In Defense of Marketing, Hacking and Programming

I’ve had a linguistic and organizational frustration with the term ‘growth hacking’ for a little while now. It wasn’t until a recent elevator conversation that I felt motivated to put some of my own linguistic expression around it.

The elevator stopped at my floor and I entered, laughing with some people to whom I was saying goodbye for the day.

“So, you must like working there, huh?” My new elevator-mate asks, making a subtle physical note of my cheek-to-cheek smile.

“Yeah, I do. It’s a fun team. Smart crew.”

“What do you do for them?”

“I consult.”

“Consult about what?”

We reach the ground floor.

“Organizational design, recruiting recruiters, scale, team and leadership development, etc.”

“Ah, so you’re a growth hacker.”

This wasn’t a question, it was a statement. I kept smiling as we walked out of the elevator. (I thought this miswritten title was only applied to marketing roles. I’m not a marketer but I have worked with plenty.)

“No, I’m not. I don’t think scale, hiring and leadership coaching is something one can hack into. Neither do I think that market entry, customer engagement and creative storytelling is solved by an algorithm. Growth is too vague. We all work in it. Adding the word ‘hacking’ does a disservice not to just itself, but to marketing and software development, too.”

We both grinned and laughed. He responded in agreement, “Fair points. I’m a programmer. I agree, it’s a shitty title. Definitely not indicative of the work.”

We shook hands and agreed to start spreading word on halting its use. I went on my way, on foot towards the subway.

With my newfound motivation to address this common confusion, I have two primary requests:

First, let’s try to get back in the habit of descriptive accuracy. Semantics matter and they impact how a person feels about and conducts their work. Applying the title ‘growth hacker’ to someone who is actually taking on marketing deliverables does both a marketer and a hacker a disservice. It also creates career development confusion further down the road.

My second point brings us back to the recent trend we see in some organizational behavior to confuse the need and placement of quick fixes with longer-term, strategic needs.

Both points impact the longevity of a business and the development of the staff. Since these two are mutually exclusive, I think you might understand my desire for clarity.

As employees and employers, we generally desire roles that describe the work we do. It helps paint a mental and tangible picture of the teams and businesses we’re trying to build.

As we see more growth hacking job descriptions, however, we see posts that usually task this role with deliverables such as user acquisition, increasing user engagement, market expansion, etc.

It’s as if the difference between a growth hacker and a marketer is just a steak knife and a false synonym. If that’s the case, I have to ask, what are the tools for execution? Does a growth hacker take a steak knife and cut into a market? Do they carve into a user base and throw them a few scraps so customers hang on and keep engaging? If so, I better tell all of my marketing candidates to stock up on their kitchen utensils.

See what I did there? I misused the word ‘hack’ just like some tend to now use the word ‘marketing’ as ‘growth’. It’s not fair to anyone, is it?

Hacking is often equated with breaking in and applying a quick, sometimes disruptive fix to serve a hacker’s interest, good or bad. We’ve seen the definition of the word ‘hacker’ evolve into something cool, exclusive, yet increasingly misunderstood. Most of us agree, however, that it should be seen as a technical task involving technical languages. We forget that it’s much different than its others coding counterparts. As a result, we also often confuse ‘hacking’ as another word for ‘programming’ when the two are very different.

Good programming is foundational. It’s the sound structure of your product. It’s constructed, sometimes torn down, iterated upon or entirely reassembled as the product itself evolves. Similar to real life construction, we’re always working on the houses we build in the same way we’re always working on the products we launch. Good programming is key and it’s not a hack. Hacking typically serves a shorter-term, and now, an often fun, cool goal. Hacking on a house would be like adding a cool feature to your living room. It may survive the construction of the rest of the house around it. It may not. Programming, on the other hand, builds and iterates for the future. It’s the walls, the concrete and the roof. Fixed often but built, typically, over time.

Neither of these, however, are marketing.

Good marketing isn’t a hack nor is it programming. It isn’t a technical language and it isn’t a short term fix.

Marketing tells a story. It works alongside the brilliant people who build and roadmap the launch of a product to develop a strategic and unique relationship with potential customers. Programmers and product managers trust that the product they’ve written, built and road-mapped will be packaged with care. They work along the assembly line with marketers to translate a story of development into one of desire and relatability. All of these groups comprise a team of thinkers and executors. Each role within this engineering-product-marketing assembly line respects each other’s differences as much as their mutual need for them. More importantly, each person understands their own role and feels good about it.

In todays world of startup culture, however, I feel we’ve lost some sense of both this critical interdependent relationship and the uniqueness of each other’s roles.

Just because we use technical tools and platforms to spread marketing campaigns, doesn’t mean we have replaced human product attachment and interest with an algorithm. Last time I checked, we are still human. We have feelings and we like to feel emotionally attached to products. We like stories around why they are meaningful and make our lives better. We like personal narratives that impact our professional lives. This is marketing. It isn’t software development. Without the latter, we wouldn’t have the former. Both are key and they have their respective places in a business.

Neither of them, however, are a hack.

Any good programmer will tell you that writing code and building a product takes time. Implying that one can throw something over a fence for a quick hack and expect a sound, strong product or campaign is unfair to the person being asked to do such work.

Good marketing, too, is a great skill. It’s strategic. It’s inspiring. It’s often mystifying. And as we’ve seen in the past few years, it’s now more often misunderstood. The good thing is, there are enough brilliant marketers out there to bring us back to the need for expressive and sincere product storytelling.

As opposed to the middle-aged, grown-up companies with sound marketing and development teams like Google, Apple, and even the companies coming out of adolescence like Facebook and Twitter, we see smaller companies (or, ‘startups’) conflate ‘growth hacking’ with ‘marketing’ more often.

Those adult and adolescent companies made a lot of mistakes developing and understanding of the difference between the marketing, programming and product functions. How they could work together to really build a business wasn’t something that came fast or natural. It took time sitting together at a table to figure it out. But they did it and they continue to iterate the thinking and design. Startups can learn this. They should learn this. They have the homework of their predecessors completed and right there on the table in front of them. All they have to do is glance at it, cheat a little, mold it into their own, and they’ll learn a ton. Their business, too, might even succeed.

There reaches a time in every business where the product is robust enough that it demands a marketing strategy to help spread it to the masses. Development teams get it to that point and then additional diversity in thinking is needed to take the product to the next step. Enter the hiring of marketers.

If this thinking and hiring isn’t applied, we can often see titles like ‘growth hacker’ develop. It seems cool. It shows expansion and movement. It seems to serve as a compromise between developing the careers of early programmers (or, ‘hackers’) with that of a marketing need to grow customer numbers and engagement.

More often than not, this failure to understand the real role allows the unfortunate application of ‘growth hacker’ to some early employees in engineering who haven’t had help figuring out how their roles should evolve past the startup phase. From there, they are asked to step up into a function that isn’t fair to their skillset. We see a larger organizational team develop out of shortsighted thinking and therefore, the business suffers.

A failure to recognize the importance of marketing and the relationship it has with developers and product managers can lead to all kinds of confusion. Primarily, that scaling and marketing a business takes time, is not a hack, and that there is a place for everyone if some thinking goes into the assembly line required.