The Call for Computer Fluency

The intersection of marketing and technology is a busy and dangerous cross-roads.  Those of us pigeon-holed as Marketing Technologists quickly come to respect our required bilingual capability.  Some of us even have gone so far as to be formally trained in both (business and computer science).  Even then our job sometimes is akin to translating between audiences with languages as different as Russian and Cantonese Chinese. 

Increasinlgy, in fact nearly daily, we witness those poor souls of marketing who have wandered into this intersection five minutes into rush hour.  We sometimes have to shutter our eyes if we are not charged with pedestrain cross-walk patrol.

We've mangled that metaphor enough.  The issue is this: in the digital age of an increasingly always-on society, there is an emerging prerequsite in digital and direct marketing to have some computer fluency.  Seriously, for those professionals who have inherited the role of CRM manager, direct or database marketer or digital commerce director, it is impossible to be effective in your position without a fairly reasonable command (or at least a modicum of understanding) of web technologies.

Many have referred to this as computer "literacy" but we think that misses the objective.  Literacy suggests the ability to read and write.  And it would be helpful to at least appreciate some basic computational principles of software programming (in fact, generations following us are increasingly being educated in computer fluency at least and literacy at best, as a matter of fundamentals like reading, writing, and arithmetic.)  But you need not take it that far to be effective at what you do in this digital age of marketing. 

We don't (yet) see the ability to write a software program (let alone read source code) as a prerequisite to succeeding as a digital marketer, but it sure can separate the "A Players" in a hurry.  Simply having some fluency should be sufficient to advance the inevitable collaborations that must occur between digital marketers, technologists, and enterprise IT. 

In other words, we think its enough for a digital marketing manager or eCommerce director to understand terms, terminology, and have a basic grasp of how the Internet works; how it scales; what comprises a web site platform, etc.  And then it would be gravy if the person also has an appreciation for how computers do what they do; that is, some basic understanding of how software works. 

That noted, we do believe it is a woeful short-coming for a digital marketing manager to assume their job is principally one of managing creative efforts in online communications, making UX/UI, or producing online brand experience.  There must be a grasp of the mechanics and technology that make all this possible, from web site infrastructure to SEO/SEM, and data analytics to know whats working and whats not.

Well, insofar as the computer fluency or literacy thing goes, it turns out we're not alone in this thinking

Randall Stross published an interesting article this past weekend in the NY Times, "Computer Science for the Rest of Us: Reading, Writing and -- Refactoring Code?" Stross is an author and professor of business at San Jose State University, in the heart of the Silicon Valley.

The gist of the article is that there is an increasing chorus of Academics and even business professionals calling for college graduates in every major and discipline to understand the fundamental of software and computation.  They are not calling for everyone to be a skilled programmer, but they do believe it is increasingly important to teach some "computational thinking" or the general concepts and principles employed in programming languages.  This approach to problem parsing and deconstruction, analyzing data, and generally understanding systems principles, they argue (and we agree) will become a skill as essential as reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Dr. Jeanette M. Wing, the head of the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University published a manifesto of sorts arguing that basic literacy should be redefined to include an understanding of computational processes.  She wrote:

To reading, writing and arithmetic, we should add computational thinking to every child’s analytical ability.

The Quick Sort Algorithm -- A Basic Computer Science Element, Courtesy WikipediaAgain, while we agree that understanding computational principles -- at a high cursory level -- is going to become imperative to navigate everything from big data (a topic we're starting to dwell on), to really "getting" how to leverage social media, we don't necessarily agree that its "literacy" we should be striving for; fluency should be sufficient.  But failure to become at least fluent could well place incumbent digital marketers at a distinct disadvantage to the upcoming digital turks graduating from "B School" today.

However, the poblem accordingy to Stross, is that there is little agreement or standards for laying out a curriculum that provides a survey level of computational thinking, introduction to software, or computer fluency.  Syllabuses are all over the board depending on which institution you're considering for an introductory or survey course.  And as Stross points out, arguably this is material that should be covered at the high school level, if not sooner.

Starting that early is possible because gaining some fluency doesn't require the rigors of computer science as many of us recall it did just a decade ago.  You no longer have to master discrete mathematics, decision theory, or Karnaugh maps in order to gain an appreciation for computer systems, networks, or basic principles of operating systems and applications software, let alone programming.

We encourage you to check out Dr. Wing's 2006 essay yourself; it better expresses the idea than we can here.  The point about her point we want to make however, is that technology is changing at an alarming rate and digital marketers must have a basic appreciation for the principles of computation, systems and networks, and applications in order to remain competent in their domains of direct marketing, social media and digital commerce.

It is a trusim that a programming language that's hip today by tomorrow will become passe.  Consider, for example, how in a matter of less than a year, HTML5 and AJAX have redefined the user experience of the Web and shoved Adobe Flash to the precipice between antiquity and obsolescence.  Keeping up is a breakneck exercise, and that's just one aspect of web technology.  Add into that the tools of data mining, analytics, personalization, and behavioral tracking.  Toss in the challenges of working with developers, Agile development principles, application frameworks, and data models.  Then simply consider the Web itself and its shift from 2.0 to 3.0; the Semantic Web, the tools of social media, and so on.

On the one hand, we gaze over this landscape and reflect on how we're going to stay busy at C[IQ] for sometime to come.  But in a sudden snap back to the present we jolt to realize that a big part of our job is helping our clients avoid becoming a grille ornament on a speeding vehicle of innovation through the near grid-locked noisy intersection of marketing and technology.  Mind the signal.



Gregory Miller, CTO

Greg has been in the tech sector as a software architect and engineer, product manager, marketing and biz dev exec., and even IP and privacy lawyer for 3 decades. He is currently on the Board of a non-profit tech foundation reinventing America's election technology, is a venture adviser in the Silicon Valley, and serves as the CTO for C[IQ] Strategies, Inc.