To Understand Code, Don’t Read 38,000 Words. Just Start Coding.

“What Is Code?” received extra-special treatment on the Bloomberg Businessweek website.

Bloomberg Businessweek snagged an impressive share of the Internet’s fickle attention today by publishing a 38,000-word essay by the writer and programmer Paul Ford. The opus, which spans 72 pages, tackles a question I’m not sure anyone other than Ford’s editor was asking: “What Is Code?”

The work itself is not undeserving of the hype. Ford, a self-described “middling programmer,” is far better than middling as a writer (as he has demonstrated in many outlets, including Slate). His prose is a pleasure to read, and sharp little insights abound. (“ ‘Algorithm,’ ” he observes, “is a word writers invoke to sound smart about technology.” A computer is “a clock with benefits.”)

That said, “What Is Code?” will almost certainly be remembered more for its length than for the ideas it propounds.

That’s partly because it is pitched to a rather Businessweek-specific audience.  The piece begins and ends with the conceit that you, the reader, are a vice president of a large business tasked with overseeing a costly redesign of your website’s back end. Come to think of it, the middle leans pretty heavily on that conceit as well.

If you are a vice president of a large business tasked with overseeing a costly redesign of your website’s back end, then by all means, read the whole piece. You’ll be rewarded with, among other things, a vivid and humorous glimpse into those whiteboard meetings your software developers are always holding. You’ll learn why they seem to spend so much time attending conferences instead of writing code. You’ll get a picture of what’s at stake when they squabble over the merits of various programming languages. And, if you pay close attention, you’ll even begin to understand a bit about what computer code is, how it works, and how to make sense of it.

Read the piece on the Web, and you’ll encounter even more goodies: clever interactive elements, embedded videos, a little Easter Egg at the end. (Just don’t skim too lightly, or an annoying little animated character will harass you about it.) As a work of experimental journalism, it’s a wonderful achievement.

But let’s say you aren’t VP of a large business or even a middle manager at a midsize one. Let’s further stipulate that you aren’t a media critic or a judge of some digital media award. Let’s say you’re just a person who wants to understand code a little better than you do today. You could do worse than spending two hours, give or take, reading “What Is Code?” But you could also do better.

To me, the most illuminating part of Ford’s essay—at least, the part that most directly addresses the question “what is code?” in a way that a noncoder can comprehend—comes near the very end of the online version, in the form of a little window that allows you to try your hand at writing a few lines yourself. You can read all the words in the world about code or all the words in the world about riding a bicycle. But the only way to truly understand either one is to give it a try.

Fortunately, there is no need to wade to the bottom of an epic Businessweek piece if that is your goal. There are any number of free resources available online that will thrust you straight into coding with no prerequisites. Learning a little programming is not nearly as intimidating as it sounds, and it’s actually quite fun. Codecademy is a particularly user-friendly platform. W3schools, Khan Academy, and Coursera all offer introductory programming tutorials, too.  

It has become trendy to proclaim that everyone should learn to code. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. The majority of those who are already adults will do just fine leaving the coding to the professionals. (Kids are a different story: I think they should learn at least the basics of programming, the same way they learn the basics of chemistry or algebra or literary criticism, even if they have no intention of practicing them vocationally.)

But as a writer who has taken the time to pick up the basics of a few programming languages over the years, I am convinced that anyone who wants to better understand the nature of software should start by simply experiencing it firsthand. To program professionally is hard and requires a lot of experience, but to program recreationally is easy and requires none.

What is code? It’s a good question, and Ford’s is a noble attempt at an answer. But you’ll get a better one if you just start here.