Publishers with developers? New jobs in an old business.

Tuesday last was the Society of Young Publishers’ career speed dating evening, which I was invited to appear at as a digital expert. Basically, a group of publishing students and people who are interested in working in publishing come along and ask you about your job and how you started out and what your day-to-day entails, and you’ve got six minutes to turn your own blank look into something like worldly advice.

I was really pleased to be asked to share my wisdom, such as it is. My first job in publishing was in an independent publishing house in Scotland, and the digital expert there did everything from maintaining the website to fixing the printers. He was the one who first taught me how to code and I loved it. While I never planned to learn these skills, I am incredibly grateful I did, because without them I wouldn’t be where I am now.

On Tuesday, I felt this story was probably applicable to everyone. Ever.

So I went wind milling in to the SYP event, blasting away about the importance of learning the minutia of coding while my fellow digital experts, Alastair Horne (of @pressfuturist fame) and Michael Bhaksar (of Profile Books) shared a bemused smile and shook their heads. And I can understand why.

Hiring an in-house developer if you’re a publisher would be like travelling by helicopter in case of earthquake – a very expensive way of making sure you had your bases covered if a specific situation arose. Trade publishers won’t and shouldn’t do it.

But knowing how to code does give you a distinct advantage throughout the business, and the business an edge over its competitors. I think this is something the three of us at Tuesday’s event agreed on.

Someone who knows how to code will be in a better position to troubleshoot for people who don’t understand new digital processes; they will be able to call ‘bullshit’ when a developer asks for £400 to fix a line of text on a website; they will be vastly more useful in predicting problems with a website at the briefing stage, reducing maintenance and redevelopment costs.

These are things publishers need to learn because they’re becoming so fundamental to our business that we can’t just say ‘let someone else deal with it’ anymore. We need to have people who know how to create digital developments in theory, even if we outsource all the actual development work.

I think it’s important for publishers not to underestimate the value of having a tech-head on staff. I think it’s something we run the risk of doing especially since our focus has perhaps moved on from complicated apps and enhanced eBooks to business strategies. But technology isn’t slowing down, and we need to stay interested in even the most boring developments if we’re to drive innovation.

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  1. As a programmer and ex-employee of a major educational publisher, I do completely agree with the principle – publishers will increasingly struggle to keep on top of the digital transformation without having the skills close to hand.

    That said, I think it very unlikely that I’d ever consider working for a publisher again, or recommend to any other tech-savvy talent – in the short-term at least. Few sane programmers would take employment with a publisher if they knew what they were about to get themselves in to. There’s more to employing someone than just putting them on the payroll. It’s about getting the right processes and environment that will allow programmers, and those working on digital projects, to flourish. I’m not convinced this is something the mainstream publishers can provide for the foreseeable future. 

    The industry is ripe for disruption – the new digitally-focussed companies who’ve taken the view that the medium for content is software rather than paper will be the ones who attract the tech-literate talent, like us nerdy programmers.

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