An Ode to Code: A Dispatch from Kara Swisher's Last Code Conference
Inside the poker room and the tribute to Steve Jobs.
“The queen herself, Kara Swisher, big round of applause please,” Jason Calacanis called out to the assembled crowd as he kicked off an homage to the prolific tech reporter who has just wrapped her final Code conference.
Standing on a chair next to the backroom poker game that’s been a Code Conference fixture, Calacanis paid tribute to Swisher. “She’s a tremendous host, an amazing interviewer. Some people have survived the interviews. Some have not. But it’s been absolutely wonderful that you’ve created this wonderful community, Kara.”
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Calacanis, an investor-slash-tech media persona of his own right, played Silicon Valley statesman: “We really owe you a lot as a leader in our community — both sides of the table, everybody in between, the capital allocators, the creators of the companies. You’ve documented all of this for us. And it’s truly meaningful. The body of work is tremendous.”
Swisher, still wearing her Code lanyard, didn’t let Calacanis prattle on for too long before she cut in.
“Can I ask you a question,” Swisher asked. “How much money have you made playing poker? Second question: Do I get a vig?”
The crowd erupted into laughter.
The backroom poker game — two tables, one for the high rollers and one with a $500 buy-in that even some reporters can afford — is hosted by PR fixer and Swisher friend Brooke Hammerling, along with Calacanis. The hotel suite ends up being a sort of fish tank for reporters to gawk at the tech set.
The event may have been billed as off the record. But I wouldn’t know. I never got an invitation. (Thanks, Brooke!) I slipped in as so many do. Calacanis gave me the O.K. to quote from his farewell address to Swisher’s Code.
This week’s Code marked 20 years since the conference’s instantiation as “All Things D” when it was still part of the Wall Street Journal. Later, Swisher and company spun off on their own before ultimately selling to Vox.
Many of the diehard Code A-list attendees made sure to make it this year for Swisher’s last.
Calacanis, Earthlink founder Sky Dayton, DoorDash co-founder Stanley Tang, and Altimeter’s Brad Gerstner were among the people sitting around the big kids poker table Wednesday night. Mark Cuban showed up the night before. Science’s Peter Pham was allowed back to the poker room. On stage, Swisher tweaked Pham for his vocal anti-mask stance. Before I left for the airport, Pham pressed a can of Liquid Death water into my hands.
There were probably as many reporters as tech notables lurking around the edges of the poker tables. Puck reporters Teddy Schleifer and Dylan Byers were hanging around (and co-founder Jon Kelly attended the conference). Semafor’s new technology editor Reed Albergotti was on the scene. Taylor Lorenz, who has a nose for big moments, was there wearing her mask. The Verge’s Alex Heath actually played poker and insisted to me at various moments that he was in the money. The Verge’s Nilay Patel was on hand, as were Platformer’s Casey Newton, Recode’s Peter Kafka, Axios’ Ina Fried, and CNBC’s Jonathan Vanian.
As they were toasting Swisher, Calacanis and crew also remembered two iconic poker players who passed away: Dave Goldberg and Tony Hsieh. Goldberg died in 2015 and Hsieh in 2020 and both have left a big hole in the hearts of the poker crew. Bill Gurley, another poker table mainstay, missed Code this year after his mother died following a long battle with Parkinson’s.
Death very much seemed to be on everybody’s mind.
The conference had an air of finality. This was, as we were frequently reminded, Kara’s last Code.
I don’t think Swisher is really winding down. She’s already got another conference — Pivot in Miami with her co-host Scott Galloway — and you have to wonder if that will assume some of Code’s spirit. She’s launching another podcast with Vox after cutting ties with the New York Times. Sway will surely be reborn with a new identity. And as Swisher’s book publisher playfully reminded me at Code, Swisher is supposed to be writing her memoir.
It’s not like she’s retiring. Just retiring from Code.
Several drinks in Wednesday night and as things were winding down, I cornered Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff to ask him who would be taking over Swisher’s spot. He teased me that I seemed to be angling for the gig. Then he gently slipped away from my tipsy questioning.
The plan seems to make hosting the conference more of a team effort. But it’s hard to envision Code without Swisher.
Hung over Thursday morning and processing all that had transpired, I scrolled through Techmeme (whose editor Gabe Rivera attended Code) and the headlines were full of stories from Code. But it’s always disconcerting to read the news headlines from the real world that you experienced. Somehow a charming and relaxed Bob Iger is reduced to Bob Iger says Disney didn’t buy Twitter because of bots, ‘hate speech’ and a worshipfully nostalgic panel about Steve Jobs that elevated the Apple founder to saint-like status became Steve Jobs’ friends and family just launched an archive to celebrate his life.
