English is becoming the official language in the global business world, being currently spoken by approximately 1.75 billion people worldwide according to Harvard Business Review. While English is the fastest spreading language in human history, a significant proportion of businesses are still resistant to giving up on their native language. Just try having a casual conversation in English with German employees at their corporate headquarters canteen (I am German, just for the record). However, pressures are piling up, not only in Germany.
Mobile Life Campus in Wolfsburg/Fallersleben | Source: Volkswagen
Do you speak English? Nein
Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten introduced English as their official language of business back in March 2010. The company’s former CEO Hiroshi Mikitani made that decision after an extensive global shopping spree. A plausible move. How else can you make sure that thousands of new employees in China, Brazil, France, Germany, UK, Thailand and Taiwan are able to communicate with their peers in Rakuten’s corporate headquarters? Mikitani’s choice for English was met with excitement, but also with harsh critique. “It’s stupid for a Japanese company to only use English in Japan when the workforce is mainly Japanese.” so said Honda’s back then CEO Takanobu Ito. Besides that, it does not take much imagination to see the sheer panic on the faces of Rakuten employees, as they were confronted with a tight deadline to learn English within just two years. An international English scoring system was used to rate them, and candidates with lackluster performance were putting their careers at risk.
No doubt, businesses benefit from choosing English as their corporate language
Rakuten was reportedly able to diversify and empower their organization. Two years after the introduction of English as their corporate language, half of the senior executive team was non-Japanese, and nearly half of the entire company’s staff was able to communicate in English. Thus, the company became more efficient and easier to manage.
In today’s globalized economy it’s becoming increasingly difficult to run a business across multiple geographies without one official corporate language for all employees. Those companies which pick English as their primary corporate language also benefit from the spread of a unified corporate culture which substitutes local customs and with that potential conflicts and misunderstandings start to diminish. The expansion of all-American business culture, driven by ambition, teamwork and a can-do mentality has been a positive shock for every business I have been engaged with over the last 25 years. German employees are becoming less grumpy and resistant to change, Chinese and Japanese colleagues overcome their fear of publicly expressing constructive critique and Polish workers become less quarrelsome, not to mention the sudden disappearance of scatological language in their meetings.
You don’t speak English? You’re fired. You can’t code? You’re fired, too.
Who else is left to run the business?
If you are engaging with large businesses headquartered in non-English speaking countries, you will hardly find many employees who are at ease communicating with each other in English. In spite of how rapidly English conquered the world, we are still living in a Babylonian Tower. The tower is just getting bigger and bigger, and the pains and pressures are growing, as businesses need to become more efficient.
Globalization has shaken up the business world over the last decades, and so do technological advancements nowadays. Digital transformation is on the agenda of virtually every enterprise. With that, a growing number of business leaders realize that their staff needs to acquire new skills, and along these lines, they should learn to code.
Academy building has become the new buzz, and companies such as Volkswagen are investing double-digit USD figures in launching internal universities. Volkswagen Fakultiät 73 (ironically, the site is only available in German at present) aims to recruit 400 software developers within the next two years. Unheard in the conservative German automotive landscape, Volkswagen is even approaching universities in search of drop-outs. You didn’t enjoy studying medieval history? You may find your calling with coding! The curriculum at Volkswagen Fakultät 73 lists math for developers, Java, project- and time-management and - yes - English. Not only that, Volkswagen pays their students the equivalent of 1,300 USD per month to learn to programme in small classes, located in a hyper-modern office building. Life couldn’t be better!
On the other hand, companies are firing workers who lack sufficient technology skills by the thousands. Adel B. Al-Saleh, the current CEO of T-Systems, made it very clear: “Employees without coding skills need to leave.” so says the headline of an interview he gave to German IT magazine Golem.de. T-Systems is a 10 billion USD annual revenue subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom, the telecommunication giant with annual revenues north of 80 billion USD. According to recent McKinsey research, by 2030 300-800 Million workers need to be retrained due to advancements in digitization and automation. Are Volkswagen, T-Systems and Deutsche Telekom early indicators for a general trend? If so, we are witnessing the beginning of the most massive job market transformation in human history.
Everyone is supposed to be able to read and write code
Coding is becoming an essential requirement for virtually every employee in a corporate environment. In an interview on LinkedIn, the former CEO of General Electric, Jeff Immelt, put it this way: “If you are joining the company in your 20s, unlike when I joined, you’re going to learn to code. It doesn’t matter whether you are in sales, finance or operations. You may not end up being a programmer, but you will know how to code. We are also changing the plumbing inside the company to connect everyone and make the culture change possible. This is existential, and we’re committed to this.”
Why should everyone learn to code? “Get ready for the requirements of future job markets” is true, but too general. There are plenty of reasons why not only developers and data scientists should have that skill, but literally, everyone working in the lines of business in large, multinational companies.
#1 Programming teaches to think and solve problems
I started teaching myself to code in my 40s, after 20 years in corporate marketing. Admittedly, the beginnings were tough. Not because programming is, per se, difficult, but it requires a different approach to problem-solving. By contrast, if you work in management, your problem-solving skills are to a large extent tied to your ability to deal with people and their diverse characters, egos, and irrationalities. Programming, on the other hand, is pure logic at work. If you spent years in people management, you have to re-learn to apply logic in the first place to solve problems. Over time, as you become better at coding, you develop a humble attitude: “I don’t know the answer to a specific problem, and I have to try different new things, connect with others to find a workable solution.” Coding fosters a meritocratic culture and thus might save a company from failing on gut-feeling based decisions made by those managers with the biggest paychecks. Line of business managers are scared of coding. However, learning to code is not more difficult than learning to work with people, it’s just different. It’s almost like moving from a country with right road traffic to one with left road traffic or vice versa. What you are used to seems easy, what is alien to you looks difficult.
