of early forum posts by Vitalik [Buterin] talking about the idea of Ethereum, and that’s what made blockchains click for me, particularly the idea of DAOs. So I followed Ethereum very closely after that, and participated in the crowdsale.”
Very quickly, McMillan’s career became much more about blockchains than basketball. Focused on DAOs from very early on, Macmillan said he realized there was a need to organize conversations on the topic and bring people together. To respond to that need, he and a cofounder launched DAOhub.
“That became a de facto hub for the DAO community,” he said. “We were front and center for the meteoric rise and catastrophic fall of the DAO. And we connected with and made really close connections with influential folks who were involved, like Griff [Green] and Lefteris [Karapetsas].”
It’s also where he first met Martin Koppelmann and Stefan George, co-founders of Gnosis. But it would be some time before he himself became a key figure at the startup. Around late 2016, he became community director for a would-be esports betting platform called First Blood. During the same period, he was freelancing for both Gnosis and something called Ethercamp.
“[Ethercamp] wound up being a really bizarre project and their founder just vanished,” Macmillan said. Having an occasional bit of bad luck is part of even the most impressive career paths.
Soon, he said, “I got a little frustrated doing community, not having a way to tangibly enact change on product.” So in 2018, he moved on to a role with DAO-centric project Colony as what they called “BDSM Lead.”
“It stood for business development success something … Actually we never figured out what BDSM stood for, we just wanted to say it,” he said.
After a couple of years at Colony, Macmillan also started contributing at Gnosis again.
“Colony was really supportive of that, there wasn’t a conflict of interest. Everyone was fine and aware of everything.” This was still in the depths of the 2019-2020 “crypto winter,” and might be the hardest part of Macmillan’s path to reproduce: It’s difficult to imagine many blockchain projects being okay with such multitasking today, given the intense demand for talent even after the recent downturn.
And indeed, that side gig did wind up leading Macmillan away from Colony. “There was a really interesting opportunity to take on more of a product role on [Gnosis’] conditional tokens framework.” As that project wound down, Macmillan has transitioned entirely to working on DAO tooling under Gnosis Guild.
He also made another shocking discovery. “We needed a contract written, and we didn’t have any other resources. I said heck, I’ll write it, and we’ll give it to the auditor. And it turned out it was good. I realized that after years of reading Solidity code I could also write it, I had just never tried.” With that powerful arrow in his quiver, Macmillan said he has “this weird, little bit of everything role now.”
The winding path is the best path
One might see Macmillan’s career path as a bit of a relic of an earlier time. Though recent layoffs show that volatility hasn’t disappeared, it’s still much easier to have a conventional, ladder-climbing career in crypto now than it was eight years ago. But Macmillan thinks following your passions and getting your hands dirty is still the way to go.
“I absolutely think this pathway is still viable,” he said. “There’s absolutely more bulls**t than there was in 2016 because it’s become more obvious how profitable bulls**tting can be. But it’s easy to distinguish yourself from the bullsh**ters by just doing something valuable. Make a real contribution, become a legitimate part of a community. That’s absolutely a path to finding a career.
Read more: CoinDesk Confidential: Auryn Macmillan
“A good example is Marv, who runs all the community stuff for Gnosis Guild now. He jumped in, he was active, he was legitimately engaged. He started engaging with all the discussions, making a bunch of suggestions, and that turned into him now being a core member of Gnosis Guild and running the whole community.”
That said, it’s important not to think of these contributions as a quid pro quo. Getting involved in a project because you hope to get something in return is, strangely, a good way to ensure that doesn’t happen.
“You have to go into a community without the expectation of explicit reward,” said Macmillan. “You should be contributing because it’s something valuable that you want to see in the world. Weirdly, that’s the best way to work on something that could become a long-term career. If you go into it thinking career first, I want to get paid, there’s a tension between that and you actually making an impact.
“And the counter to that,” he cautioned, “Is that sometimes you’ll go into a space, and it won’t get noticed. That’s the risk you have to take, and it’s a good litmus test. If it doesn’t get noticed, or the work doesn’t get the treatment you want, it might not be the place for you.
In the end, Macmillan’s career advice is strikingly simple. “Find projects you’re passionate about, make real contributions. The same paths are available for community managers, for developers, for business development.
“That’s the beauty of how Web3 organizations work: They create this permeable boundary between inside and outside. Just jump in and contribute something valuable.”
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