What “What Is Code” Isn’t

Paul Ford’s long essay, “What Is Code” arrived on Bloomberg Businessweek this week with a big promise from editor Josh Tyrangiel. Tyrangiel tells us this 38,000-word essay was written for people who have been “faking their way through meetings about software,” and for whom “ignorance is no longer acceptable.” Tyrangiel, speaking directly to those helpless olds, promises that reading “What Is Code” will “add decades to your career.”

But it won’t. Because it doesn’t answer the question it poses. Instead, Ford has given us a piece that’s as much about code culture as it is about code. And worse, it perpetuates the cultural divide it wants to bridge by failing to explain the complexity, instead going for far too many clever you-wouldn’t-get-it inside jokes. Which is too bad, because we desperately need to bridge this cultural divide — and Tyrangiel is right — it’s an economic imperative.

Adding Decades to Your Career

Ford opens the piece with a dramatization of the reader’s plight: “You,” writes Ford, addressing the reader directly, “are an educated, successful person capable of abstract thought.” And yet here you are sitting across from a young man, a strangely dressed man, who is speaking to you of things you don’t understand, and threatening your career. This man is “The Man in the Taupe Blazer.” In the face of his barrage, you are cagey. “Better for now to hide your ignorance.”

I should stop here and say right now that I’m a fan of Paul Ford. He’s smart, funny, and he clearly knows his shit. I really enjoyed What Is Code — and laughed out loud a bunch of times, even pointing at the screen a few times and shouting “This!” much to the consternation of my wife.

But What Is Code doesn’t work. It doesn’t do what it sets out to do, which is to help “you,” the reader who doesn’t know What Is Code understand What Is Code. Instead, it’s a smart, funny hipster performance created by man in a taupe blazer for other men in taupe blazers. (Like I said, I LOL’d as I read.)

What Do “You” Need, Reader?

Ford starts with “How Do You Type an “A”, presumably to help us understand that computers create magic by building up layers of complexity from simple parts. Great! I used to manage a team that wrote keyboard drivers, the software responsible for getting keyboard signals into the computer. So, as I started reading, I was excited: finally there was a piece that would explain in plain English what I do. My parents, possessed of a link to What Is Code, would finally understand me. By the end of the section though, I realized, nope. No help here. Instead, Ford makes it clear that there’s a lot of complexity involved in getting input from a keyboard to a computer, doesn’t really explain the process, then concludes that “Coders are people who are willing to work backward…” through that complexity.

So instead of explaining the complexity so that we can understand it, we just learn that the people who understand it are the people who are willing to work with complexity. But they won’t explain it to “you.” Which is exactly why “you” need What Is Code, and is exactly why What is Code is so frustrating.

Breaking Faith

This isn’t the only time Ford breaks faith with the reader. It happens over and over. Consider for example his explanation of the command line.

In other words, if you know, you know. If you don’t, I won’t tell you. It’s funny in a world-weary kind of way, but…

Compared to Snow Fall

People are comparing What is Code to Snow Fall, the seminal NY Times piece that set the standard for modern, multimedia storytelling on the web. But where Snow Fall’s interactive elements helped support and clarify the narrative (witness the flyover terrain map that unfolds as we read about the terrain), What Is Code settles for cute jokes. What are we to make of the simulated circuitry diagram that purports to explain logic gates at the heart of computer processors? How does that help us understand how computers compute? We see lines change color, but what does it mean? Ford doesn’t explain. He just gives us a sense of the complexity — again.

Or consider the interactive game that seeks to explain bugs and debugging. How in the world is anyone who is not a coder in the first place going to gain clarity by playing this game that requires knowledge of code syntax?

What “What Is Code” Is

With all that, there’s a lot of stuff What Is Code gets right. Ford’s explanations of languages, libraries, frameworks is useful and clear. The discussion of version control in general and Github in particular is lucid and helpful, especially in how he relates it to developers’ workflow. I’d probably share that stuff with my Dad. And as a fan of a contemporary, multi-disciplinary journalism, I find it exciting to see more publications embracing this approach.

Finally, Ford is a great explainer of code culture, which is an interesting and important subject. Why do programmers care about one language vs. another? Why they work the way they do? Why they care about what they do? I wish Ford had somehow been able to draw more of that out for “you” the reader: what do we need to know, after all? Is it What is Code? Or is it How Do We Work With Coders?

How DO We Work With Coders?

Getting across this culture gap — the gap between coders and non-coders might be the most important cultural divide facing organizations today. How do we work with people across this knowledge and culture gap? That’s a problem faced by every organization, business, and government today. And solving that problem is imperative. I don’t think the answer is simply teaching people What Is Code.

If you’re interested in this topic — how to work with coders — sign up to get news of my upcoming book on the subject here: http://sensingbook.com