At most tech conferences, there’s a strong divide between the conference that exists on stage and the one off stage. Too often, the on-stage events feel like a charade, targeted at unsophisticated attendees. The real conference is wherever all the interview subjects and moderators mingle.
But Swisher is so good at making sure her interviews are actually interesting and genuinely surprising. And this year, she seemed to go out of her way to interview people who she enjoys talking to. You could feel the chemistry particularly during interviews with Iger, Cuban, and Snap CEO Evan Spiegel.
Cuban played the part of tech missionary. With his new generic drug company, Cost Plus Drugs, he’s hard at work trying to slash drug prices. It’s hard not to root for him.
But Cuban also played the part of determined political independent in a world where — in my mind at least — pretending that the two American political parties are similarly flawed in 2022 is ridiculous.
I have to believe that on most issues Cuban is far more aligned with the Democratic Party than the Republicans. Yet, his harshest criticism was for Senator Elizabeth Warren. He said, “The idea of just ‘soak the rich,’ billionaire tears that fill that cup. Screw you, Elizabeth Warren, you’re everything that’s wrong with politics.”
Ah yes, the Warren who just voted to support Joe Biden’s energy and healthcare bill; the Warren who wants to slash drug prices; the Warren who is committed to defending abortion rights in the United States. Idle threats of a wealth tax are the real concern here.
Cuban made clear he wouldn’t vote for Texas Governor Greg Abbott — though he seemed unwilling to cheer for Beto O’Rourke when O’Rourke is the only alternative in the two party world that we actually inhabit.
Remembering Steve Jobs
Politics — and the struggle for moderates to speak plainly about the political moment — was certainly in the air at Code.
During their panel about Steve Jobs, Laurene Powell Jobs and Apple CEO Tim Cook both said that Jobs would be disappointed by the stark partisan political environment. But while the panel, which also included Jony Ive, celebrated what a truth teller Jobs would have been if he were still alive today, Cook clearly wasn’t willing to play that role himself.
They didn’t say what exactly Jobs would object to.
Trumpism or cancel culture?
What do they see as the root causes of the political upheaval? What is to be done about it beyond platitudes about the pervasiveness of partisanship?
I thought one of the most telling questions came from former Code host Walt Mossberg over teleconference. Mossberg asked whether Jobs would have been disappointed with the focus on Apple’s market cap and financials.
Paraphrasing Mossberg: Wouldn’t Jobs have preferred to focus on the product and not worry so much about what it meant for the bottom line?
Cook quickly agreed with Mossberg’s assessment.
But the current Apple CEO didn’t engage with what I read as the implicit critique: Cook’s even-keeled approach eschews the types of fights that might worry the financial world but that Jobs would have fought out of principle (or impulse).
The conference played as a sort of a backroom Democratic Presidential primary with all the candidates vehemently denying that they were running for anything. Amy Klobuchar, Gavin Newsom, and Pete Buttigieg all spoke.
Newsom is a preternaturally talented politician who landed the right message on housing and growth for the tech set without coming off as pandering. When it came to taxes, Newsom bragged that for many Californians, the state’s taxes are actually lower than they would be in Texas. Certainly that’s not true for the high earners who attend Code.
“I know this is the wrong audience,” Newsom mused.
Buttigieg told everyone how much he’s obsessed with smart sewers. He also had the most believable response for why he wouldn’t say he would run for President at some point. (Making the decision to run is about meeting a particular moment, so it’s not a decision that can be made in the abstract.)
I did think Swisher got a little too fixated on who wanted to be President. (She’s clearly someone who occasionally fantasizes about holding more power herself, having once flirted with running for mayor of San Francisco.) The President question is an easy way to stroke panelists’ egos while playing for headlines.
On one level, what’s the harm? But on another, I don’t think we should live in a society that looks at the governor of the most powerful state in America and wonders whether that is enough for a man as handsome and as charming and as politically attuned as Newsom. Our time would be better spent worrying about how he’s doing as governor than obsessing over an uncertain future. Only one human being gets to be President at a time.
Elected Republicans were notably absent from the conference. I don’t know how anyone besides maybe Liz Cheney or Mitt Romney could really vibe with Swisher’s style of good natured but incisive questioning. Swisher and the interviewee ideally need to occupy the same universe for her interview questions to land. But it would have been fun, if unrealistic, to see her give Ron DeSantis a grilling. (Swisher told me for a Dead Cat podcast episode that will air next week that she tried unsuccessfully to get some Republicans to speak.)
