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Your marketing job is about to become an engineering job. Get used to it.

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There is so much happening, so fast, in the world of marketing that I would never have guessed as a “social media guy.”

First, the rise of the growth hacker. This is a term familiar to basically all people who work at startups, but few outside of it, as of yet, yet it means that engineers are taking marketing jobs left and right and will continue to, basically forever, because they’re better at it. This post was over a year ago and still everybody acts like nothing has changed.

Also, there is the fact that marketing is largely becoming about algorithms, instead of catchy jingles. How it’s become about optimization instead of “grand openings” or “launch dates.” Data instead of instinct.

Third, there is the destruction of “influencer marketing,” and the realization of how destructive it can become to try and seek out attention when a product is, at the outset, broken and / or uninteresting.

There are so many more trends like this, all basically pointing to the fact that your marketing job is about to become obsolete.

You are about to be replaced with a junior engineer, 23 years old, maybe without a degree, who makes half of what you make and gets better results. It’s just going to happen.

God help you if you actually got a marketing degree.

Conclusion: We have no choice but to evolve.

“Community” is not enough.

“Influence” is not enough.

Nothing but quickly shipped, highly interesting product, rapidly iterated and tightened with viral loops will get you where you need to go.

Segue into a quick story.

I am on a marketing panel in Montreal a few months back that Ray Hiltz set up about content marketing, I think. Doing my thing, which is generally to push the envelope.

I start saying that people have to go further and do more, that their stuff is usually more boring than they think it is, and that they have to try harder.

Another panelist asks me why. And this is when I begin to channel Aaron Wall from back in my SEO days.

The answer as to why we should be doing everything harder, better, faster, stronger is because otherwise, your competition will.

So it’s not really about you, but about the ecosystem. You have to be the #1 player, because the #1 player gets all the spoils (80/20 rule works in SEO and everywhere else).

And you only become the #1 player by beating whatever would become #1 otherwise. Your competition is at your heels.

And here’s the thing. Being more hardcore doesn’t mean you’ll win. It just means you get a shot.

Back to my point, which is about engineers vs marketers.

The world is becoming increasingly directed by machines. Those machines are only partially comprehensible to non-technical people.

Non-technical people are realizing they can create viral products exclusively through tweaking and that is has little to nothing to do with or advertising awards or “viral videos.”

They realize that they can sell their companies by doing this and make more money than the next guy.

Two types of engineers begin to emerge: the highly technical, build-hard-stuff engineer, and then the half-engineer, half-marketer, whose job it is to build things like the first Craigslist hack that made Airbnb take off. (Note: It wasn’t a viral video that made them popular.)

And this is the guy that wants your job. And If you don’t believe me, you should believe Fred Wilson who just blogged about this today: If You Aren’t Technical, Get Technical.

I don’t know about you, but I am personally regretting my “I’m too lazy to work at math, engineering, and science” attitude from high school. I was good at it, but I was lazy. Listen to your parents, kids.

So what’s the solution?

Personally, on my team, I like it when people go to Codecademy, even if they are not technical, and especially if they interface with engineers on a daily basis (hint: everyone interfaces with engineers). It not only gives them an impression of code as craft but also lets them understand the why behind everything.

As a bonus, they can become vaguely technical, or about 5% technical, which as we all know is infinitely better than zero. P.S.: HTML does not count as technical.

For you, personally, the marketer reading this, just like the engineer, you have two options:

A. Become the half-marketer, half-engineer that the industry will shortly demand.

B. Do the opposite and become so high level that you only strategize. Think Mitch Joel, Seth Godin, and all those other guys. They are the soft skills guys, and they are good at it.

But here’s the thing: you can get to a high level of B, and you’re good– but only the 1% truly profit here. No one’s dying to give away options in companies where people are spouting truisms / truthiness on blogs. Only the A guys get that. They become Dave McClure. The B guys get to run agencies. Your choice.

