By Kyle Harper.
As a content marketer, I’ve often found myself in a sort of awkward conversational limbo when asked about what I do for a living.
People generally understand marketing and have some sort of contextual sense of what content might mean with regard to it. But beyond a basic understanding—Kyle helps companies sell stuff and may or may not be responsible for pop-ups I see online—there’s a large gap between practice and perception that often has to be spanned in explanation.
But ask any computer programmer, and they’ll likely tell you that my occasional, uncomfortable social situation explaining what I do for work is a regular occurance for them.
For a profession that’s so common today, it’s astonishing how widely outsiders’ perceptions vary about the scope, capabilities, and general day-to-day lives of programmers. It’s doubly surprising when you consider how closely programming skills are becoming intertwined with so many careers today—marketing very much included.
Amid conversations of marketing jobs being replaced by machines, new marketing tech, and constant changes to the digital space, marketers have to pick up some programming savvy to diversify their skill sets and improve their abilities to continue telling brand stories. At very least, they need to know the lingo so they can effectively communicate their needs to the designers and developers they’re increasingly working with.
Imagine you’re looking to contract with a designer who can help you with one-off projects such as website enhancements and newsletter design. You start doing some digging through the web, and the profiles you pull up read like this:
“Full stack development expert, skilled in front-end development, Node.js, Unix, GitHub, jQuery, API development, HTML5, CSS3, Laravel framework, PHP, React.js, DevOps…”
While some people might be totally comfortable with a list like that, many of us struggle to understand how many of those skill sets even translate. So we might not know what we’re looking for, or how to effectively ask for help.
And for people whose jobs depend on high-quality content produced at lightning speed, that’s a problem. But where the heck are you supposed to start?
The Polyglots of the Modern Age
Do a cursory search of anything related to programming, and you’ll find a load of various languages to choose from, unfamiliar terms, and a thousand different suggestions about how and where to start your journey. It is in this moment you’ll realize that while programming may seem like a straightforward science, it is also in many ways an art that continues to be discussed, debated, and written about at extreme length.
Like most people, this is also the moment of your search when you might give up.
But the beautiful thing to realize is that no programmer knows all of this material—they learn and specialize in knowledge that relates to their needs. Further, unlike spoken languages, programming languages also lend themselves to a logical trial-and-error that makes them much faster to pick up and begin using right away. All this means is that marketers need to know where to start.
Front of House, Back of House
Today, marketing technology touches nearly every part of our websites, from design and presentation to tracking and server-side data mining. For the comp-sci curious marketer, the best place to start is by identifying what “end” of your digital systems you work on the most.
“Front end” development refers to all of the programming that your visitors will eventually see. This includes stuff like layout and presentation of pages, how your page behaves given some user interaction, and how information is submitted to your server by users. If you’re a content marketer who works on producing content for your webpage or maybe even handles submission of material to the page through platforms like WordPress, than this is where you’ll want to start.
Good front-end languages to start with include:
- HTML/CSS: This is the language that websites are built on, and a popular introductory language for new programmers. Easily approachable and immediately applicable for anyone who wants to have fine tuned control over their website (and emails!) layout and presentation.
But not every marketer works on the customer facing side of their marketing mix. Many of us spend much of our time trying to improve audience tracking or analyzing data that’s come in through tracking infrastructure. For these applications, a content marketer would want to look at “back end” or general purpose languages. Back-end development refers to all of the programming that handles how data moves between your website and your servers. This is the nitty-gritty, non-customer-facing stuff that really makes your brand tick, and every company often uses their own mix of languages and systems for the back end. If you want to dive into these portions of your website, it’s highly recommended you consult with your own web team first to see what they use.
Good languages to start with for general purpose or back-end application include:
- Python: Python is a general purpose programming language that’s been around for 25 years. Named after Monty Python, this language is used for a wide array of applications, both on the web and on desktops, and can serve as a great introduction into more complex languages for marketers who ever have interest in taking their knowledge beyond web development.
- Ruby: Ruby is the language used to develop using the Ruby on Rails framework, a popular web framework of the modern age due to its powerful ability to support complex and interactive web apps. If your brand uses any Ruby based pages, understanding its uses and limitations can go a long way toward creating interactive content that will eventually be hosted using it.
- SQL: For marketers looking to dive deeper into their data, SQL serves as a primary foundation for understanding languages that allow you to communicate with databases. Particularly where web data is concerned, SQL is popularly used, and can give marketers much more power to ask very specific questions about trends, behaviour, and historical data related to their website or apps.
Starting the Journey
Marketers today are very aware of just how much they rely on good coding. Programming touches pretty much every step of the digital marketing process in some way, and it’s overwhelming to think that anyone would learn all of it.
Which is why no one does.
Your company hires programmers and web developers for a reason: because you and the developers each possess skills that are necessary to making the whole mix work. Certainly some working knowledge of coding can be of benefit to any marketer, but often the best place to start is by asking people on your team about what languages you use and understanding where they cross over with your own work.
Where Can I Start Learning this Stuff?
In terms of where to actually do the learning, there are a load of options at your fingertips. Udacity offers online course-style offerings that do an excellent job of providing overviews or connecting concepts directly to marketing/business applications. For completely new beginners, Codecademy is a free and fun way to learn the basics of both front and back-end coding with the option for paid lessons to take your learning further. And for those looking for more technical depth and don’t mind spending a bit, Udemy offers a wide range of long courses that can fit just about any marketing application.
Ultimately, coding will continue to grow in importance as a marketing skill, but it will likely be a while before it is a true necessity. For marketers looking to stay relevant and focus on the technical side of their careers, programming is a powerful and accessible skill to learn. It may not make your job any easier to explain to friends and family over Thanksgiving reunions, but improving your ability to communicate and execute on the marketing technology behind the stories you tell can do wonders to help your brand excel in a rapidly changing market.
By Kyle Harper
Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He’s worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he’s ever taken was the best man speech for his brother’s wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What’s yours? See more from Kyle