Should marketing professionals learn how to code?

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Photo by Jen Wike Huger

Elaine Marino says that she's a reformed "Ad-girl." Today, she's a still a marketer but has added developer to her skillset. Why?

While a Marketing Manager for a start-up built on .Net, she realized she couldn't help them if she couldn't understand them. She was left out of the conversation. So, she picked up coding. Specifically, Ruby on Rails. By adding coding to her skillset, her passion changed and thus, so did the course of her professional career. She started LadyCoders Productions, a job that combines her coding skills with her marketing communications, event planning, and project management skills.

Elaine tells me in this interview why some marketers should learn to code. Should you?

Many women getting into coding and technology are coming from totally different backgrounds, like for instance, marketing and advertising. I can relate. Are you seeing a trend?

Absolutely! Many women are coming at this laterally—from a different career. First, software development is a great career for women, especially ones with children. Women with children find that it offers the flexibility of working from home and gives them flexible hours (i.e., can work after the kids are in bed). Most software development firms offer great healthcare, and remote working options, all of which are important to working parents.

I also see a different subset of women who 20+ years ago graduated with a Computer Science degree, or even advanced Computer Science degrees, then left the field to raise their children. With their children grown, many of these women want to get back into the industry. They are not finished contributing. Granted the industry has changed significantly in 20 years, but the principles and the architecture have not. These women have the building blocks, now they just need to learn the current language and tools. For this group, a Bootcamp is perfect—they know architecture, now they need to know Ruby and GitHub.

Why did you learn how to code?

I felt so left out of the conversation. I worked as a Marketing Manager for a start-up built on .Net. A few things drove me to learn to code. The first was really basic—I sat next to a software developer, and it bothered me that I had no idea what he was doing. Secondly, I came from a very traditional advertising background, producing TV ads and beautiful glossy print ads. It was a very glamorous world, and extremely cutthroat. What it wasn’t, was technologically savvy. So while I had all the qualifications to build a marketing program for the start-up, I didn’t actually understand the technology I was marketing. Add to this, I was pretty senior in the traditional marketing world, and I realized working at this start-up that if I didn’t understand the platform and how it was built, I was never going to get a respected seat at the table. I read this quote and it absolutely rung true for me:

One reason there are few female executives in Silicon Valley is that few women become engineers. In the United States, less than 20% of engineering and computer science majors are women. —Ken Auletta, "A Woman's Place" The New Yorker, July 11, 2011.

And lastly, I remember the software developer I sat next to saying, “This codebase is a mess. We’d be better off rebuilding.” What I didn’t realize at the time is that statement meant the actual product I was selling was broken and built on an outdated platform. A complete overhaul needed to happen, and here I was losing sleep trying to figure out how to market it. One byproduct of my learning to code is also learning which start-up has a solidly built, worthwhile product.

Tell us about starting, running, and managing teams at LadyCoders Productions. Why does coding/tech give your marketing services an edge?

It gives me an edge for a couple reasons. If we are talking about pure software development, I know how long it will take, who I need on the team, and can manage client expectations. But the real edge is that I can speak both languages AND I can take the complex and say it in a way that even my 65 year old retired cop Dad can understand. In addition, I have a “beginners” story that I put into actionable words for the Software Development world. By going through the process of becoming a software developer and seeing with a professional’s eyes how it is operating, I feel confident giving advice on how they can improve it. I can also say it in a way that they understand. My “fix your job description” message has gained a lot of traction, because I show software developers the process is broken and here in “software development language” is how you fix it.

Speaking both the coder language and the language of marketing gives me a tremendous amount of leverage and opportunity. I get a seat at both tables. Mission accomplished.

So, should all marketers be learning how to code?

It depends on what you are trying to do. If you want to specialize in the technology field, then I would say yes, learn to code. At the very least learn to build a web application and get comfortable with front-end development. I say this because front-end development comes up all the time in marketing. And secondly, I say learn to build a web application because it will give you enough knowledge to understand the process of a build, how long it will take, and it will feel awesome to build something from scratch.

I would say that a Bootcamp program would be great for this, if you can afford it and the time. If you cannot take the time of a Bootcamp, I would suggest Girl Develop It classes, local community college classes, RailsBridge, Code School, and other online courses are great to at least get a baseline of knowledge.

You spoke at OSCON this year. What did you think of the focus on getting women into tech? What is your advice to men and women in tech to improve how we communicate, relate, and work together?

I could talk about this for hours.

My first observation and the one that has stayed true all these years, is that tech is unbalanced. It’s not just lack of women that is disconcerting, it’s lack of diversity, period. Gender, race, age, class, religion, the disabled. A wide variety of people make up the workforce in the United States, but not in tech. My thesis is that there is no silver bullet and to fix the problem of balance in tech, we ALL (from the CTO to the intern) need to be doing something.

Here are a few nuggets:

Companies need to work hard to get their engineering teams to at least 30% diversity. That means 30% women, or minorities, or over 45, etc. With 30% diversity, many of the communications problems subside because a balanced team dictates balanced behavior.

Companies need to make sure their company has an inclusive culture. And if it doesn’t, engineers could take a stand to be more inclusive. Right now, because engineering teams are homogenous, the culture takes on that groups' preferences. Consider how you can make your culture one that includes mothers, engineers over 45, people of different ethnic backgrounds, and set it up. If you build it, they will come.

Be nice! One rule to live by: "Would you say that to your mother?" If you wouldn’t say, “Hey Mom, that code sucks $%^&” then don’t say it to your co-worker. Instead you would likely say, “Hey Mom, there is a better method to use there, have you tried map?”

Anything else you'd like to add?

If anyone wants to hear more about growing diversity in tech and training new developers, invite me to speak. I’d love to elaborate on all the many ways we can fix the diversity problem in tech.

Jen leads a team of community managers for the Digital Communities team at Red Hat. She lives in Raleigh with her husband and daughters, June and Jewel.


Computers are now tools of the trade for most industries. All managers run their businesses with it. Understanding behaviors and capabilities of the tools you use is of benefit to these managers. They don't need to be able to create, fix or even use these tools, but at least you need to know what you are asking you staff to do make sense. Coding, even just a couple of hours of exposure, is a quick and easy way to gain some insight into how dumb these beasts are, and how easy it is to make a mess. Computers are fast, especially when making mistakes. If a human doesn't know how to do something, there is no way this human can instruct a computer to do so correctly.

People should learn how to program, not code (see my post on the Huffington Post…).

There are some tools that enable people to build apps without actually having to code. So this is auto-promotion, but Bubble ( is one of them (I’m a cofounder). You can build your product without code on Bubble. There is a learning curve, as it’s programming, but this is with a visual interface that gets rid of the coding aspect. Our users have build crowdfunding platforms, marketplaces, all starting from a white page (no template) and without code.

I probably spent 20 years altogether buying products from computer salesmen as a part of my job. One of the problems that an IT buyer faces is that marketing people have a strong tendency to gloss over or deny the existence of the costs and effort that the buyer will have to put forth to install the proffered product. I found that marketing people who had a background in system engineering or even programming gave much more realistic sales presentations.

So I agree with the theme of this article that marketing people are much more effective if they actually have an in depth knowledge of the technology that they are selling.

Steve Stites

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