Hope I made you think. Cheers.

* Filed by Julien at 8:54 am under trends


Hi, I’m Julien Smith. I'm the founder and CEO of Breather.

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38 Responses to “Your marketing job is about to become an engineering job. Get used to it.”

  1. Kyle Reed Says:

    As much as you make me think about this, you also help me get excited about the future. The ability to think, plan, work, and humanize marketing is something I feel like will continue to be a necessity. Just as becoming an engineer that can create will be a necessity.
    But can the system be gamed or hacked?

    In some way it feels that engineers, just like marketers, ruin things.
    Take baseball for instance, once someone figured out that steroids can help you hit home runs which will make you more money, everyone joined in on the steroid use. It hit critical mass and couldn’t be sustained because of the problems it caused.
    It feels that marketing does the same thing, find the “steroid” that will help sell, exploit it until it has to be stopped (or stops working) and then find something else.

    Where does humanizing plans and strategies come in to play?

    • Dave Doolin Says:

      Kyle, I work as an engineer at a “Big Bang” startup (enterprise market).

      What Julien is right on.

      What he didn’t say is that is the other half, the human half, is just as important, even on the hardcore engineering side. It turns out that large scale software engineering is a team sport. Communication, colloboration and cooperation are critically important for engineering success.

      What takes engineering to the next level up is the spark of human creativity.

      And very few people are creative in a social vacuum.

      • Kyle Reed Says:

        Great thought Dave.
        I totally agree with you.
        And would you say in those moments that when you can be both human and engineer you have a winner on your hands?
        I just wonder if the humanization of everything is what sets great marketers apart?

  2. Radhika Says:

    Julien,

    Half-engineers, half-marketers–I think you mean Data Scientists.

    From Wikipedia:

    “Data science incorporates varying elements and builds on techniques and theories from many fields, including mathematics, statistics, data engineering, pattern recognition and learning, advanced computing, visualization, uncertainty modeling, data warehousing, and high performance computing with the goal of extracting meaning from data and creating data products. … Data science seeks to use all available and relevant data to effectively tell a story that can be easily understood by non-practitioners.”

    I’m a current high-school student, and this is what I want to go into.

    Good post, though. Awaken the masses.

    • Philip Says:

      A high-school student that wants to be a data scientist? That is AWESOME! I hope you are not the anomaly. Perhaps there is hope after all.

      • DD Says:

        I am a data scientist in the Philippines. Well, technically,I am still taking it. It is called Market Research/Communication Research in our university. After reading this article, my only take is that what the author is describing is exactly what I am studying right now- Communication Research- the new breed of marketers where statistics (data) and qualitative analysis is mixed.

  3. Eric White Says:

    Very interesting and I agree 100%. It’s impossible to get by online and in today’s world at large without being somewhat technical and the more the better! I’ve been picking up code here and there, learning how SEO actually works and how to tweak it to work better, that I can definitely feel myself becoming a more effective “marketer.”

    Either we pick up these skills and continue to become more technical, or we get left behind and someone else will do it for us. You’re absolutely right.

  4. Ryan Stephens Says:

    1.) I agree that marketers need to learn to growth hack, particularly those at start-ups. The more time they (we) can spend learning how to code — or at the very least speak to engineers – the more effective and in demand they’ll be.
    2.) You’re also on point that that algorithms, optimization and data will continue (forever) to have a bigger impact on what we call “marketing.”
    3.) I disagree with you; however, regarding the total evolution of marketing. Do you have to achieve product market fit first? Absolutely. But after that, marketing (in the old-school sense of the word) still matters. The likelihood of a 23-year old computer engineer (or a computer) replacing someone who understands social psychology, persuasion and anthropology aren’t as high as this post would indicate. Computers still aren’t very good at modeling those things. We’re going to continue producing things more efficiently, and with the right growth hacks, iterations and viral loops something with product market fit might scale, but someone still has to understand how to capture people’s attention and get them to part with their resources. And that’s where the copy matters.

