Digitally Literate CEOs

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Hemispheres Magazine on 1 January 2014

Today’s CEOs likely consider themselves above—or certainly beyond—learning something as elementary as computer code. But as everyone from pop stars to pro basketball players have been arguing and even demonstrating lately, in thedigital age, knowing how to code is basic literacy—it’s fundamental.

Black-Eyed Peas rapper, for example, is aggressively studying code in order to better serve in his new role as Intel’s Director of Creative Innovation. And unlike, say, Ashton Kutcher’s new “product engineer” position with Lenovo,’s new gig is definitely more than a marketing ploy. Beyond building new tools for musicians, he’s frequently spotted at tech conferences and workshops, fully cognizant that participation in the digital culture and thedigital economy means speaking the native language. Meanwhile, for NBA star Chris Bosh, learning to code is about more than parlaying his athletic career into a business or having something to fall back on if the basketball thing doesn’t work out. As he explained in a manifesto he wrote for Wired magazine this past fall, Bosh simply takes “comfort in having a basic understanding of how something as big as this works.”

Shouldn’t a CEO? It wasn’t so long ago that CEOs prided themselves on their ability to roll up their sleeves, analyze an accounting report, and understand where the money was coming from and going to. But in the digital age, the language of spreadsheets and P&L’s—which CEOs are expected to be fluent in—no longer tells the story. There’s just too much business going on, and too many connections and data points, to get it down on paper. In fact, the biggest challenge to a bank CEO in the connected, digital economy is that they have to rely on everyone else to get information about what’s going on. If they want to know what is happening with energy prices, LIBOR or velocity of currency, they have to send the request to a trader or statistician somewhere in the risk assessment or foreign trade or bank transfers department. There, the employee codes up a quick routine that spits out the data. The bank exec gets some numbers, but he has no way of spot-checking for errors the way he used to do with Excel. (Hell, his ability to sniff out the inconsistency in someone else’s spreadsheet may have started him on his journey up the corporate ladder to begin with.)

Imagine if Jamie Dimon knew Python. He could have used it to pull the LIBOR rates and energy prices himself, or run his own quick probes of the bank’s hedging strategies, seen that they deviated from the norm and saved himself and his firm from a world of pain. Having the power of code is like being able to interrogate a data set oneself—taste the numbers, see how they are moving, ask questions of them and then pose follow-up questions, in real time. It’s the only way to get to the point where you know something just doesn’t feel right.

CEOs who aren’t code fluent are missing a vital sense. In the digital age, it amounts to driving with blinders on. Most liability regulations in the United States apply what is known as a “reasonable person” standard to situations where an executive turned out to be unaware of what was going on. And today it’s still considered reasonable for a CEOnot to know code.

But for how long? We’re fast approaching the point where the kinds of mistakes being made with code—from flash crashes and bank losses to improperly constructed synthetic derivatives and even a buggy government healthcare website—end up costing the folks on top their companies and their jobs. And sometimes even their freedom.

The good news is that it’s not terribly hard to become basically proficient at code. There are easy, free online sites—my own favorite is—where an executive can learn Python, CSS and Java in private. Imagine aCEO asking the company’s marketers if they A/B tested their campaign, or asked the analysts to show the algorithm they’re using to model next quarter? Better yet, a CEO should get the whole company code literate. Gamify their progress with a leaderboard that shows who is learning the most or the fastest. Workforces will become more skilled and companies more resilient, and systems will become more secure as people learn what the risks are and how to avoid them.

And most of all, they will be able to think logically, algorithmically and in a fashion entirely more consistent with the digital age. As Chris Bosh puts it. “For me winning isn’t ‘winning’—it’s 01110111 01101001 01101110 01101110 01101001 01101110 01100111”