Bloomberg Businessweek’s latest issue contains one 38,000-word piece devoted to understanding code. “What is Code,” by Paul Ford runs 72 pages and is the longest the magazine has ever published. The double issue, which comes out on newsstands Friday, introduces the genesis of the piece under the subhead “Why are we here?”
We are here because the editor of this magazine asked me, “Can you write me an essay about what code is?”
“No,” I said. “First of all, I’m not good at the math. I’m a programmer, but, look, I’m an East Coast programmer, not one of these giant serious platform people from the Bay Area. And, I mean where do you even start?”
Via email, I spoke with Josh Tyrangiel, chief content officer of Bloomberg LP and editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, about the issue and what you’ll find online. Fittingly, code for the essay is available on GitHub.
Why devote an entire issue, in this way, to code?
Software has been with us for decades now, and it’s always been considered something made and understood by mystifying geniuses for the eventual consumption of a mass audience. But we’ve reached a point where software — and the code underlying it — is in our pockets, our cars, our homes, etc. We interact with it constantly and almost every company has a product that relies on code. So ignorance of how it works and how it’s made just isn’t an option anymore. If you don’t get it, or don’t at least try to get it, you’re going to be left behind.
This is the longest single story the magazine has published, but it’s not just 72 pages of words and code. What else will people find here and how will it help them make sense of code?
The words really led the way on this piece, but we’re a completely integrated shop — our designers are present at the creation of our stories and often have some of the best ideas about how to tell them. So we threw the usual suspects at it — there’s amazing photography, design, graphics, a few Easter eggs, all of which help to amplify the piece.
Tell me about how the magazine is telling this story on the Web. What will people find there that they won’t find in print?
Obviously it’d be nuts for us to do a 38,000 word story on Code and play it safe on the Web. So we’ve added all sorts of smart interactivity that allows you to dive deeper into code, to manipulate it and see the results. There’s even a certificate of completion you can share with your friends. It’s incredibly cool, but we’ve also been respectful of the fact that it still has to be a clean, well-lit reading experience.
While working with Paul on this, did you have any surprises as a reader?
Constant surprises. Paul’s brain works in amazing ways, so he’d respond to edits asking for more clarity with some amazing metaphors and turns of phrase. The piece took 18 months from commission to publication, and I did have to troll him a fair amount on social media when he would get behind on deadlines. (It’s a surprisingly effective tactic, btw.) But it must be said: He was a total joy to work with.
What will people who understand code get from this issue?
I hope they’ll get some relief. Being thrust into the role of constant explainer can be tiring. There are people in companies all over the world who spend each day patiently explaining how their teams work, why programming problems take longer and are less predictable than other problems, why costs are hard to estimate. I work with some of these people, and many of them are saints. So if instead of answering ‘Why haven’t we picked a coding language yet?’ for the 10th time they can thrust this piece under an executive’s nose, we’ll have done them a great service.