What is Code

This issue of Businessweek comprises a single story devoted to ­demystifying code and the culture of the people who make it. There’s some technical language along with a few pretty basic mathematical concepts. There are also lots of solid jokes and lasting insights. It may take a few hours to read, but that’s a small price to pay for adding decades to your career. —Josh Tyrangiel bloomberg

Software has been around since the 1940s. Which means that people have been faking their way through meetings about software, and the code that builds it, for generations. Now that software lives in our pockets, runs our cars and homes, and dominates our waking lives, ignorance is no longer acceptable. The world belongs to people who code. Those who don’t understand will be left behind.

It’s a good and healthy exercise to ponder what your computer is doing right now. Maybe you’re reading this on a laptop: What are the steps and layers between what you’re doing and the Lilliputian mechanisms within? When you double-click an icon to open a program such as a word processor, the computer must know where that program is on the disk. It has some sort of accounting process to do that. And then it loads that program into its memory—which means that it loads an enormous to-do list into its memory and starts to step through it. What does that list look like?

The hardest work in programming is getting around things that aren’t computable, in finding ways to break impossible tasks into small, possible components, and then creating the impression that the computer is doing something it actually isn’t, like having a human conversation.

Programmers carve out a sliver of cognitive territory for themselves and go to conferences, and yet they know their position is vulnerable. They get defensive when they hear someone suggest that Python is better than Ruby, because [insert 500-comment message thread here]. Is the next great wave swelling somewhere, and will it wash away Java when it comes? Will Go conquer Python? Do I need to learn JavaScript to remain profitable? Programmers are often angry because they’re often scared. We are, most of us, stumbling around with only a few candles to guide the way. We can’t always see the whole system, so we need to puzzle it out, bit by bit, in the dark.

Programming is debugging. It’s the expectation that things won’t work. This is not something people bring up, just like they don’t bring up their medical history on the first date. Most languages have constructs built in for catching failures, trapping them like wild animals, examining them, and, well, exterminating them. In time, as the relationship between you and a programming language blossoms, you come to realize that what truly characterizes a language is not what it does, but how it tells you what broke. Most of your programming life will be spent trying to figure out what broke, and if the computer helps you, maybe you can watch your kids play soccer.

I spoke with some friends in their 40s who had spent careers in technology. I was complaining. I said, “I mentor some millennials, and my God. Every job is a contract position. Nothing comes with health care. They carry so much debt.” They looked at me with perplexity. It took a moment, and then one of them said: “Not if they can code.”


The source for the article is on github with 40 contributors and nearly as many outstanding issues. I notice Mike Bostock (a personal hero) has one commit. github