Yesterday, the brilliant and inimitable Paul Ford published a 38,000-word article in Bloomberg Businessweek, all about code. Which probably seems daunting, but every word of it is delightful, engaging, and will inevitably make you just a little bit smarter when it’s all over. I sat down with Ford to talk about coding, culture, Kinja, and with the prayer that some of his good sense would rub off on me.
The article is pretty clearly geared towards businessmen and women. How would you have written it different for something like Seventeen—or any sort of general audience, really?
You know, the thing is, they didn’t put any of those limits on me, they really didn’t. The person that’s written for is the editor of the magazine, Josh Tyrangiel. He was like, “I want you to write me an article about code because I just want to understand it. I manage all these web projects, and I get about 50 percent of them, so I want to know more.” So literally I wrote this for him so he could know more.
I read in one of your notes that this all really started as a short article and grew from there.
Oh yeah, it was ridiculous. It was like a game of chicken. It all really started over a year ago, and I just avoided dealing with it for six months or so. Just total procrastination, hid from the problem, didn’t answer emails, and then he was like, “Maaaybe it’s time now.” And then he started to troll me on Twitter.
That’s the only way to do it!
It really was. And it worked, so, he’s a very effective editor that way. Like he’ll just use whatever channel is necessary, and so I turned it in at around 6,000 words to start. And then 10,000. Then 12,000, and he just looked at it and he was like, “Keep going!” So kept going until I got close to 40,000 words, and then they were finally like, “Ok now we can cut.”
You spent a lot of time on general coding culture; do you think that you do need to understand the culture aspect to really *get* coding itself?
I mean, do you need to understand Kinja?
Well… honestly, I don’t understand Kinja.
[laughing] But you should, right? Like, you want to get in there, you want to figure out how Kinja works and who the product team are, and whatnot. I think it’s especially important in places like Gawker where everybody’s supposed to be talking together, and it can be really hard because you live in different worlds: The editorial world and the world of product and software. So I think that’s my goal and my fantasy: That I make it possible for people from one group to talk to the other group
Yeah, I mean, when I was reading the first few paragraphs, it was like, I am reading the story of Kinja right now.
[laughing] Right! You’re living it. You are living right in the middle of it. Because the goal of that organization is to make those two universes line up together. That’s how Nick Denton wants Gawker to succeed.
On that note, and I’m just kind of curious personally, how do you think Kinja is doing?
Oh, goodness. That’s a wonderful question. I think Kinja is... improving. I think it’s a fascinating platform, I like looking at it. I’ve made fun of it in public before. So the thing about that is that everybody has those problems—not just Kinja. I love how Kinja seems to be optimized for when stuff goes completely bananas. Like when Joel Johnson shows up and replies to the union post, and Kinja just shines in that moment. Because it just becomes totally crazy in there, and you’re just like, “What is happening?”
Basically, I think Kinja is the commenting platform that is correct for Gawker. Or I guess the mean way to say that would be that Kinja is the commenting platform that Gawker deserves. But I love Gawker! I read Gawker.
Going back to the piece, what was the most difficult concept for you to sort of translate into something actual humans could grasp?
That is a fantastic question. You know, in a funy way its not the technical stuf, because you can always go like, “Oh, version control. It’s just an infinte undo—you can metaphor your way through it. And if it’s clean enough and sensible enough, people will get it. They dont have to understand all the basics.
The hard part to convey, really, is the culture aspect. So talking about conferences and how they really do matter, how they’re kind of tribal, and how there have been all these cultural problems that play out at conferences that actually do connect back to technical issues. Trying to articulate culture really is harder than trying to explain the technology itself. So those are the parts I really struggled with. There’s a part in there where people talk about how to manage a single email field, and getting that conversation to the point that it felt honest was hard. So in a funny way, the parts explaining tech were less difficult than the narratives about the man in the taupe blazer or in the VP who wants to become an SVP, for instance. Trying to get that to be emotionally true was really hard.
The tricky thing with that is, because this ended up being a piece written entirely by me, I’m just not the right voice to talk about the issue of women in technology. I’m a chubby white dude—I’m exactly the wrong person. Which is kind of why I said it’s about the men. The men have the power right now, and they’re the ones who have to make the serious ethical decisions necessary to get their shit together. And honestly, you can go really complex on this, and you can talk about all sorts of history and so on. But, I mean—have you had the situation where you’re in a room with a bunch of dudes and you just cannot believe how horrible they’re being?
I actually haven’t, thankfully.
Oh, good, that’s wonderful! Because I know a lot of women who have, and it’s really just all on the men. It’s not on the women to constantly be going “Ok, now wait a minute...” It’s on the people who currently have the power to create a situation where the people who don’t have power—but who could do meaningful work—are able to come along and do that meaningful work. And do it without having to pretend to be somebody that they’re not.
