5 things to know about marketing to become a better engineering leader
I would have called myself a heretic to have written such a title a decade ago—back when I thought being an awesome engineer was only about technical challenges and certainly not product or marketing.
I used to think bringing the product into the market was easy. If the product is good, people will naturally come. So the only thing that would matter to succeed was building the product. I was wrong, and marketing changed the way I approached engineering.
The boom of SaaS in the last decade brought intense competition among SaaS startups, but it also brought a new way to ship products out to the market. Now, the product plays a more significant role in the buying process. I have worked in the B2B SaaS space for more than a decade now, and I particularly love joining startups when they are at the zero-to-one stage: when it’s all about creating a product to ship out to the market. That is when I understood through those experiences how complementary perspectives are crucial to being a better engineer.
I am a technical person, not a trained marketer per se. And through my journey building products, I got a few pointers that I found crucial when launching a new product, and marketing can impact your engineering culture. So what should you know about marketing as an engineer?
1. Product-Market Fit
Launching a new business or product usually starts with two minimalist elements: a team and an idea.
That team will then translate the idea into several hypotheses, each being a combination of a channel, a target, and a value proposition, that you test and measure.
You will repeat those steps until you find THE combination that works better: the one that delivers a clear value quicker to your users and makes them return to you regularly. That combination may be imperfect, and users might even complain at first. If your users complain but keep using your service, it is a good sign at this stage: you are ready to improve from there instead of testing theories.
That is what we call the product-market fit - and it should be your first and only obsession at the beginning of your journey.
Finding your product-market fit is a challenging path, and it can become quite stressful. It requires testing multiple hypotheses and running experiments without a clear vision of when the results will be conclusive.
That period can be especially painful for technical teams as we prefer a clear understanding and vision to design systems properly.
For engineering leaders, your challenge would be ensuring your team understands that you are simultaneously iterating on the product and the market. You should aim to optimize for learning and be able to adapt as fast as possible. That would be key until you have enough data to bet on that one direction and consolidate your technical stack. During that time, documenting experimentations, hypotheses, and their results will help you get a step back to understand what to consolidate.
2. Product Positioning
Now that you have your first group of users, and hopefully users that love your product, you need to ensure that you understand them. What do they love about your product? A clear understanding of why they choose you and how they use your product will enable you to position yourself sharply on the market and get more customers like them.
This is called product positioning, which is the input of every marketing and product tactic.
The input of the technical co-founder is very much needed for your product positioning to be successful, as it will require going through a deep dive into what makes your product unique.
The book “Obviously awesome” by April Dunford profoundly changed how I approached products through engineering. This book gives a lot of insights on how to nail product positioning in ten steps.
It explains how critical it is to go through the alternatives your user would have used if you didn’t exist to understand how to position yourself. What are the unique features you have? What are those you don’t? The value and benefits they enable for customers, and then who cares about that value? In which context, those people will find you and see you as THE obvious solution for them.
Obviously Awesome covers a crucial part for engineering leaders: after several iterations working on your product, the product you will end up with won’t be the one you started with in the first place. But unconsciously, you might still be categorizing your product with how it started at the beginning. This won’t do you good because now what counts is how your new customers react. So you want to ensure you are aligned with the rest of the leadership team. Otherwise, you might not optimize for the future.
3. Customer Awareness
Now that your product is positioned, it’s time to inform potential users about it: it’s time for customer awareness. One thing to keep in mind when going into the market is that not all customers share the same level of awareness about their problems and the existing solutions.
Some are fully aware of problems and solutions - some partially, while others won’t have a clue.
You won’t be able to please everyone, especially on the bandwidth that comes with starting your product. So how about focusing on that one group of customers that understands their problems and the existing solutions? That will enable you to be sharper and reduce the pedagogy you will have to do to educate them on your ecosystem.
I have seen multiple times technical teams consider every customer feedback as equal. They are not (especially when the product has a free plan or a free trial), and that mistake can drastically slow you down or put you on the wrong path. As developers, we tend to optimize and anticipate too much and too early for the type of customer that isn’t fully aware of the ecosystem around your solutions and the problems it fixes when they give negative feedback.
There, as an engineering leader, along with the product team, you have to ensure the priorities, the main focus, and the order of operations.
4. Demand & lead generation
At this point, you should have a product that is clearly positioned, an ideal customer profile, and some social proof and testimonials. Because there is little room in customers' minds for every market category, you want to be top-of-mind for them.
That’s when content becomes interesting for you and where marketing can help you become a better engineer. To build an audience for your product, you must create content to make your audience see you as the only and best choice.
You can answer people's most important questions, for instance, or show them that you understand their problems, fears, and dreams. You can tell them stories that will make them feel that you are the one who can help them change and achieve what they want to achieve and make them understand you care about them.
This can take multiple formats such as blog posts, social media, interviews, podcasts, webinars, gated content, or ungated content- depending on the results you want to achieve.
To have a great lead generation machine on self-serve, you will want to make sure you understand what makes people excited about you, and you will need content teams that know how you are solving problems, so the transition between the content and the product is smooth.
5. Buyer psychology
I am particularly interested in psychology, so this last step would be my favourite. It is the topic I feel less comfortable with yet the one that could have the most significant impact on engineering leaders.
We saw in the four previous steps that to build an audience and make people want to buy from you, you need to build an emotional and logical relationship with your customers.
And stories are perfect for that - especially when stories are about the challenges and things you achieved. For instance, this is why you can see video games studios or movie studios do making of or behind the scenes. Even recently, during the World Cup, we saw coaches sharing their thoughts before and after a game.
People love that - it makes them feel that what they can get from you is unique and authentic. People buy emotionally and then tend to justify what they buy with logic. So as engineering leaders, you can get closer to your content team and help them turn product development into a story. That isn’t easy to do - as engineers, we already have a full plate. But if you can do it, to show your team that how they approach and build the product can turn prospects or customers into fans, then your team becomes unstoppable. This is a great way to bring a marketing mindset into your teams.
You don’t need to look far away to integrate marketing into how you approach engineering; you are already doing it.
Every day, you submit pull requests, communicate complicated changes, and simplify complex ones. Some engineers also contribute to open source and build projects- which requires understanding how to make a project evolve and take feedback from the community.
For your everyday tasks as an engineer, you will notice that approaching them with a new perspective will help you do your things better. If you want to go further, don’t limit yourself to pure engineering, and go consciously seek from other perspectives.
About Karim Matrah
Currently Head of Engineering at Contrast, Karim is leading the product engineering team to build the next generation B2B video platform. Before that, he worked in hyper-growth scale-ups like Aircall and Algolia where he learned about the keys to successful communication between product development and business teams.
You can follow Karim on Linkedin, where he regularly shares his experience on the intersection of marketing and engineering to help other engineers level up. Karim also opened his youtube channel, where he will talk about Tech, SaaS, product and marketing.