Coding vs. Relationship Building: Which is More Important for You to Focus On?

With the advent of tech successes like Facebook, Dropbox, Instagram, and Craigslist, the credo touted at entrepreneurs and marketers has been: You need to get more technical. That means learning HTML, SEO, and most importantly, code. With all of this hype emphasizing the “hard skills,” it seems that the need for non-technical people is slowly disappearing.

But, as an entrepreneur, you don’t want to spend all of your time trying to become technical. Sure, it’s important to have a basic understanding of HTML and what not, but it shouldn’t make or break you. In fact, you should focus your time on tangibles, the things that move your business forward. You want to be great at finding talent and delegating, conversions, and sales. If your focus is on marketing, there are plenty of tools out there to help you do your job (and you shouldn’t have to know how to code to build them).

People Buy from People They Like

Amid this “everyone needs to code” frenzy, people tend to forget that we don’t live in the I, Robot movie. Computers aren’t better than humans. Indeed, computers have a long way to go when it comes to mastering soft skills like relationship building, persuasion, growing a network, getting leads, making sales, presentation, etc. This is great news for marketers and entrepreneurs. And Will Smith.

In short, for many entrepreneurs and marketers, learning how to communicate effectively is harder than learning how to write code. But, because of the exponential success and rapid growth of the aforementioned companies, due in part to the work of growth hackers (also known as part-engineers, part-marketers), people are devaluing how important good communicators are to a company.

Programmer Ciara Byrne says it all in “No–You Don’t Need to Learn to Code”:

“Marketing (in the old-school sense of the word) still matters. The likelihood of a 23-year old computer engineer (or a computer) replacing someone who understands social psychology, persuasion, and anthropology [isn’t] as high as this post would indicate. Computers still aren’t very good at modeling those things…. Someone still has to understand how to capture people’s attention and get them to part with their resources.”

In fact, one of the most famous tech wunderkinds is rumored to have not known how to write a line of code. Yes, we’re talking about Steve Jobs. Jobs respected and acknowledged the work his partner Steve Wozniak (a brilliant coder) did and was skilled at molding Wozniak’s work into something people wanted to buy. Apple wouldn’t exist without Jobs’s vision and ability to sell and package an idea that consumers want, so why are people devaluing the skills that made Apple the brand it is today?

People Fall in Love with Ideas, Well before Code is Needed

The Mad Men fictional character, Don Draper, is an accomplished creative director at his advertising firm because he’s a great storyteller. A great storyteller can sell a product before it exists. If you can make someone fall in love with your solution before they even know they have a problem, then you have sold them. They trust you. They believe you.

This 99u article breaks down what good marketing is all about (hint: it involves relationships and work ethic):

“Marketing is the sort of skill that is hard to outsource because you need to know a lot of local knowledge of time and place usually. To figure out what your readers are like or what some market segment is like [takes time], and the idea that you just hire some smart genius in India to solve it is not going to work.”

Yes, growth hackers are becoming more prevalent and their skills are necessary. But they are like the guerrilla warriors of the startup industry (aggressive soldiers in the name of company growth). What happens when a company wants to sustain its growth? Good communicators are what separate the companies like Google from those like Ask Jeeves. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was an excellent programmer, true, but he also majored in Psychology. Coding could take Facebook only so far.

Don Draper and good marketers are able to sell ideas because they have strong analytical skills and a deep-seated understanding of sales and consumers. This is something computers can’t do.

SEO is Dying

SEO, Schmesheeo. There’s a new trend that people should be paying attention to, and it’s authentic content. In fact, nothing embodied the recent push for authentic content more than Google’s banishment of “hip hop Wikipedia” website Rap Genius last December.

The story goes that Rap Genius was engaging in the dark side of SEO, a.k.a. Black Hat SEO, by telling affiliate writers via email to insert links about Justin Bieber into any random post to boost traffic. A blogger who received the email published it to expose Rap Genius’s unethical SEO tactics.

Google responded by removing their top search ranking. By the end of December, even if you searched for “rap genius” in Google, the site wouldn’t appear until the 6th page of the results. Google made a huge example out of Rap Genius because it had gotten tired of SEO counterfeiters keeping users from accessing relevant and valuable content. And they are not afraid to act on their push toward authentic content.

Conclusion: What Should You Be Doing Instead of Learning to Code

Instead of trying to embark on the rough and lonely road it takes to be a skilled programmer (Ok, I’ll admit to loving Ladies Learning Code and Codeacademy), you should be learning how to understand coders, working smarter with technology, and heightening your problem solving skills.

What makes coding such an important skill is not the boring technical aspect of sitting at a computer for hours, but the way it solves problems. Technology is as valuable as you make it.