Do you think that the tech industry specifically fosters that? Or do you think it’s a general problem as a whole?
I think that’s culture in general, and I think it’s just emphasized in tech.
I mean, I think like anyone I have my suspicions. But the reality is that there’s no good science there. Like, “Oh computers, well, they’re just the people who really love xyz.” And you know, “Women and men and math, and so on.” But the reality is that even if that were true, even if—and I don’t buy this—but even if men had some weird mathematical capability, you’re talking about little tiny percentages. And it just doesn’t add up.
For some reason, a lot of money showed up, and there are some bad cultural nets in place, some ugly history in there, and tech just became this environment. Not everywhere, but especially in smaller companies, because large companies end up with better HR departments and organize themselves a little better. But i think it just became this very masculine space, and I think a lot of women are just like, “Ugh, I don’t want to deal with this.” And then as other jobs started opening up to women, they went and did them. Because why go work somewhere where you don’t want to go and deal with all these horrible dudes?
Yeah, definitely. And there was another line stuck with me. You said, “We use computers too much—which is to say a typical amount...”
I mean, I’m currently sitting in front of my laptop, while I talk to you on my phone computer on my ear. And then I will go get on the train, where computers will tell me that the doors are opening. And then there will be computer screens that tell me how to to go down to Union Square and tell me when the next train is. We’re just surrounded.
But do you think it’s “too” much? Like do you think there’s something inherently bad about that?
I think it’s just life, right? I mean of course it’s too much. I eat too much, and I drink too much. We just live in this bizarre land of plenty, and technology is just one of those things we have way too much of.
Do you think there’s some fundamental difference between, like, “Learning to code!” but then also “Learning about code!” Because it’s clear you think people should know how code works, but how important do you think it is for people to actually know how to do it?
I think it’s one of those things where, well, “Everyone should know everything!” Everyone should know how to become a really good, clear writer because it will give them more power and authority in their life. Everyone should learn how to do enough accounting that they can start their own business and manage their own bank account. So it feels like that to me like you need to know how it works. Obviously, it certainly wouldn’t harm anyone to take a couple of days of their life to learn how Python works, or how to build a small website.
That’s all I’m really going for with this. If you know how it works, you can make smarter choices for yourself. So one of my goals with this piece is for it to be harder, for someone who reads this (I hope) to be lied to. They should be able to ask smarter questions of the people around them and challenge them more. That’s always good.
What’s the feedback been like?
I mean, I knew that programmers were going to be reading it. They’re a huge, diverse group of people who are among the nudgiest human beings on the face of the Earth. I know this because I’m one, of them. And I’m already getting feedback that’s like, “Wellll, your Fortran might compile, but you’ve made some serious errors. And the thing is, they’re right! And I tried to really hedge that in the piece and be very clear; I’m not a great programmer. I’m very good at some things, but I’m not a great programmer. I wanted to give people a taste of what it’s actually like. That’s why the cover actually has some Python on it. And theres all these little “to-dos” saying things like, you need to figure out currency, and you need to figure out what to charge. So There are all these little notes that I put in there to make it more like a real program. Which basically means it’s going to be something that’s kind of half-assed, and that you’ve got to get back to and finish.
Have any of the responses surprised you at all?
What’s actually been tricky—and really worth making a point about—is that i think it’s hard for people who see my name on it, and realize it’s one big essay, to not really perceive that about 50 people actually worked on this. And it’s not even a book where it might be just five or ten people who are actually involved—an enormous staff of people worked on making this special. My name is on it, but it’s way, way beyond one person. I don’t even have a complete credits list; I’ve been trying to keep track of everyone who helped me, and I’m going to have to go back and use all of my emails to figure out who sent me messages. Because it’s probably 45 or so people. And that’s just really hard to get across. Like, people think that I made the little robots on the website.
Yeah, I’ve actually been wondering about that, too.
[laughing] No! My god, no. That was Toph Tucker, and Steph Davidson. She’s a total genius—all those people are amazing. So the web team in particular (and there’s about three or four people over there), they just completely rocked it. And with the writing—there are two editors working on it, multiple copywriters, people who edit, Josh Tyrangiel, the editor, went through it multiple times. I had a PR person helping me. It just never ended. I’m not even trying to communicate a sort of, “Oh, I’m so grateful.” It’s just sort of like, when people see my name and they’re thinking, “Oh my god, he built the website.” I just want to be like, Noooo freaking way. This is 40-50 people working for a month to make me look good, so its just bizarre. I’m totally not emotionally prepared for that.