Programming 101 for Marketers
Let’s face it: barring some Cormac McCarthy-ian dystopia, digital know-how is only going to become more vital as a basic skill set. In the spirit of adjusting our attachment to traditional marketing techniques, learning the basics of programming can help marketers in a variety of ways, from bulking up your resume to actually improving the ROI of the marketing department.
Programming is no longer a skill restricted to product, engineering, or support. A growing number of marketers are embracing the full implications of being a digital marketer and learning how to code for themselves.
Why Marketers Should Learn to Code
Marketing in the Age of the Customer is decidedly data driven. This means that the more we’re able to directly analyze the data that comes our way from all the tools in our MarTech stack, the better we can serve our customer. According to Marketing Week, “As marketing becomes inherently more analytical in nature, rooted in rich data and insight, marketers need to understand how their websites function in order to better optimize the customer journey.”
“As marketing becomes inherently more analytical in nature, rooted in rich data and insight, marketers need to understand how their websites function in order to better optimize the customer journey.”
Coding—and, as we know, digital marketing—is not just about building websites and awesome browser apps. There are programming languages out there perfectly suited to taking in huge amounts of data and analyzing it without requiring you to manually input all the information into a spreadsheet (gasp!). Languages like Python are becoming the go-to for data science, machine learning, and, yup, content (more on that below).
With some basic programming skills under your belt, you’ll be able to address issues that come up without sending a ticket to the support team. A growing number of marketing jobs are popping up that require more of a technical background. This means that soon, all resumes should show at least a couple languages under the “Other Skills” section. Don’t get left behind in our evolving digital age.
Even if you don’t actually write a lot of code in your day-to-day, having even a rudimentary understanding of programming will yield important insights about the ROI of certain requests once you understand the kind of effort required to perform the tasks you tend to ask of your development team.
There are also more intangible benefits from learning to code. Coding teaches you how to be a problem solver. No matter how many people are on a dev team, code breaks. It’s simply a fact of nature, kind of like squirrels running in front of your car. Bugs and breaks are going to happen, but part of being a good programmer is learning how to fix them. You become resourceful—and unashamed to ask for help. The internet is full of forums explaining how to fix a mistake that many have made before you.
Coding can be intimidating for a lot of us who don’t have a natural penchant for it. But, as this article from SendGrid describes, “Sometimes committing to something difficult has benefits that you don’t expect.” You learn discipline and expand your abilities. A lifetime of learning has been shown to improve your life in so many ways.
What are you waiting for?
Best Languages to Learn
So, what language should you dive into first?
This is a heavily contested subject in the developer community. So much so that IT World conducted research into which language is the best to learn first. While they have their top three (which are included below), it’s important to remember that you may need a variety of languages under your belt if you really want to make an impact.
The following are the languages that I have found to be the best to build your coding tool kit.
HTML is a great first language to learn, not only because of its prevalence throughout our lives as digital marketers but also because it teaches the fundamentals that translate well into all coding. As a digital marketer, it’s highly beneficial to at least have a rudimentary knowledge of HTML, if for no other reason than you’ll better understand how the interweb is put together.
JS came in as number three on IT World’s list of best first languages. You may be as surprised as they were that it wasn’t number one given how much we experience Java on a day-to-day basis—but you may understand why when I get to the other two.
One of the granddaddies of code, C arrived on the scene in 1972 through Bell Labs and came in as number two on IT World’s list.
Even more than the other two mentioned above, C sets a solid foundation to learn other languages—mostly because it’s the basis of those other languages. C works well with UNIX as it was built to function with that operating system.
As Luis Espinal is quoted in that IT World article, “If people get scared of programming with C, then they are not meant to be programmers,” making C a great litmus test to decide how deeply you want to get into coding.
C is great for programming everything from operating systems to spreadsheets and operates in an “elegant syntax.”
The upstart Python was the winner of IT World’s survey. Stack Overflow and Codecademy have both found that it’s the fastest growing language of 2017. Codecademy noted a 34% growth in enrollment in its Python course in the last year.
Python is such an appealing first language because it’s so easy to use and easy to learn. Programming in this language rewards you early with being able to perform some high function tasks with only a few commands. And like all the other languages I’ve mentioned, Python teaches good fundamentals of programming more generally.
Because of its popularity, its usefulness for marketers (and because it’s my language of choice) we’re going to take a deeper dive into what Python can offer marketers.
Python for Marketers
Codecademy also found that 40% of people who knew other languages wanted to learn Python, while only 25-30% of Python users wanted to learn another language. This is because Python is so versatile and approachable. If you’re coding on a small scale, as you might be in marketing, it’ll cover all the bases of your data analysis with very little need to branch into other languages.
The growth in popularity that Python has enjoyed over the last year was mostly due to its growing use in academia, but businesses are also seeing a rise. So many industries love it because it’s the go-to language for data analysis. According to Codecademy, “It’s ideal for novice software engineers, marketers, business analysts, bankers, and anyone else who wants to do more with data.”
Python is well suited to take in a ton of data and analyze it based on some straightforward commands. It has a variety of outlets, including web development, data science, and DevOps.
Not only is its syntax intuitive, but there’s a huge community behind Python. It’s open source—i.e. free, your only cost is time—so a huge number of people have already put in the effort to create libraries like Numpy and Pandas. You can find a more comprehensive list of Python libraries here. And of course, there are always forum sites like Stack Overflow where you can get the support you need to finish that excellent project you just can’t debug.
Where to Start
The internet being what it is, there are perhaps too many options for—and too many opinions about—where to start in programming. My genuine advice is to shop around and find the method and language that works best for you. Codecademy is free and approachable, with courses on pretty much any language you could ask for. Youtube has great tutorials in that same vein. If you want to go old school, there are a ton of books for every language. And there are even websites that provide fun, manageable projects like Hour of Code.
It’s a good idea to set yourself a curriculum, even if it’s just 20-30 minutes a day. Like any language, the key to getting better is using it consistently. Practice, practice, practice. The more you use it, the more easily you’ll be able to use it.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes—mistakes are vital to improvement, especially in programming. My language professor in college used to say that you have to make a million mistakes before you’re fluent. The same is true for learning a coding language. Even purposefully breaking your code and fixing it is an important way to improve.
My personal coding journey started with some dabbling in HTML and CSS a few years ago, in LaTeX for school, and more recently, in Codecademy’s Python course, but my coding illiteracy made even that course intimidating.
Natural Hermione that I am, I turned to books. I’ve set myself a daily hour of coding using Zed A. Shaw’s Learn Python the Hard Way (also available online). Despite its name, it has been the most approachable resource I’ve tried thus far. Admittedly, sometimes life gets in the way of my coding. But this is an important lesson to learn in any kind of new endeavor and habit building: You should never beat yourself up for missing a day—just make a point to show up the next day. Learn from moments of struggle and allow for them to help you grow into the programmer you want to be.
But my path may not be yours. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t find a knack for programming right away. Keep at it, because the rewards of learning any coding are well worth it.
Once you’ve gotten the basics of a language, set yourself a project. Building a blog or other website from scratch is a great first project. I can not emphasize it enough: practice, practice, practice. Coding is one of those things that you can only get better at by doing.
Final Thoughts on Programming for Marketers
Just because you’re a marketer doesn’t mean you can’t get under the hood of your computer. Being able to manipulate the data you collect in a more controlled way will make you a better marketer who can speak directly to what your customers want.
Coding may seem intimidating to someone unfamiliar with it (believe me, I’ve been there). But once you get started, you’ll probably find you’re addicted. And expanding your skills can help both your career and your business’s bottom line.