    • Philip Says:

      If you can test copy from 100 monkeys with typewriters in real time to find the messages that produce revenue, you really don’t have to spend big bucks on the copywriter who will get it right the first time.

  5. Jennifer Says:

    Great insights. I’ve also noticed that “growth hackers” have become the new in – and I’m curious to see if it becomes a fad or a sticks around as a lasting trend.

    I’d go one step further and argue that your marketing job is about to become an engineering job, which is about to become completely automated. Developing technical skills is a great way for now to continue to stay valuable, but eventually your computer will do your engineering job.

    So the framework to think about this is: what is it about my skillsets (technical AND soft) that add value in ways that a computer cannot? Maybe in the future it’s not code, it’s some new technical language. But I think it’s also the soft skills – the personal charisma, creativity, meaning – that differentiate you from a machine. Luckily these can be learned too. For example, that’s why we still have meetings to walk through analytic reports – we want our fellow humans to create meaning from the report and tell us the story of what it’s about.

    Thanks for the reminder about CodeAcademy – something to add to my personal hobbies list. :-)

    • Dennis Tech Says:

      Jennifer – as a career techie who moved into marketing a couple of years ago, I mostly agree with you. Be careful of phrases like “your computer will do your engineering job”, as this is the same fallacy that had been around for the past 20 years, and I’ve found stops ppl from gathering skills that they need.

      The engineering jobs will change, software, frameworks, methodology will change, so the tasks you do NOW may be automated, but engineering will always be required. It’s keeping up with this change, and where possible seeing ahead of the curve which will be required skills for a marketing or technical career.

      Technical skills are also easier to learn than soft skills, so those who understand the human side of the equation definitely have a head start over techies trying to go the other way.

      Code Academy is a good resource as is the likes of Pluralsight and other similar education sites. The best idea is get your hands dirty with something as a starting point, and never stop doing this!

  6. Laura Frieden Says:

    Very insightful, Julien. Reminds me a great deal of what Andy Kessler talks about in his book “Eat People”.

  7. Ray Hiltz (@newraycom) Says:

    I hadn’t heard of “growth hacker” until this article, Julien. Being someone who isn’t technical, but needs to be (thanks for the link to Fred Wilson’s post btw), I’m aware of the importance of understanding the mechanics of the new marketing.

    Marketing is search, and search has become semantic, meaning we need to be on top of not only Google’s algorithms but be able to engineer our responses to them.
    Lots to chew on here. Marketers always had to mine data, will be interesting to see if this new hybrid will also create it.

  8. Russ Says:

    This post is spot-on, Julien. as a former IT SysAdmin now in PR, I’ve found quite a bit of engineering prowess goes a long way in my new role. Being tactical and having the ability to understand/how to develop a search query comes with the territory of managing data as a member of IT, and it helps immensely when making the move to marketing. Thanks for the post, Julien!

  9. Matt Tillotson Says:

    OK, I can buy most of this premise. Where is a marketer to start on Code Academy? What’s most valuable right out of the chute? #GenXerTryingToEvolve

  10. Nadine Says:

    Nail. Head. Well done. I’m now off to brainstorm, via a trip to code academy.

  11. Dave Doolin Says:

    I work in San Fran, at a startup, South of Market.

    And this is pretty much what I see. Engineers throwing down on marketing, and marketing people clawing their way as fast as possible into technical competence.

  12. William Johnson Says:

    I really enjoyed this post. My personal reaction to reading this is a mix of angst, excitement and anticipation for the future. The message has an aura of CTL ALT DELETE, if you get what I mean.

    So many posts like these raise great points, but don’t really offer any real ideas, so I really appreciate the fact that you actually outline what you think the solution is — or the choice — for the issue you bring up.

  13. natalie Says:

    love the article. it is so true, but am I the only one that absolutely hates the layout of your site? it is kind of driving me nuts.

