Depending on who you ask, Whit Jackson is anywhere between 10 and 16 years old, his elastic age a testament to the general awkwardness of male puberty.
Jackson, aware of this, quickly clarifies in conversation. He’s 15, a soon-to-be sophomore at Brentwood School in Los Angeles, a K-12 coed day school that boasts an A-list of alumni including child actors Ben and Fred Savage as well as three current members of the pop rock band Maroon 5.
At school, Jackson already has a distinction, however. He’s “the bitcoin kid”, a nickname that seems to have stuck even if it’s origin story is less clear.
“All my teachers know me as ‘the bitcoin kid’. I told a few of my friends and it spread just because I’m really passionate. I’ll wear bitcoin t-shirts. They tease me for it,” he tells CoinDesk.
One reason for the attention is that after school and on weekends, Jackson works on cryptocurrency projects. He’s currently the CTO of Etherparty, a platform that aims to make issuing smart contracts on Ethereum easier for developers, and serves as a summer intern at blockchain-based currencies trading platform Tether.
Jackson said he was inspired to begin work on Ethereum, the decentralized app development platform invented by another young wunderkind, 21-year-old Vitalik Buterin, shortly after reading the white paper. At the request of Etherparty CEO Lisa Cheng, a friend and colleague, Jackson joined Etherparty earlier this year.
“The idea of Etherparty is to make Ethereum development a lot easier,” Jackson explained. “When you write code and deploy it on a server, you don’t need to build your own server and use the command line to build the contracts. We make it straightforward to do it.”
Ultimately, he says the goal of Etherparty is to “bring mainstream developers to Ethereum”, replicating the process by which he first became enamored with the technology – and its community – a year and a half ago.
“It’s a product of meeting the right people,” Jackson says of his continued notoriety among the technology’s core community.
“I can’t imagine where I’d be at this point without bitcoin.”
Though he cites bitcoin as the impetus for his work, it’s another cryptocurrency that perhaps has more to do with Jackson’s interest in the technology.
Jackson said he first learned of bitcoin in fall 2013, but it wasn’t until the debut of the once-popular dogecoin that his interest was piqued.
“I saw dogecoin on Reddit and was like ‘Whoa Doge! Wow!’ At first, I thought it was a joke, I didn’t realize there was anything but bitcoin,” he recalled.
“It wasn’t really finance that got me interested in dogecoin. It was dogecoin that got me into finance.”
Jackson missed the “crazy price inflation” that happened as the cryptocurrency’s popularity grew. However, he remembers being swept up in the real-world impact the project had, even watching the dogecoin-sponsored Jamaican bobsled team race in the Olympics on TV.
Soon, he fell deeper into the community, hanging out in forums where he got his first experiences learning to code. At the beginning, Jackson indicates he was a total novice, but that others were eager to help him learn.
“I wanted to be cool and learn with the developers,” he said. “For me, it wasn’t anything super libertarian, it was ‘Whoa, I love doge’, and I thought it was funny and the community was great.”
Jackson is still friends with the dogecoin developers but says he isn’t the biggest altcoin supporter these days. The remarks come with the air of someone who’s been around long enough to have seen what happens when these communities turn sour.
“I realize the scene is not that great, most innovation happens in bitcoin. All these altcoins really only serve for price manipulation,” he added. “But I know a ton of people because of dogecoin.”
Even after dogecoin fell out of the spotlight, Jackson stuck around to hone his skills.
For a while, he was a moderator for a subreddit for tacocoin, a short-lived offshoot of the dogecoin community and was a developer at opalcoin, an anonymous cryptocurrency, even serving as its spokesman during a high-profile hacking incident.
This constant exploration of the bitcoin and blockchain space leads in part to the confusion around Jackson’s age and expertise. Cheng, the Etherparty CEO who recently hired Jackson, notes it was she who was first hired by Jackson a year ago for the Opalcoin project.
“My first interaction with him was when he hired me,” she said.
“We had only messaged through Skype and email so I didn’t realize he was young until we had a phone call sometime later.”
It also comes with its own set of challenges, as Cheng notes that Etherparty is only a part time project for the team during the summer, as Jackson has had a busy summer schedule complete with summer camp and debate camp.
This confusion surrounding Jackson’s age makes sense when divorced from his sometimes spritely voice. He peppers his comments with all the typical industry colloquialisms.
“I saw use cases and it just kind of clicked,” he says, recalling his first interactions with Ethereum, his current project of choice.
Jackson also attests to a love of decentralization, as well as an underlying support for the movement’s ethos, noting that he often gets “preachy” on the subject.
“I think it has the potential to change our modern interactions,” Jackson said. “I think decentralization causes so many benefits, it reduces trust you have in individuals. It’s very idealistic for me. It’s the way the future will be.”
So far, Jackson believes the Ethereum platform is off to a “good start”, even though the price of ETH, the network’s native token, has declined since trading began.
“All the haters are going to be, ‘The price is down 33%’ from when it opened’, but I think the fact that people are running applications on it and the community base is strong,” he said.
Further, he expressed his belief that Etherparty will find an audience given that it’s still “really tricky” to use the platform in its current developer beta stage.
“It’s already not going to be the safest, but having to learn a new coding language, Serpent or Solidity, whether or not you’re just going to compile it, it just gets really complicated,” he says, adding: “We realized there was a gap in the market.”
As for now, Jackson is happy honing his skills. He visited a family friend at Google this August, and expressed an interest in working for the tech giant some day.
While he’s not the most proficient coder, he believes his knowledge of bitcoin is high, and that he’ll be able to have a full-time career in the space.
“To the dismay of a lot of people, I do plan to go to college and get a job in bitcoin and blockchain,” he quips.
As for his internship at Tether, he said he’s been working on “really cool projects” and “complicated stuff he’s not allowed to discuss”.
Tether CTO Craig Sellars was positive in his remarks about the 15-year-old, calling him a “young genius”.
“He really gets it, and has the perfect talents and the best possible attitude to contribute to the digital currency ecosystem,” Sellars said. “It continues to be exciting to work with him.”
He takes his online detractors and minor celebrity in the community less seriously, brushing aside posts that have sought to poke fun at his age like a true industry veteran.
“I’ve seen them all,” he said.
Images via Twitter