As history has shown us, technology always will change and so will how we use it. But one thing that never will go away is how to execute and package that technology. It’s just as, or even more, important to know how to look at the bigger picture when confronted with ever-changing technological tools.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: “Realistically, you can’t be a marketer for a startup without understanding the basics behind your landing pages, website, blog, etc.” But, although those are valuable tools, the added pressure to learn how to code simply belittles the other skills that are essential in any entrepreneur’s, marketer’s, and/or PR professional’s arsenal. Learning to code is not the be all end all to these fields, and valuing coding over soft skills, which can’t be measured by a Codecademy type program, helps no one and hurts everyone.

About the Author: Renée Warren is the co-founder of Onboardly, a demand marketing company focused on helping funded technology startups become more visible and acquire more customers. They do this through content marketing, startup PR, and social media. Subscribe to their blog here!

  1. Spot on, Renee. Now if only we could get the rest of the press world to fall in line.

    Would be fun to pit code posers against true engineers. They’d probably quickly retreat to their pitch decks.

    • Hey Jay,

      I’d love to pit code posers against those learning to code in order to actually build something worthwhile for their business. There are those that gloat knowing how to code, but don’t build, than there are those that shut up and and create amazing things. Sometimes they build simple WP plugins that helps them better manage their content, other times it’s a simple web tool or app to help better promote their content and work. Who knows, sometimes those ‘simple tools’ can spiral in to a full blown amazing product. Anyway it is, I commend those willing to learn and appreciate how coding can help them, but I also have mad respect for those same people that understand the value in creating relationships first.

  2. Outstanding! I love it when someone uses good ‘ol common sense and tells us the truth. Thanks!

  3. Finding the right balance is key here. Coding or being technical is inevitable in day and age. At some point, we will need to do it. But before that, as business owners, building better relationships with our customers should be at the core of our operation. If done right, the relationship can bring in more sales out of repeat buyers and referrals.

  4. Yeah…good stuff. Google certainly aren’t up for any shenanigans these days. They will bitch slap ya in an instant if they sense SEO manipulation.

    It’s now crucial as a marketer to get in bed with your market and give em what they want in a Don Draper (story telling) way.

    Insightful article Renee. R.E.S.P.E.C.T!

  5. Great post. I’m biased given that I’m a non-technical founder; however, I do believe the marketing is increasingly undervalued. You can see it in the applications & background information you submit for Y-Combinator or AngelList. They contain questions about your most impressive hack and yet don’t ask about ‘who you know.’ Relationships/networks are critical to credibility, traction, retention and take time & human power to establish and maintain.

    • Absolutely Tracy.

      ‘They’ say, it’s not who you know, it’s who you know. Right?
      Your network is certainly valuable, but only if you are willing to put in the work to build and maintain those relationships and offer reciprocating value.

      The problem is that marketing is often misunderstood and many undervalue it because they think it’s costly, time consuming or a waste. Customer validation won’t happen on its own. You have to start creating relationships with your customers first, then build after.

      Fake it until you make it.

  6. Really enjoyed the post and couldn’t agree more. I am a developer working at a startup as well working on starting my own consulting practice, and I completely understand the need for someone who knows and understands the marketing and sales side of stuff.

    Also I don’t think it would hurt the tech people to learn more about business development, marketing, and sales. I am actually working on learning the marketing and sales side of things myself. It doesn’t matter how good a product you can build if no one knows about it.

  7. wayne david harris Feb 07, 2014 at 8:00 pm

    Totally agree exc post. What is this ‘everyone needs to code’ rubbish anyway. As if you can pick it up in 5mins. I thought we were moving from the cowboy coding days.
    I have been a programmer for over 20 years and everyday i find more i have to learn. Everyday new technologies appear, new systems and processes, it is hard work to be a good programmer. And you need to be.

    They say 10,000 hours to become an expert. Programming is engineering it is a science. One needs to fully commit to programming. There are more than enough half-baked programmers in the world – just look at the many amateur, ugly websites. The wordpress community is littered with them..

    Again unless one fully commits to programming, it is a far better strategy to become learned with say, the usability, UX, architecture concepts such as client-side vs server-side, responsive design, performance, testability..
    One doesnt have to engineer or build a car to understand how it works and if it performs well. The Steve Jobs example was gold. If you are good with people and understand technical concepts thats a winning combo i believe and better than any hiding away coding could help.

  8. So improving non-coding skills matters(I agree on that). Which route to follow? What to do next? What will be your advice on a point to start from? :)

  9. I’d say that Marketers and Coders should hold the same value.

    But the whole thing with everybody saying you should learn how to code is because you basically guarantee yourself a job.

    Here’s why, according to code.org over the next 10 years there will be over 1.4 million coding jobs available but only 400,000 people to fill those positions. So what you have here is 1 million jobs that need to be filled.

    Watch this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKIu9yen5nc , if you don’t trust the link then look up “What most schools don’t teach” on youtube.com. These are all of the fun benefits of doing code for a job.

    I don’t know where you guys live but the average starting pay for a coder in California is about $100,000-$120,000 per year.

    I value marketers, really I do, without them business would be selling a lot less products than they currently do.

    But computers pervade our lives. Let me ask you this. How many of you could go 1 day without your smartphone?

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