  14. Michael Boyle Says:

    Great piece Julien. I’ve been living in this gap for so long (20 yrs) that I’m amazed it’s still a big deal to write it out like this – but it most definitely is.

    Two things…

    1. if you read about the history of marketing as a profession when it built out from Edward Bernays and the psych/pr/advertising crew it was almost all Proctor & Gamble and it was almost all engineers who built the discipline – and I’m talking real engineers, not software guys/women who may or many not be engineers. So there’s a “back to the future” element to this.

    2. I actually think the properly-skilled marketer is even more important than you’re indicating – they should be prime members in product development. This is where most of the core marketing really happens anyhow. Marketing isn’t just something that happens after a product is developed – it IS fundamentally about building products that people will love. The problem is that a whole lot of “marketing people” aren’t qualified to take on this kind of role, which has skewed perceptions about what marketing and it’s role should be.

  15. Rufus Dogg Says:

    I think I disagree with pretty much everything here. People are beginning to crave real experiences and real things. Sure if you work in a code-driven reality, it’s easy to fall for the “learn to code” culture. I think as long as food, sex and dogs remain analog, we’ll all be just fine.

    • Dennis Tech Says:

      All the best with that attitude Rufus. Here’s a skill you’ll be needing in future, repeat after me: ” Would you like fries with that?” ;)

    • seamus Says:

      I agree with you, Rufus. This piece is a very, very narrow view of marketing as “targeted messaging.” The most successful brands in the world got there via creating emotional experiences for human beings. Even many of these SF startups that are pioneering “growth hacking” have huge staffs of experiential marketers. Yelp has over 200 community managers. Uber is hiring community marketers in 50 cities right now (go look at their jobs page).

      I write this as a long-time engineer who transitioned to marketing over a course of years.

  16. Mitch Jackson Says:

    IA engineering marketing system “connects” in real time with companies that subscribe to the connecting service. Needs are exchanged and via the system, action is taken and product is sold. No people, marketing experts or engineers to get in the way for that matter. The way I see it BREATHER will be used for kicking back, talking and sharing stories instead of marketing and sales experts trying to close deals. Just saying :-)

  17. Nancy G Says:

    Marketing has always been about engineering ~ technical or otherwise. No matter how pretty or catchy a phrase or a jingle may be, it is always about measuring (here is where those word problems you never thought would be applicable in real life become remarkably applicable) effect on sales.

    You can’t market what you don’t understand ~ the more you understand the inner workings of any widget the better, faster, more your efforts become.

    I agree wholeheartedly, you don’t have to be a code-junkie, but you have to have a fundamental understanding of what those code-junkies do.

    That knowledge has the power to do what marketing is designed to do: bridge the gap between creator and user.

  18. Dexter Zhuang Says:

    Hey Julien, I definitely see the trend towards engineering-dependent and data-driven marketing.

    In my own experience, the most meaningful and powerful marketing strategies are heavily reliant on engineering resources. And when you are constrained for resources like you are in a technology startup, you must get things done yourself.

    However, I disagree that hardcore engineering will replace the core of many marketing strategies as more and more tools become available that make it easier for marketers to operate without engineering resource consumption. For example, you can use Unbounce to create landing pages, Optimizely to test them, Google Analytics (along with KissMetrics, Mixpanel, etc.) to run analytics, etc. etc. The challenge will still to remain technical and have fundamental understanding over these technologies, but more at a product level, i.e. how do I leverage this product to do what I want it to do, rather than at a deep technical level.

  19. Carlos Says:

    I get the feeling you had an advance copy of Ryan Holiday’s new ebook! ;)

  20. Annie Craven Says:

    Great perspective on engineers and marketing.
    It`s all about evolving and changing with the world around you. If you don`t adapt you will be pushed out. Thanks!

  21. Lauren Says:

    Very insightful, but a little nerve racking as I am a marketer myself!

