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The Ukrainian-born engineer behind Solana Labs learned to code as a teen and had a ‘lightbulb’ moment about the blockchain

April 14, 2022, 11:00 PM UTC

Anatoly Yakovenko was a kid when he came to the U.S. from Ukraine in the early 1990s. As a teenager, he was enamored with programming, having learned C, his first coding language. The dot-com boom was in full swing and “there was this magical possibility of writing a piece of code that just solves some incredible problem for the world” and becoming the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, Yakovenko tells Fortune, seated at a long table at Solana’s Hacker House in Miami. 

Anatoly Yakovenko’s background

Yakovenko was in college when the dot-com bubble popped, and “some advisors literally [told] me, ‘maybe computer science is not a good career choice,’” he says. But Yakovenko stuck with it, and, after a failed startup, landed a job at Qualcomm, where he stayed for nearly 13 years working on distributed systems, among other things, before leaving in 2016, per his LinkedIn. 

In 2017, Yakovenko had an idea. He had been working with a friend on a side project to build deep-learning hardware. And to offset the costs of setting up all the graphics processing units being used, the duo began mining crypto. By then, Yakovenko was already well aware of the crypto markets. But one night, as the story goes, Yakovenko, riding the highs of two coffees and a beer, wound up staying awake until 4 in the morning and, in the process, had a lightbulb idea. The passage of time itself, he realized, could be used as a data structure to help order transactions and events on the blockchain—a seemingly wonky conclusion that would turn out to be a part of what has become known as “proof of history,” and a key reason why the Solana blockchain can now operate at lightning-fast speeds compared to Bitcoin and Ethereum. (Solana, in conjunction with Proof of History, uses the consensus mechanism known as Proof of Stake to validate transactions on the blockchain.) Yakovenko also brought on several other cofounders, including fellow Qualcomm alumni Greg Fitzgerald and Stephen Akridge. 

What is Solana named after?

The endeavor was initially named Loom, but an Ethereum-based project called Loom Network prompted a rebranding. At that time, Yakovenko and several of his cofounders surfed at Solana Beach in California, and Yakovenko says since lots of companies have named themselves after places in the state, he figured they could do that, too. “We were arguing on Slack and eventually I just proposed ‘Solana,’ and that kind of stuck,” he says. 

A systems engineer ‘through and through’

Dressed in a gray sweatshirt, shorts, sneakers, and a black baseball cap, Yakovenko looks more like many of the other developers than the CEO of a company.

According to those who know him, Yakovenko is a systems engineer “through and through,” as Ali Yahya, general partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and an investor in Solana, puts it. The way Yakovenko talks is very analytical and technical, with a somewhat paradoxical mix of calm and, at moments, nervous energy. 

But since caffeine can make him “too jittery,” his go-to fix is tea, or a decaf Americano. Yakovenko says he now codes in the mornings, and credits surfing or bike rides with helping him think through problems. “If I can get on a bike for two hours, I come back way more refreshed and with a lot of decisions made or internalized,” he says. Yakovenko, like some of the other Solana founders, is also an Ironman and an underwater hockey player. In his prime, he claims he could swim three lengths of the pool with fins on without taking a breath. 

That dedication is not just applied to his physical activities. Gokal, who is, as he puts it, “technically COO,” says he first met Yakovenko at his friend and fellow Solana cofounder Eric Williams’ house before the group went on a camping trip together. He recalls Yakovenko, who was working at Qualcomm at the time, was “slumped back in a leather, brown couch and just like, staring off into the distance, probably thinking about some intense problem.” 

Gokal, who hails—unlike many of his ex-Qualcomm cofounders—from a healthcare startup, joined as cofounder at the end of 2017, according to his LinkedIn. He says Yakovenko is often so absorbed in his work that “it’s like he’s in another dimension.” Gokal recalls a time in their office when he had dog treats at his desk for his dog Myro, who frequented the workspace. “Toly,” as many call him, “came over to talk to us, and … without even looking, he just stuck his hand in the bag and just started chomping down on whatever was in the bag,” Gokal recounts. “He didn’t notice. He sees all of us burst out laughing, and he’s like, ‘What?’ And we said, ‘You’re eating dog food,’ and he just kept eating,” he laughs. 

The above was excerpted from a feature on Solana in Fortune by Anne Sraders and Declan Harty. You can read the complete story, including which big investors think the company has a shot at building a ‘core layer’ of Web3, why Sam Bankman-Fried is a believer, and a host of recent growing pains the company has faced here.

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