#2 It teaches the principles of Open-Source
Large enterprises, like manufacturers in the automotive space, are traditionally very secretive. Being open is associated with huge risks. Worst case, it can translate into opportunity costs worth billions of USD if advanced research leaks to their competitors. Mature, big markets such as the automotive are highly competitive, and not everyone plays by the rulebook. Industry espionage is a widespread tactic, and companies have good reason to be afraid of it. As big businesses need to transform themselves digitally, they automatically get exposed to Open-Source. “Software eats the world, and Open-Source eats software.” as the saying goes. It’s going to be a hard challenge for those large businesses to find the right balance between the necessary secrecy and openness of Open-Source. However, as employees learn to code, they start understanding the foundational principles of open source and thus alter their company’s culture bottom-up.
#3 It teaches to work collaboratively
Lean, agile, working out loud, holocracy - there is no shortage of buzzwords promoting a new corporate culture which is still alien to many large, globally operating businesses. As employees learn to code, they almost intuitively adopt a modern working culture. As the ex-CEO of General Electric stated: “You may not end up being a programmer.” The purpose of teaching employees to code is to change their mindset and thus enable a new corporate culture geared toward innovation. Digital transformation relies primarily on people and their willingness to adapt to new realms. As Matt Asay, a former board member of the Open Source Initiative, explains in an excellent write-up on InfoWorld: “The biggest win for Open-Source since its inception is how it has changed the narrative of how innovation happens in software. We’re starting to believe, and for a good reason, that the best, most innovative software is Open-Source.” Embracing Open-Source at a company-wide scale can make the entire organization more innovative and nimble.
Why should Python become an official corporate language?
First of all, Python is Open-Source, and figuratively speaking, so is English. No single company can claim ownership over English and charge users a license fee for using it. Nonetheless, the enterprise world is still geared towards proprietary software. As Matt Asay complains in the InfoWorld-article mentioned above: “20 years on, Open-Source hasn’t changed the world as promised. Most code remains closed and proprietary, even though Open-Source now dominates enterprise platforms. How can that be?” As Matt Asay elaborates: “Much of the innovation in enterprise infrastructure is increasingly governed by an Open-Source license.” However, a vast portion of software that runs on Open-Source infrastructure is “stubbornly proprietary.”
Should an insurer, for example, Open-Source their in-house software built for their company-specific claims management needs? The above article quotes ARM’s John Mark Walker: “All the major innovations happening right now are with Open-Source platforms, and yet there are still a lot of people … reinventing wheels.”
Sure, companies want to gain a competitive edge, and thus they rely on proprietary software built solely for internal purposes. It seems though that the exact opposite of what they assume is true: It’s Open-Source that might give them a competitive edge instead of proprietary code. Take Google as an example. They initially conceived TensorFow for internal purposes only, and later on, the Google Brain team open-sourced the library, which is heavily used for machine learning applications like neural networks. That way, Google remains in a sole position as a platform for innovation, with thousands of developers, data scientists and companies contributing to TensorFlow and utilizing it to grow their businesses. Oh, did I mention that TensorFlow is partially written in Python?
Python is the fastest growing programming language
It’s a general purpose language with a broad user base
According to the 2017 Python User Survey conducted by JetBrains, Python is equally popular amongst data scientists and web developers. In addition to that, Python is often used for DevOps, system administration and writing automation scripts.
Even an intermediate Python user, who works in the line of business as a marketing manager and utilizes the programming language for advanced web analytics can look into a web application or an automation script and to some extent understand what these are doing. He can have a meaningful conversation with a team of developers and admins on how they can jointly build a product or service.
It’s easy to learn, even for novices, to program in Python
“Python is an interpreted high-level programming language for general-purpose programming.“ as said by Wikipedia. It’s a language that is supposed to be readable to humans:
for comments in bottom_section_of_this_post:
print(“I am very happy that you liked my write-up!”
print(“I am sad that you didn’t like the article!”)
print(“I like your unbiased comment.”)
Even if you have zero programming experience, and you never heard of concepts such as for loops and conditional logic, the piece of Python-like code above is most likely readable to you. It’s designed that way. Python will certainly not substitute lower-level languages which are harder to learn. Just like English will not stop Chinese, German and Polish employees to communicate locally with each other in their native language. However, Python has the potential to glue together companies and get everyone on the same page, just like English.
Python is the new Excel
Just think for a minute how much companies rely on Excel as their primary decision engine. A publicly traded enterprise with revenues far beyond 100 billion USD annually, running almost entirely on Excel? Yes, seen that, been there. Excel was built for a world, which is ceasing to exist, where:
Still, these use cases exist, but Excel users must stop misusing their beloved spreadsheet tool for mission-critical data at scale because that’s what it’s not built for. Whenever businesses are encountering situations where:
Excel and similar spreadsheet tools are most likely the wrong choices. Instead, businesses should start massively leveraging on Data Science PaaS solutions and big scale analytics platforms such as Cloudera Altus, Microsoft Kusto and T-Systems Data Science Workstation, all of which support Python and a wealth of packages it comes with.
Working with Excel in a large, multinational enterprise is like trying to move an oil tanker with wooden paddles
This is still a harsh reality in many large corporations. Sure, paddles are a good solution for lifeboats. However, a vast oil tanker is undoubtedly better served with a powerful diesel engine. Python has the power to become that engine in the business world, thus increasing the speed at which tanker-like businesses move forward into a future shaped by data, software, and Open-Source.
Let’s make Python the official corporate programming language. Any first-movers out there?
I work as a data literacy expert, and I cater to large companies in Europe and the US. You have questions I didn't answer in my write-up, or you want to share your experiences? Please leave a comment or reach out to me via email [email protected] or LinkedIn. Thank you!