Why marketers shouldn’t be asked to code

I recently attended Mobile Growth Summit 2016, a conference in San Francisco focused on app marketing. During a panel discussion between digital marketers from various startups, an audience member asked this question: “Do any of you code, and if not, do you plan to learn?” There was an awkward pause before the marketers in the hot seat politely answered that no, they themselves don’t code but collaborate closely with those who do.

I’ve been a digital marketer for over six years, and though this question isn’t new to me, it annoys me. I personally enjoy many aspects of marketing, from creative development to data analysis. Marketing is complimentary to my skills; that’s why I’ve built a career around it. While I certainly respect programming, it’s a skill that I have little interest in learning. There’s a gendered discussion to be had about why that may be, but let’s put that aside for now.

So why would one presume that a marketer should know how to code? Consider, for example, ‘digital marketing’’ roles on the startup job search site AngelList. These roles typically require experience across several subsets of marketing: mobile, social, display, organic and paid search, app store optimization, and more- the ‘Digital Marketer/Growth Hacker’ listing below is a great example of this. A digital marketer at a startup will usually be responsible for strategy, campaign management and reporting. They’ll need experience across many marketing and analytics tools, and they might also need design, UX, and even coding abilities.

Source: angellist.com

Now search the same site for “developer” “programmer”, or “engineer” roles. The skills needed and job responsibilities are much more specific. Employers might be looking for a backend programmer who knows NodeJS and Javascript, or an iOS engineer. This listing for a “badass coder” was literally three sentences: There’s one full stack engineer on the team. You’ll be number two. If you’re itching to shake things up, eat challenges for breakfast, and can code your way to the moon and back, hit us up and let’s chat! Note the salary disparity between the ‘growth hacker’ and the ‘badass coder’ as well.

Source: angellist.com

Are you beginning to see the dichotomy? Before they are even hired, marketers are expected to have obtained a much broader skill set than their more technical counterparts, and once they get the job, their daily responsibilities will have them working well into the night. Programmers and engineers are allowed to focus in on their areas of expertise, presumably allowing for higher-quality output, and with higher starting salaries.

A Google Search for “why marketers should code” returns plenty of preachy content aimed at digital marketers. For example, a tech.co blog post entitled 6 Practical Reasons Marketers Should Learn To Code advisers marketers that “Communicating with developers can be tricky, but with an understanding of their ‘language’ the entire team can run more effectively and smoothly”. There’s no mention of the fact that marketers also have their own ‘language’; one that developers are seldom asked to learn.

This double standard is inherently sexist. Digital marketers, who, as a Moz survey confirms, are more likely to be women than programmers, not only must possess a broader skill set than their more technical colleagues, but communication between these teams becomes difficult to non-existent. ‘Brogrammer’ boys clubs are allowed to work in a protected bubble with the assumption that outside fields are inferior and secondary. This phenomenon certainly isn’t exclusive to the tech industry, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.

Source: moz.com

A recent New York Times article on the drudgery of meetings, Meet is Murder, addresses this culture of elitism in an anecdote about tech startup Spring. Chief Technology officer Octavian Costache announced to employees a new policy to free up their calendars from meetings to allow for “maker time”. The premise of this decision was that in opposition to conventional “managers” in the workplace, there are also “makers”, “…poetic souls whose well-being can be shattered by an ill-timed ‘‘sync,’’ ‘‘brand lab’’ or ‘‘share-out’’ in a conference room”.

This is absolutely true, and I salute any organization that recognizes and nurtures varying employee needs. I myself am a ‘maker’, and work best when I have stretches of uninterrupted time to myself. Don’t we all? But as the article notes, “…only the product, design and engineering teams at Spring — today’s nobility — were now slated to enjoy one full day a week of Maker time.” The assumption here is that outside of these elite (disproportionately male) teams, we are all conventional, unimaginative “managers” and undeserving of protected time during which to create.

While programming is upheld as a sacred skill in tech, marketing is often laughed off as being comprised of “liquor and guessing”. Perhaps this disregard of marketers is in part due to lack of understanding of what we do in 2016 — it’s a far cry from Mad Men. Effective, well-executed digital marketing means understanding all available data for each segment of your target- demographic, psychographic, and geographic. It means knowing what message will resonate with each segment and reaching them in the right moment when they are primed to purchase. It means being able to predict future sales, revenue, ROI. It demands both creative and technical ability, often from the same individual.

Suffice to say, digital marketing is seldom done well. The tech industry supposedly runs on innovation, but overworked employees trying to do several people’s jobs at once is not a recipe for innovation. It’s a recipe for mediocrity. Constant multi-tasking and ‘faking it until we make it’ impairs our ability to think critically and produce quality work. In other words, this is why you see the same shitty, irrelevant banner ads over and over again.

The irony, of course, is that brands, especially startup brands, need great marketing in order to succeed. What good is creating a groundbreaking, innovative product if it’s not effectively marketed to the appropriate consumers? What good is running marketing campaigns without truly understanding the story your data is telling you? It’s simply a waste of money and resources. We can do better on so many levels.

Startup culture must evolve. There’s certainly value in fostering understanding and collaboration between teams, but this shouldn’t be one-sided. Don’t ask marketers to code unless you’re asking coders to market. Allow all employees ‘maker’ time, regardless of their role. Be realistic about how much responsibility one person can take on effectively. If the goal of the tech industry is to be disruptive, let’s disrupt outdated, sexist hierarchies in the workplace.