I thought Aswath Damodaran and Anne Neuberger were two of the less famous speakers who stood out. Damodaran, a finance professor at NYU, made a very compelling critique of ESG investing and shareholder capitalism. He raised the alarm that CEOs seemed all too happy to support a corporate governance strategy that left them with far more discretion to run companies how they like in the name of good governance.
Meanwhile, Neuberger, the deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor, is exactly the sort of person you want to believe is quietly running our government. She had sophisticated takes on crypto, quantum computing’s threat to encryption, and the war in Ukraine.
Mathias Döpfner, CEO and chairman of Axel Springer, struggled to square the circle on his desire for his journalists to write from the political middle at a moment when one American political party is denying the results of the election and seems to be moving to undermine future democratic elections. But, Döpfner came off as far more open and honest than many media executives. He answered questions about the latest Washington Post profile of him directly. He said that his tongue-in-cheek internal message supporting Trump came as the former president was cracking down on Google. Certainly, I’d rather the expressly pro-democracy and pro-NATO Döpfner buying up media organizations than someone like Rupert Murdoch.
Neither Amazon CEO Andy Jassy nor Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai particularly impressed. Jassy did not seem to handle the union issue very well, spending more time on the topic than he needed to. Smartly, he turned almost every question back to Amazon’s focus on customers. He didn’t seem particularly interested in framing up a big strategic shift from Jeff Bezos’ tenure. He saw health care, streaming, and Alexa as potential future pillars of Amazon’s business.
Pichai came off as likable but then looking back on his answers it doesn’t feel like he said much of anything. Yes, Google is very invested in AI. That much is clear.
The funny thing with these big tech giants is that they seem more interested in underselling their companies than bragging about them. Jassy, Pichai, Cook all went out of their way to highlight how many competitors they have. When an audience member asked Pichai about Google’s lagging position in cloud computing, Pichai almost seemed to celebrate the company’s poor performance. After all, it was further evidence that Google isn’t a monopoly!
The behind the scenes chatter at the conference was much as you would expect. What’s going on with the markets? What will become of Code?
I told the story of my recent (successful) engagement over and over again.
Walking over to the Waldorf Astoria for the final dinner at Code, I caught up with Steven Levy who reminisced about an era where tech executives were more accessible than they are today.
The big tech CEOs didn’t make their way back to the poker room.
Marc Andreessen, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg were notably absent from Code altogether.
Swisher quipped at one point that Andreessen said that Silicon Valley had “Stockholm syndrome” when it comes to her. What else could explain Calacanis’ toast to someone who has tweaked Silicon Valley personalities more than they would like?
Swisher has a unique talent for coming off as simultaneously affable and hostile to her interview subjects. She’s willing to undercut them and bring up old embarrassing answers. But she also keeps things moving along and seems to want her guests to come off well. Don’t forget that she once urged a sweaty Zuckerberg to take off his sweatshirt to help keep him from fainting on stage.
Despite my reporterly disposition to root for a grilling — the Steve Jobs memorial made for a great final session Wednesday.
Swisher read a passage of Jobs’ musings on death from a speech at Stanford.
He told students at Stanford:
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
On stage at Code, Swisher told a story of how Jobs had confided in her once about the story behind his adoption. Then, having shared an intimate moment, Jobs hugged her.
Swisher insisted, as she often does, that she does not like to be hugged. But she made an exception.
Swisher teared up remembering Jobs’ words. And sitting in the audience, I wiped away tears too.
Swisher believes that Jobs’ death profoundly changed Silicon Valley.
Swisher, 59, doesn’t seem to be dying or retiring anytime soon. (Her mother, Lucky, sat amid the Code audience.) But questions about how Swisher wants to spend the rest of her life seemed very much on her mind.
Back in the poker room, Calacanis reminisced about a moment when Swisher had a mini-stroke many years ago. It was a scary moment for Silicon Valley and for Swisher.
A certain version of Silicon Valley does seem to be dying with the end of Swisher’s Code.
Where was the fresh crop of tech strivers to fill the gaps at the poker table?
Swisher tried to push conference attendees’ attention toward clean energy and the environment. Mostly, it’s been the same crew for a long time. Swisher tapped Kleiner Perkins chairman John Doerr, 71, to make the pitch for protecting the planet.
For her part, Swisher’s interests have expanded far beyond tech. And the tech set is less dependent on her — and reporters generally — than they once were.
This generation of tech CEOs don’t think they need the press anymore. They can go direct. I spoke to one younger investor who said that his colleagues had gone to Calacanis’ “All-In” conference this year.
On The Beverly Hilton Hotel balcony just outside the poker room, I joined in some of the Swisher nostalgia and told her how much I look to her career when I chart out my own. I confessed my admiration and then apologized for the moment of earnestness.
She gave me a hug.
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