Why you need marketing as much or more than engineering

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Commentary: Engineers tend to think the best code will win. Unfortunately, that’s not true.

Image: iStock/SeventyFour

“I’m not that technical” is something I’ve said, by way of apology, many times over the course of my career. In an industry that celebrates engineering, it’s a way of pleading for a bit of mercy. After all, if you can’t write code, what good are you?

The problem with this engineering machismo is that it completely misunderstands how products–whether built with software or a comic book–get sold. I’ve written about the importance of other disciplines like marketing in tech before, but the topic is worth repeating now. 

SEE: 10 ways to prevent developer burnout (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

If you build it…

Must-read developer content

“[T]he hardest thing for most engineers to grapple with is the idea that not only doesn’t the best tech win every time, it doesn’t win most of the time.” Those aren’t my words–they’re Steven O’Grady’s, and he should know: O’Grady is an analyst with RedMonk, which coined the tagline “Developers are the new kingmakers.” Of course, “best tech” is completely subjective. Which “Linux” is the “best?” Red Hatters might say RHEL, Ubuntu folks are going to pick Ubuntu, etc. “Best” depends on what you want–on your preferences.

And, in some instances, it also depends on what some “I’m not that technical” marketer has told you to try. 

Oh, I know the counterargument: “Developers are impervious to marketing.” I’m sorry, but that is complete and utter garbage. Developers, like every other human being, respond to marketing. Maybe it’s different marketing (documentation, blogs, Reddit answers, a hackathon) than we normally associate with that term, but it’s marketing, all the same. 

Thank goodness. Without marketing, the “best engineering” simply sits on the shelf and waits for buyers. Joyce Park, founder of Renkoo and 106 Miles, recently noted, “This is maybe THE hardest thing to get across to the entrepreneurial engineers at 106 Miles. They always think ‘If you build it they will come’.” They won’t. Not without marketing.

This isn’t to suggest that technology doesn’t matter. As O’Grady pointed out, “[T]he lesson isn’t that tech doesn’t matter at all, but rather that it doesn’t matter nearly as much as many engineers fervently believe it does.” If you’re an engineer and think that marketing or sales or some other non-engineering function is “useless,” well, Hilary Mason has some advice for you: “If you think an entire job function (marketing, HR, engineering managers, etc.) is useless, you’ve most likely never seen it done well.”

So what does good marketing look like?

…they will come

It looks like storytelling. Steve Jobs once said, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” It’s why Jobs could get up on stage and talk about how special a new product was (which suspiciously looked like a handful of competing Android devices or PCs), and we believed him. And we bought. Again. And again.

This is why former Twitter and Google executive Santosh Jayaram once told The Wall Street Journal, “English majors are exactly the people I’m looking for,” precisely because they can create stories, or narratives, around otherwise uncommunicative ones and zeroes. Engineers can build the “what” of the product, but liberal arts folks, often in Marketing and Sales roles, help to sell the why.” 

When I ran community at MongoDB, we focused on answering both of those questions. We gave would-be adopters of the database technical reasons to prefer a document database like MongoDB over their relational defaults (flexible schema, etc.). But we also told stories about freedom and scale. Both of these methods combined to make MongoDB one of the world’s most popular databases. It didn’t happen simply because Eliot and Dwight (the two cofounders) built it–they also marketed it.

For any successful product, you need both great engineering and great marketing. But you just might need the latter even more than you need the former. Yes, really.

Disclosure: I work for AWS, but the views expressed herein are mine.

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