  22. Ryan Ragnar Says:

    I agree. Bottom up way working on the business, being in it vs top down, just knowing and knowing or learning about it.

  23. Mike Says:

    If you’re a marketer working in tech startup and your modus operandi is growth growth growth then yes an engineer with soft skills and good intuition can do your job.

    If you’re a marketer at a leading multinational FMCG, and modus operandi is brand brand brand then engineering skills are useless.

    Yes that’s right, there is a world outside the tech scene.

    Either way, I would advocate learning engineering skills, whether you’re a marketer or not, because I agree this is seeping into the daily cut and thrust of marketing.

    I would also advocate engineers learn marketing skills – like data analysis, visual design, communication, psychology and the big picture stuff a la Godin.

    I like your point about marketing being the need to do things better, faster, harder etc. So true.

    However, I don’t think growth hackers will necessarily get you there. You follow the optimization path and you just become one of the hundreds of other brands optimizing in the same way. Same color email buttons, sending email campaigns at the same time etc.

    You rely on data rather than using intuition and creativity it leads to homogeneity.

    Marketers need to be creative first and foremost.

  24. eduardo hoyos Says:

    It´s true right now I´m work with marketing and I am a mecatronics engineering

  25. Michael Decklever Says:

    I think this is an interesting article, but I have to disagree. I do agree with the fact that marketers do need to become more data-savvy than in the past. And maybe things are different in tech start-ups. But I can tell you definitively that both companies I’ve worked for in the past five years are struggling with the fact that no one in marketing is a marketer. They are engineers. In fact, the reason I was hired into both of my recent positions is because I am a marketer and have a marketing background.

    From what I have seen, engineers are great when it comes to products. But in today’s sales environment, great focus on a product doesn’t translate to sales. Quite the opposite. Great focus on customers drive sales and drive great products. Getting the insight from customers and being able to translate that into products is what leads to successful businesses. And that’s the skill set that marketers bring.

    Great marketers understand how to connect with people, and understand what it is that motivates them. I’d argue that great marketers are more psychologists and sociologists than anything else. And while we now have more data than ever before, it still doesn’t replace interactions with individuals.

    I think the ideal situation for most companies is going to be a situation where you have a product marketer and a product engineer linked together. One person knows the customer, strategy, and how to uncover needs while the other can take those insights and make one heck of a product.

    Again, maybe my opinion is different because I work in a larger company and not a start up, but if the past five years are any indication, I haven’t felt safer in my job as a marketer.

  26. Michelle Says:

    This is clearly a really interesting post, but either I’m not understanding how “engineer” is being defined or I disagree. I’ve done with others some clever marketing things that, from the Craigslist/Airbnb example, would qualify as “engineering” without knowing a lick of code. Things have changed since then in that I now know a decent amount of code from exposure).

    My partner/former boss has always said that being able to code is a waste of time because you can always hire people that can and learn to speak more clearly. The mentality rubbed off and now, if I have a clever idea that requires finding an API loophole or hijacking some functionality, I can make crystal-clear user stories. Learning code isn’t valuable as long as I can sit in a room and – sure, it might take a full day – iron out the complexities with people who know it already.

    If the 10,000 hours concept is as true as it appears to be for my ability on a piano, I’d rather be spending my 10k on marketing, especially at the rate it changes. My guess is that the master hybrid marketer-coders are pretty rare…but this is coming from a 23-year old with no marketing degree.

    Also…the Craigslist hack didn’t make Airbnb “take off.” The referenced article doesn’t say that it did either. It says rather, “who knows what impact this hack had?” Not sure if this is just an exaggeration or if there’s evidence somewhere. Airbnb was a great concept that was well-done, supremely well-funded, and had a great acquisition strategy. What they did do, and admit to doing, was use Craigslist to do the shady opposite: solicit Craigslist listers and get them to post on airbnb. And that didn’t take anything fancier than clicking, typing, and emailing.

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