The chilling truth of the Tech | Marketing divide

August 16, 2015

It was 2002, and I was sitting in a freezing datacenter in front of a multi-million dollar, massive, experimental and very noisy 800 pound 256 CPU Linux supercomputer. Trying desperately to configure the bleeding edge (at the time) fiber optic shared memory interconnect, I had a moment of realization: I am probably one of the luckiest geeks in the world right now. By a series of unlikely events, the stars had aligned and I had been mandated to lead the implementation, configuration and delivery of the fastest supercomputer in the country. I was 22 years old at the time, and although I was under serious pressure, I felt like I was on top of the world.

The project was already quite ambitious, but there was also a more “political” objective to this project: rank this beast in the coveted top 500 list of supercomputers, worldwide. At the time, this “side objective” seemed like a distraction to me, compared to the technological and technical accomplishment. We eventually did make the list, with a peak performance of 357,000,000,000 floating-point mathematical operations per second. At the time, this was near-sci-fi stuff, today it’s roughly the equivalent of the Xbox One or PS4 under your TV. All in all, it was an awesome adventure and it gave me the chance to meet incredibly smart people I normally would have never had the chance to work with.

I didn’t know this at the time, but this was my first real exposure to the Tech/Marketing divide. Making that top 500 list was a useless publicity stunt to me. I was much more interested by the fact that this frankenstein of a computer generated significantly more BTU’s of heat under full computational load than a full-size BBQ. Surely, people would be much more impressed by the technical specifications then just seeing a line on a website, and if that wasn’t the case it’s simply because they didn’t understand.

I will spare you the details of my career evolution, but after my time in IT consulting I had the chance to transition between various roles which naturally led me progressively towards management, operations, digital product management and P&L responsibilities. Eventually, looking to understand the full depth of running a business my focus pivoted towards organisational design, strategy, finance, account management and yes even some marketing. Ultimately, this led to the birth of my own business which I started late 2014 with two pretty awesome guys.

Looking back 13 years at my old self working day and night to get that supercomputer ranked in the top 500 without understanding the true purpose of the marketing exercise, it’s clear to me that I was looking at the situation with a one-sided technical perspective. I was confusing the concept of people not paying attention to technical achievements, I was confusing “they don’t understand” with “they don’t care”. Somewhere along my highly unusual career path, I learned a very difficult but very enlightening lesson: No one cares about the technology until it has a clearly identified and useful purpose. When I realized this, it suddenly all made sense. For example, there were 3 ways to interpret this supercomputer story:

  1. Very expensive supercomputer is an awesome technological masterpiece, with a bunch of really impressive figures and specs I am not going to list here.
  2. Expensive supercomputer enables new levels of CFD (computational fluid dynamics) research which can, for example, simulate various models of in-flight wing de-icing for commercial airlines.
  3. New supercomputer ranked in the top 500 worldwide empowers researchers to find ways of de-icing airliner wings in-flight to make air travel safer.

Number 1 is very accurate, but the story ends there. Number 2 gives a good idea of potential but is probably too technical to most people. Number 3 is understood by everyone, makes a statement, inspires confidence and will most likely lead to the funding of additional resources to help this important initiative we can all relate to. What happened there is the tech side has been aligned with the marketing side and everyone wins.

Fast forward back to today, where I have the chance of meeting some really interesting companies and even more interesting people. Management consulting has evolved quite a bit in the last 10 years or so. The challenges businesses must face in 2015 are incredibly different than just a few years ago, but that’s not the most interesting part. What’s mind boggling is this is not a “phase”, this is only the beginning. I sincerely believe that in 10 years things will be even more different than they were 10 years ago today. That can be a scary concept, or it can be an incredible opportunity. Management consulting in 2015 is about helping the companies we work with seize the latter. While working with clients nowadays, It’s as valuable to be able to understand a financial statement as it is to understand the market positioning impact of having a public API. Everything either revolves around tech or is heavily dependent on it, and this is why having a misalignment between your technology team and other groups, especially marketing, can be catastrophic to the business.

In our business, we work with two main types of clients, SMB’s with tech/digital DNA and large “traditional” organisations. Unsurprisingly, the tech/marketing disconnect seems to be much more frequent in the larger traditional organisations. I honestly stopped counting the number of times we came across a large relatively successful business that has a vertical silo approach to tech and marketing. The marketing group is ultimately accountable for growing sales, brand recognition etc. and the tech group is focused on “keeping the lights” on for as little cost as possible. Budgets are completely separate, and interests could not be further from being aligned. Usually the net result is a very frustrated marketing department that can’t deliver and a tech group that goes into what I call “bunker mode” — Minimal communication, defaulting to daily grind, no collaboration and wait for the storm to pass.

If you are wondering why this isn’t escalated to COO or CEO level, that’s a very good question, and it usually goes something like this: IT will push back on anything outside of the plan because they are accountable for keeping costs low while maintaining a decent service level. The decision maker doesn’t not have the technical knowledge to challenge IT and is scared of breaking something if it’s pushed too hard. IT does not have the business context and is not incentivised in any way to help grow sales, make a better product, gain market share etc. Depending on the maturity of the tech group, they might not realize that there won’t be any lights to keep on if marketing can’t do their job. Ultimately, marketing is a revenue focused organisation and IT is a cost focused one. There is already a dangerous knowledge gap, add the office politics to the mix, and it’s a beautiful recipe for disaster.

Bridging that gap is not easy but it’s never impossible. There needs to be significant change in culture, performance management, org structure and maybe even staff members. It’s what we call organizational re-design. It can be a painful process, but the rewards are invaluable. Anyone can relate to being in a situation, personal or professional, where we get into a comfort zone while knowing it’s not the right or best thing to do. It’s usually a case of the boiling frog metaphor: the danger lies in It happening subtily / progressively. You probably know deep down you should do something about it but hey, “it’s not THAT bad”. Unfortunately, change usually only happens when a wall is hit or will be hit imminently. However when that change does happen, yes it hurts, but the pain is rapidly eclipsed by the results. Organisational continuous improvement is as important as it is on a personal level. Like the incredible feeling of going for a run and beating your previous time, the feeling of running a well oiled, lean, optimal organisation is quite special and makes all those efforts well worth it.

Not everyone has all the tools and experience to address these issues, but I am certain any engaged employee knows deep down when the organisation has settled a bit too much in that comfort zone. Like many problems, the first step is recognising it, and it also happens to be the hardest part. Eventually you move on to addressing resistance to change, which needs to be dealt with on a case by case basis considering the uniqueness combination factor of personality traits mixed with org structures, age groups, industries etc. The change management process goes on after that, but those two first pieces are by far the most challenging ones. Once you engage people at that level, you are at the point of no return.

In any situation where you need to chose between the easy way out and X, the right answer is usually X. So, what are you going to do about it?