Back in 2014 I wrote an e-letter entitled “Amazon update: when will the Justice Department step in?” “Never,” most people, even lawyers, said. But things have changed, and maybe antitrust law will move into the 21st-century. I’m thrilled to say that the time has come: the Justice Department is investigating Big Tech – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Lina Khan is the law school who set this in motion, and I rejoiced when I read her story last year. Here’s the article in the New York Times.  This seems a good moment to publish a piece based on a speech I was supposed to deliver at the Beijing Book Fair a couple years ago. The topic intrigued my tech friends, and I was even asked if I would deliver it as the keynote speaker at a global publishing conference. Unfortunately neither event came off – the former because my son, who works in Beijing, came down with appendicitis the day I was supposed to speak – but I’m hoping for another chance.

Should a CEO write code?

Although I grew up around computers, as a child I couldn’t stand them. I was deeply embarrassed when my father insisted on coming to my classroom with a box he had built with lights that blinked on and off to demonstrate binary code (you’ll see a drawing below).

My father had been an electrical engineering major at Purdue, the first in his family of carpenters and electricians to go to college. He graduated in 1957 and went to work for GE, then for Honeywell in Minneapolis and Control Data, a mainframe company whose name seems all too prescient now. A decade later, he was recruited to the Santa Clara Valley (later called Silicon Valley).

By that time, he was a computer man with a wife and five children. So in April of 1968, we drove to California, leaving Minnesota’s brown lawns and dirty snow for a valley in bloom and a town with the beautiful name of Sunnyvale. My parents eventually bought a house in Cupertino, about a ten-minute walk from where Apple headquarters is located today.

All my siblings were good at math, and I sometimes wonder what path I might have taken if I’d been a boy, and encouraged in the ways that boys were then. At the time, I was simply embarrassed when our teacher announced that I had the top score in a countywide seventh-grade math test. In any case, math seemed boring and sterile, especially compared with books.

A teacher had given me Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables to read during the summer after fifth grade, and the Cupertino Library was within walking distance of my house. I was the sort of kid who hauled books home in brown paper shopping bags.

Compared with this, the world of numbers seemed devoid of meaning, emotion, or joy. I guess I still feel that way. But I also feel a little guilty, thinking back to my father’s classroom demonstration with the blinking box, and my embarrassment and dismissal of what he found so exciting about technology.

Dad’s counter. My brother Jim drew this and wrote, “It was octal because each set of three binary light colored corresponded to each octal digit. In those days, octal was fairly common in computer architectures.”
Thanks to that early exposure, however unwelcome it was, I’ve never been intimidated by computers, and I am grateful. To be a CEO today without knowing how to code would be like being a marshal in medieval England and not recognizing the business end of a sword. When I see that an image file is 98MB, I know that means that it has 98,000 off-on switches that map out the colors that we recognize as Notre Dame Cathedral or a cat doing a somersault.

Why does understanding what makes a text file small and an image file large make me a better CEO? Data size matters: it affects speed of loading, and storing data costs money and uses energy. Good code is pared down to the essentials. Tech people sometimes talk about “bloated” code, which makes our products, our websites, and our businesses less effective than they could be. I think coders see beauty in a perfectly constructed piece of code, as I see beauty in a sentence that unfurls with grace and power.

Any CEO, and anyone employed in publishing today, should understand how code is written, and even know a computer language or two. I admit that languages are a weakness of mine. I really use only one computer language today: HTML. I apparently ought to know the difference between ASP.NET and PHP, so you’ll probably see me taking a course on basic web architecture, or machine learning, before long.

Yes, our business is about words and language, and I haven’t lost my love for literature and stories. In fact my appreciation for them has increased as I have become both an educational publisher and an activist. The power of words is clearer to me today than ever before. But how do words get to those who read or listen to what we create and publish?

If you’ve been in the business a while, and most CEOs have, you’ll have heard it all: SGML, XML, HTML5, mobi. The list goes on. And you’ll have sat with glazed eyes listening to “some kid” telling you about the latest code/plug-in/segmentation faults. Or, even worse, to an ebook coordinator who is trying to impress you with the eleven different versions of a book file she had created.

So what’s it all about, these different languages and file formats? One thing to remember is that the goal is the same as it has always been, to transmit ideas and stories in a way that is as accurate and effective as possible. The endless struggles you hear about are simply attempts to create an orderly transmittal (and secure storage) of ideas and stories in an industry that had for several centuries a perfect technology for doing just that: the book.

Technology now offers us additional ways to transmit and store information, and we should be trying to do it well and do it beautifully.

I’m convinced that the publishing industry is in trouble in part because we literary types don’t want to get our technological hands dirty. We can’t properly assess tech pitches from vendors, and we let technology companies run right over us. And we haven’t insisted that editorial staff develop their IT skills. I keep meeting experienced professionals who feel like dinosaurs because up till now they got by doing things the way they always had, without learning much more than how to attach a PDF to an email.

I field complaints from young, technically able people that the publishing and social media platforms we use change so quickly that they spend an inordinate amount of time navigating rearranged sites and figuring out new tools. How do we all keep up without going nuts?

Mandarin Chinese is a good point of comparison here. I do not speak Chinese and I am not a programmer, but having some basic vocabulary and an understanding of how the language works is helpful to me and to my staff. I’m always proud when I sit with a group of former English majors discussing a new publication and one asks, “So are we including traditional characters as well as simplified?”

Back when I was getting ready to talk about this at the Beijing Book Fair, I discussed this with publishing colleagues in the Read 2.0 group. Some said senior people just need to know how to manage and lead those who understand the technology. Most said that you can’t lead effectively today if you don’t have at least a foundation-level understanding of how coding and computers work.

Understanding and writing code, even just a little, will help us to ask smarter questions, set more precise targets, and judge our successes and shortcomings. As a colleague from Google put it, “More useful for leaders is enough knowledge to know what they don’t know. Which isn’t coding exactly, but probably just as rare.”

Another publisher had a more practical take on the topic: “If you haven’t taken an hour to upload a Word document to Amazon Smashwords and followed the process up to the point of pressing “publish,” just to understand the functionality of self-publishing and see how easy it is, then you aren’t serious about your career in publishing.”

Perhaps we should come up with a list of things that senators and congresspeople should understand so they don’t let the millennials on Twitter and Reddit have a field day when the antitrust hearings take place. The mistakes they make are funny (“If I’m emailing within WhatsApp … does that inform your advertisers?”), but this is serious stuff, really.

For one thing, China is racing ahead. I’m planning to read Rebecca Fannin’s new book, Tech Titans of China: How China’s Tech Sector is challenging the world by innovating faster, working harder, and going global, after hearing her speak at the SupChina Women’s Conference. And the challenges related to foreign investment and the US-China trade war may just make China’s tech industry stronger: “Capital winter is forcing China’s startup scene to get mature.” Decoupling is not a sure win for the West.

Your comments are welcome. Please respond at our blog, or email me directly. (There’s also Twitter and Facebook and Instagram – @karenchristenze – but I’m not a consistent user of any social media platform.)

Best wishes,
Karen Christensen
Karen CHRISTENSEN, CEO & Publisher

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