Permission to Code

January 26, 2021

“Do you think in the future it will be important for marketers to know how to code? Or, do you think we’ll have enough tools that we won’t need to code things any more?”

I first posed this question to a charismatic salesperson turned brand evangelist who was leading a lunch-n-learn at the marketing automation startup where I worked.

At the time, I was working in technical support. I spent the majority of my day working on live chat, guiding marketing directors through their email templates and landing page designs.

“Could you make this form line up a little bit to the left?” they’d ask.

“Help! I can’t figure out why this paragraph of text is the wrong size.”

Thanks to some on-the-job training provided by a particularly gracious co-worker, I knew just enough CSS to hack around in the source code. And, I was spending way too much of my time doing it.

At some point, one of several wonderful managers took me aside and insisted, “You cannot write custom CSS for every customer who asks for it. This won’t scale.” Indeed, as the company grew, an entire professional services department spun up specifically to offer the type of web development work I’d been giving away for free through the support queue.

Permission to code was no longer part of the gig.

Almost a decade later, I’m amazed to look around and realize: now I’m the marketer on the other side of the live chat. I’ve become the profile of the customer I was working to help all those years ago.

Since then, tools have almost completely abstracted away the need to code from the practice of digital marketing. Modern website builders make it easy to drag-and-drop your way to a live site. With the rise of the “no-code” movement, it’s easier than ever to bootstrap an entire app with little more than an Airtable database and some Zapier workflows. Even within the old-school marketing automation platforms, the WYSIWYG editors have gotten smarter; the landing page builders have become more flexible.

So, in 2021, why would any marketer bother to keep coding?

Here’s why:

1. Code = control = differentiation

I can spot a canned marketing landing page template from a mile away. You probably can, too. Just look for the little red asterisks next to the required field labels. They’re there because nobody in-house can figure out how to override the styles to hide them.

With custom code, you can implement customized designs that earn customer trust and stand out from the crowd. Whether you code it yourself or hire a developer for help, being able to bring something bespoke to your digital assets can help you differentiate from other brands in your space.

2. Code literacy lets you move faster

Have you ever been wrapping up the final motions before a big product launch only to realize there’s a super embarrassing typo on your fancy new product page?

If you’re lucky, you might have access to a CMS to fix the copy on the fly. Otherwise, you’re going to have to flag somebody down on Slack, communicate the issue with text or screenshots, wait for them to make the change in the code, review the change, and twiddle your thumbs while they build and deploy your website.

Alternatively, if you have access to the git repo for your marketing website, you can create a new branch, make the edit yourself, and file a pull request.

When you can edit the code directly and review the deploy preview together alongside your web dev partners, this streamlines communication and saves everybody time.

3. Coding will open your mind to new ideas

When you know how your digital brand assets are built, you’ll find it’s easier to imagine what’s possible.

Can we dynamically show personalized content to our site visitors based on their geo-location? Yes, actually.

Could we make the logos bounce on the page when people hover over them? Uh-huh. Totally possible.

Could we make the entire homepage a bleeding edge-to-edge streaming video that auto-plays? Yes, but please don’t.

Understanding the basics—and the constraints—will help you ship better digital experiences for your customers.

A few years ago, I almost quit coding completely. People told me coding was a waste of time. It was a distraction. It was holding me back. “Wouldn’t your time be better spent letting somebody else do that?”

They weren’t wrong.

Most highly ambitious marketing professionals rise to the top without ever touching a lick of JavaScript.

Success requires focus, and ruthless prioritization.

But, successful people are also afforded the luxury of hobbies.

Coding is one of my hobbies, like practicing yoga or baking pies. I don’t do it to be a better marketer. I do it because it’s f*cking fun. There’s no pressure to be the best. No need to know everything there is to know. Tinkering merrily along. For the challenge of the puzzle. For the joy of getting lost in something.

My grandfather had model trains in the basement. I’ve got a Github account.

All this to say—

If you’re looking for someone to give you permission to code, you already have it.

Go have some fun.