Start-Up Culture: Gender, Real Work, and the Death of Techies

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Back in November, there was a fantastic discussion on Facebook on the issue of “Genderification of Technology Work“. The essence is that the the tech start-up world often re-term and re-genderfy terms:

 “When women do it, it’s community management.
When men do it, it’s technical evangelism.
…When women do it, it’s marketing. When men do it, it’s growth hacking”

I have worked over 17 years in the tech space/digital agency space and have done everything from development, design, analytics, strategy, training – you name it. I absolutely agree that sexism along with ageism are huge issues hampering the industry.

But, I’d like to add another layer to this debate: 1) the idea that “Real Work” is technical work done by developers; and 2) That the Start-Up world is already realizing this to be dangerously false.

 

Thesis: Only Developers do “Real” Work

My main argument is that generally IT teams and web developers have always had an unease with marketers. We are considered bad people who just get in their way. We’re seen as charlatans who are responsible for gaming search engines to get top ranking, we track every person’s move online without their consent, create obnoxious banners with music, and, of course, we’re the ones that spam your inbox.

As “that guy from the marketing agency”, I have been in too many meetings where the IT departments have always looked at us marketers in disdain. We were always the ones requesting changes to the website that only distracted the IT or Web Developer teams from getting their “real job” done.

 

Technology Triumphalism: Programming as “Real Work”

In the start-up world, web developers are the ubermench. They are a highly sought after scarce resource with the high-salary figures to match.  Until four years ago, there was a confident attitude that the Internet companies would show the triumph of technology above all else. (If you Google search “Peter Thiel” you will see that technological libertarians are still aplenty in Silicon Valley.)

In meetings with technical teams, I would often get the cold shoulder from developers who basically said: “We don’t need marketing, we just need to ship a great product.” It was my background – as a marketer – not my gender that was the issue. Of course, if I was a female marketer I would probably be received even less seriously at such meetings.

“Build it and they will come” was the tech world’s motto, but this soon proved false. The Internet is not a technological world after all; it is another expression of human behavior.

 

Cognitive Dissonance: Marketing? Oh, you mean Growth Hacking

So what happens when it turns out, the technical team cannot carry a product to financial success alone? That perhaps, just because Google invested zero in marketing doesn’t mean you can ignore marketing your product as well? (Yes, I got the Google example often from technical people on why they don’t need or want marketing.)

You do “cognitive dissonance” and recast all marketing activities as “technical” activities: Marketing becomes “Growth Hacking”, Community Management becomes “Technical Evangelism” and so on. Maybe they even re-term  Social Media Marketing as “Conversation Engineer”? I wouldn’t be surprised.

In contrast to Shanley’s article on “Gendering of Technology Work”, it isn’t just the “masculinization” of marketing terms, but it more so (in my opinion) the “technicalization” of terms. This “technicalization” does mash-up with the gender-bias of the technology world, where technical teams are “brogrammers” and marketing/advertising rank the same as “PR chicks.” So to me, it’s both: technicalization and (indirectly but just as powerfully) masculinization.

 

Human Psychology Matters

To be sure, you can’t have an Internet or software start-up without developers. But we’re matured enough to know that technology isn’t enough.

Facebook’s initial growth wasn’t due to Zuckerberg’s programming prowess, but rather membership exclusive to Ivy League students and a clean UI that contrasted against the then cluttered MySpace. In addition, Zuckerberg’s ability to recognize that his users were “dumb fucks” (his words) that trusted him with a great deal of information helped give Facebook a business model in deal with marketing and data.

Yes, Facebook’s initial attraction was its exclusivity and clean UI, not it’s technology. It’s no surprise to know that Zuckerberg was a Psychology major at Harvard University.

While I’m no fan of the term “Growth Hacking” and the “technicalification” of marketing terms, I’m still happy that IT teams and Developers teams now understand the value of me  (and the rest of my marketing brethren).

Indeed, marketing is no longer a distracting cost-center, but a profit center. The understanding of human behavior – required in UX, marketing, customer service and product strategy – is taking center stage.

 

Death of the Developer Ubermensch

Highly creative and skilled developers will always be in demand, but technology no longer holds the monopoly of the “exclusive” single element required in a tech start-up. Even developers will need to be more “T-Shaped” and understand psychology and human behavior.

Indeed, the need to understand human behavior is triumphing in the Digital Era:

  • Apple focuses on industrial design and user experience
  • Buzzfeed and Upworthy focuses on eye-catching headlines, and niche targeted content
  • Companies like Netflix, Amazon.com to Target are using their customer data to constantly identify the behavior of their customers to constantly better target

And even in the technical world, web developers have embraced “Agile Development” where optimizing human behavior is more important than hierarchical command and control.

The Geeks Inherit the Earth? No, those studying humanities will. And with it, I’m hopeful that we’ll bring down the stereotype that start-ups are made of just male developers in their 20s.

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Daniel writes on foresight and explores new economic systems. He has over 15 years of experience in technology & digital marketing and has worked with clients in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Daniel is currently part of the University of Houston's Foresight Program.

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