What Is 'What Is Code?'
Behind the scenes of Bloomberg's 38,000-word opus.
Screengrab: Bloomberg Businessweek
When Bloomberg Businessweek told him it was going to give him the whole magazine to write a single article about computer programming, Paul Ford, a soft-spoken programmer and writer, sat on his couch with a pillow over his head and just let out a long "aaaaaaahhhhh," like he had just stuck his finger on the 'A' key.
Ford's piece started out as a 2,000-, then 4,000-word piece. It grew much longer from there, demanding the efforts of a team of editors, graphic artists and web developers to make it what it is now: An interactive primer that not only teaches how computers process code, but commits code as part of its narrative. This turned into "What Is Code?"
But what, exactly, is "What Is Code?" Bloomberg's online presentation of the massive, 38,000-word piece has received just as much buzz as the content of the article itself. Immediately after the story was published, people were calling for it to be preserved as an artifact of the current state of digital media.
"It's a particularly complicated piece of art. With the parallel description of what code is, it implements code as part of the in-built web process," said Jason Scott, proprietor of textfiles.com and curator at the Internet Archive. "It's its own dynamic work. It's an extreme risk."
The thing that makes Ford's piece something of a unicorn isn't just the fact that it's comprehensive and informative, but that it reads something like a book, skipping back between theory and culture with narrative arcs between.
"This is a gold standard as both a culturally relevant statement and something fundamentally meant to be ephemeral," Scott said.
So, yes, it's art. But, at the same time, it's content that has to be published in the same vein as news that fades within hours or days. Why does this piece, which clearly took months to put together, actually exist?
"What Is Code" started off as a personal request from Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel. The average American has sharpened his or her technical prowess over the past couple decades, but what makes that technology work? Code is something of a shape-shifting beast that's hard for them to wrap their heads around, much less tame. Tyrangiel believes the walls are coming down between America and its coders.
"Frankly, we're at a reckoning point in American business," he said. "When software is in your pocket and in your house, it's no longer our right to say 'well, other people do it.'"
"There were some wild early ideas I was into—The article would be an API! You'd read it by debugging it!"
And so he chose Paul Ford, who has written a couple fiction pieces for Motherboard (and is widely published all around the web), to explain what the heck it is, particularly for the benefit of the Bloomberg staff who wanted to understand coding.
"I started the outline as a FAQ," Ford told me, "Then on the draft I'd just release all the questions and pretend this was supposed to be the narrative flow after all."
The piece has somewhat of a scattershot nature, skipping between short stories and actual code/logic, leads the reader through history and then back to code.
"It was particularly chosen and managed chaos [for Bloomberg]," Ford said. "They liked some surprises."
And so, 2,000 words ballooned into 38,000 words. Then the team had to decide how to present it as an important piece of journalism.
"There were some wild early ideas I was into—The article would be an API! You'd read it by debugging it! You'd interact entirely through a command-line rhetorical REPL! We just had as much fun as we could with what the medium affords," Toph Tucker, a Bloomberg developer who worked on the project told me.
In the end, the piece winds through interactive elements, graphic contributions made by Steph Davidson and Adam Pearce, who worked on the switchboard you see above, an onscreen keyboard that actually works, and a Clippy-like blue gremlin that guides you through the piece.
In proper fashion, the dev team open-sourced the code as a way for readers to deconstruct the madness in making the page. Doing that actually helped the team.
Bloomberg, now, has its "Snow Fall" moment, one that makes the entire journalism industry shut up and take notice not only of a compelling story, but how it's presented.
"The response has been a crazy perfect case study. Readers are actually correcting and debugging our code and sending us pull requests," Tucker said. "That is very normal for some people in some businesses and totally alien to others in others, and bridging that gap is part of the narrative intention of the essay."
Tyrangiel says the piece is worth reading, not only because of the herculean efforts behind programming the page, but because it truly does bridge the gap between laypeople and programmers.
"As much time as it takes you to read through the story, it'll ensure you'll have decades of a career," he said.
At the very least, you get a digital diploma when you finish reading it.