Emma Barnes: embrace the code


This is a guest from Emma Barnes.
Emma is m.d. of Snowbooks, the independent publishing house she co-founded in 2003, and c.e.o. of the FutureBook-award-winning Bibliocloud system for publishing. As both a publisher and a coder, Emma has a unique vantage point on the intersection between digital technologies and innovative content.

When I graduated with an archaeology degree in 1996, and got a job as a management trainee for a global retail group, I had no idea that 8 years later I’d co-found an independent publishing company. And when I co-founded that independent publishing company, I had no idea that,13 years further on, I’d find myself a professional Ruby on Rails developer.

Life is weird. And you can’t plan it out. All you can do is try to be happy, and learn as much as you can on the off-chance that it’ll come in handy. I’ve got lucky: not only do I run Snowbooks — a lovely little publisher of amazing books — but nowadays I’m the lead programmer of Bibliocloud, our title management software which we’re formally launching out of beta at the London Book Fair this year.

A decade of steadily automating away the administrative drudge of publishing has left me a proficient programmer: first in XML and XSLT and now in the tools of the web development trade: Ruby on Rails, jQuery, SQL, HTML5 and CSS3 and database management on PostgreSQL. Using these tools, with my team, I’ve built Bibliocloud to be an enterprise management application which takes care of almost every aspect of our business. Snowbooks has relied on Bibliocloud throughout the app’s development: at the end of 2012 we started to license its use to other publishers and organisations.

Starting to code was not a frightening step into the dark, because I took baby steps. In 2003, I opened up an ONIX file. ONIX is XML, written more or less with English words. Figuring I could use it to populate AI templates, I tinkered with manipulating the XML until that was second nature. Coding is very moreish — start down the road, take small, incremental steps. Let the years pass and before you know it, you’ve got your 10,000 hours under your belt.

You shouldn’t think that you could never learn to code. My mental arithmetic skills are worse than my 6 year old’s. I would have been laughed out of a computer science degree interview. But I love patterns, and stories, and brevity and elegance: all the things that publishers are good at. You don’t know whether you can do it unless you try.

I learned to program because I needed something like Bibliocloud to exist so I could run Snowbooks properly. No-one else was going to write it, so I tooled up and did it myself. I had to go from a standing start, skills-wise, so it did end up taking quite a few years to progressively learn the right skills. But now I’m at the other end of the journey, it’s interesting to be able to compare life without coding skills, and life with.

And life without coding skills is awful! It’s chock-a-block full of admin. No-one goes into publishing to spend their days filling in repetitive, endless spreadsheets, surely? But unless you can manipulate data throughout your working day with little programs, you’re tied to the manual way of doing things.
If you can’t code, you don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t know what’s possible. You can’t be a digital creator because you’ve got no tools at your disposal, and no understanding for collaborating with others on such projects.

Only a select few publishers employ programmers at the moment. This will change, and the change will be overnight — but it takes time to learn how to code, so start now, or the new jobs will go to outsiders. Nowadays there are some amazing, cheap ways to learn programming — because people who can code are passionate about sharing their skills with everyone else. Look at Codeschool. Come to our own course, Try Programming for Publishers. Read The Rails Tutorial by Michael Hartl — by the end of it, you’ll have written your very own version of Twitter. Imagine!

In seven years, the kids who are currently learning to code in school, as part of the national curriculum, will be graduating. People with all sorts of degrees will have coding literacy, a skill as basic to them as English and maths. You’ve got a seven-year head start on them. Start to learn code now and you won’t be skilled out of the market before you’re 40.

Emma is on Twitter as @bibliocloud

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