Why you should read "What is Code?"

10 takeaways from Paul Ford's epic article.


I don’t always blog about articles posted in other publications, but when I do, I prefer to cite ones that are worthy of your attention.

This one definitely qualifies. Last week, Bloomberg Businessweek published What Is Code? as the entire contents of its latest issue. Writer Paul Ford’s deep dive into the meaning, practice, culture, and business of software is epic in every sense of the word.

Boasting that it’s 38,000 words long, this piece could easily take you a couple of hours (yes, hours) to read. It’s worth every minute. Reading this massive screed is worth your time because it’s becoming increasingly obvious that software rules the world, and nobody apart from the world’s approximately 18.5 million software developers really understands the implications of that.

What Is Code? is the single best effort I’ve seen to remedy that situation.

See also: Meet the 18.5 million people who rule your world

Ford’s piece was written for business executives (typical Bloomberg readers), but it instantly took over the Interwebs (I heard about it from half a dozen different sources within a few hours). It has resonated with business execs, but also with IT professionals and professional coders. People are already predicting that it will become part of the technology canon, destined to be cited in professional journals, business school classes, and computer science departments for years to come.

And yet, because it’s so damn long, many people will never read it, at best skimming articles claiming to synthesize its main points. That would be a big mistake.

Besides being brilliantly written—and often-laugh-out-loud funny—much of the value of this piece comes from its clever immersiveness, spot-on detail, awesome side comments and digressions (see Java and Microsoft, among others), and its illustrative demos.

This stuff matters, and it’s hard. Ford’s piece doesn’t dumb it down, but does a great job of making difficult concepts and complex processes understandable to smart people who may or may not be experts in the field.

It deserves a few hours of your attention, whether you’re a coder yourself (it’s important to know how others perceive you) manage an IT department that depends on software (don’t you want to know what your coders are thinking, what they’re worried about, and what they really want?), run a business or a business unit (what these developers create holds the power to make or break almost any company, and it’s growing more central every day) or even just use software in your business and personal life (a group that includes pretty much everyone).

10 key quotes

If all that isn’t enough to get you to read this thing, maybe these 10 quotes and excerpts (not in order) will help inspire you:

1. There have been countless attempts to make software easier to write, promising that you could code in plain English, or manipulate a set of icons, or make a list of rules—software development so simple that a bright senior executive or an average child could do it. Decades of efforts have gone into helping civilians write code as they might use a calculator or write an email. Nothing yet has done away with developers, developers, developers, developers.

2. I was in a meeting once where someone said, “How long will it take to fix that?” One person, who’d been at the company for years, said, “Three months.” A new person, who’d just come from a world of rapidly provisioned cloud microservices, said, “Three minutes.” They were both correct.

3. “Enterprise” is a feared word among programmers, because enterprise programming is a lot of work without much to show for it.

4. If you’re going to understand how code works in a corporate environment, you need to understand what object-oriented programming is.

5. Data management is the problem that programming is supposed to solve. But of course now that we have computers everywhere, we keep generating more data, which requires more programming, and so forth. It’s a hell of a problem with no end in sight. This is why people in technology make so much money.

6. Programmers are forever searching for a silver bullet and, worse, they always think they’ve found it.

7. C is a simple language, simple like a shotgun that can blow off your foot.

8. The management of programmers is a discipline unto itself.

9. Code culture is very, very broad, but the geographic and cultural core is the Silicon Valley engine of progress. The Valley mythologizes young geniuses with vast sums. To its credit, this culture works; to its shame, it doesn’t work for everyone.

10. As a class, programmers are easily bored, love novelty, and are obsessed with various forms of productivity enhancement. God help you if you’re ever caught in the middle of a conversation about nutrition; standing desks; the best keyboards; the optimal screen position and distance; whether to use a plain text editor or a large, complex development environment; chair placement; the best music to code to; the best headphones; whether headphone amplifiers actually enhance listening; whether open-plan offices are better than individual or shared offices; the best bug-tracking software; the best programming methodology; the right way to indent code and the proper placement of semicolons; or, of course, which language is better. And whatever you do, never, ever ask a developer about productivity software.

Start reading now.

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