Understanding both communications and technology is a good thing

When interviewing for jobs, I often get many questions about my technical background. I think it throws people that, for a person who has focused mainly on communications strategy my entire professional career, I know so much and get so excited about technology. What can I say, I’m a geek!

Ever since I was a kid, I liked to take things apart to see how they work. I was never very good at building things, but always had a knack for reverse engineering devices to figure out how all the various pieces work together. I didn’t discriminate when it came to picking the type of device to take apart. I went through four or five Teddy Ruxpin dolls; ruined at least two gaming systems; and had to take the bus quite a few times after trying to dismantle my own car engine. To my credit, curiosity has neither killed, nor seriously injured, this cat.

I have always been fascinated with computers and the internet, especially websites. I took HTML class in junior high school, and have been in love ever since. As an adult, when I had the opportunity to switch over from doing community organizing and traditional communications to digital strategy, I was giddy beyond belief. I was able to do something most people dream of – make a career out of a hobby that I love.

My resume reads a bit like that of a webmaster or a web developer. I know HTML and CSS; can write some basic Javascript and PHP; can write basic MySQL queries and architect a scalable database; and know the ins-and-outs of most major content management and social media management systems. I am even told I am an effective technical project manager when I need to be.

On the flip side of that, I am a very well-rounded communications strategist. Prior to shifting gears to digital strategy, I was running grassroots advocacy and media outreach efforts for nonprofits and political candidates. Starting in college leading up my final days in politics, I had:

  1. Launched the first free, student-run publication at UMass, writing cover pieces and overseeing editorial processes, layout, and distribution;
  2. Led grassroots efforts on campus to stop tuition hikes, save the student daycare center, and raise awareness of AID orphans in Uganda;
  3. Oversaw communications efforts for a citywide coalition to increase voter turnout in urban areas of Boston;
  4. Ran effective media outreach strategies and acted as campaign spokesperson for candidates running for city council on up to US Congress;
  5. Developed communications strategies for various nonprofits from small community organizations on up to national political and advocacy groups;
  6. Wrote candidate speeches (although I wasn’t very good at it).

It is becoming increasingly rare that people in this field can put together a communications and marketing strategy, from messaging to tactical execution; build the organization to support it; oversee the execution soup to nuts; design and build the technology needed for execution; and measure the campaign’s effectiveness. When I came into this field, it was not rare to be a digital generalist, it was actually expected. The era of the Internet Strategist – the jack-of-all-trades that was expected to do everything from maintain a web server to running online communications – seems to be over. Unfortunately, lost with that is the deep knowledge and appreciation people had for technology that is so critical to the way we communicate online.

Digital strategy is a very tactical field, despite efforts to ignore the underlying infrastructure of the web. No matter how good your copy is, or how many high-profile bloggers you pitch stories to, we are at the mercy at the technology through which we communicate. I have too often seen Creatives develop pie-in-the-sky concepts for marketing campaigns that cannot be executed because Facebook doesn’t allow apps to work that way. I have also seen great communications plans fall apart because the strategist didn’t take the time to think through how to leverage their selected distribution platforms to effectively deliver their content and maintain high levels of engagement.

The best piece of advice I received when I entered this field, which I now give to non-technical digital strategists, is learn how the internet works. A developer I used to work with named Greg Lavallee once told me that the the more I understood about what can be done with technology the better I would be at developing strategies that rely on it. He was absolutely right. It was at that point, when I really invested time in understanding technology from both a technical and business standpoint, that my skills as a strategist blossom.

For those of you who have also been branded a jack-of-all-trades, wear the mark with pride. Not all people get it, nor will they appreciate it, but when it comes to digital strategy, you will always have a leg up on the competition.