Learning How Web Applications Work
From Google Bot to the Facebook Social Graph, to this WordPress blog; the web as we know it, is a massive system of interconnected applications. All these applications are simply programs and databases that run on servers. And while building these applications is a massive undertaking, learning the underlying processes and concepts is not. It takes nothing more than a bit of effort and time to learn enough about programming and databases to significantly set yourself and your resume apart from the average digital marketer.
While the benefits of learning how to write server-side code and interact with databases are not as immediately useful as many of the skills listed in Part 1, it is actually the process of learning this skill that presents the real value. The learning process will provide and intuition about how applications work and how processes can be scaled. This is key to digital marketing at scale.
If you can understand how search engine bots crawl websites, you can understand what makes a website crawl-friendly and you begin to understand the technical aspects of SEO. If you understand how algorithms work, you can understand Edge Rank and how Facebook decides to distribute content and broaden your reach. If you can understand how your CMS works you can map your analytics platform to it and gain better insight, which you can then use to, automate processes like email and offer personalized experiences. This new intuition about the web will continue to present opportunities.
You will also find many practical opportunities to employ your new programming and databases querying skills for digital marketing tasks and processes. While these skill starts to bleed into the realm of web development and data-science/business intelligence there are still many applications for server side scripting languages, from automation to optimization that can be very powerful for digital marketers.
Programing for the Web
When starting out on the road to learning server-side scripting, it is most realistic to start with PHP, Python or Ruby on Rails. All three are open-source, have strong communities and plenty of free learning resources. They all offer many similar advantages but each is powerful (and practical) in its own way.
You see why I chose python…
PHP, for better or worse, has been the defacto server-side language of the Web for a long time. PHP is what powers WordPress, Magento, ModX and many other content management systems (CMS’s) and if you are in digital marketing for long you will likely run into at least one CMS powered by PHP. Learning PHP will come in handy when you find yourself wanting to add schematic markup for search engines or scripts for testing or analytics platforms like Optimizely or Google Tag Manager.
Depending on the site(s) and development resources (or lack thereof) that you are planning to work with, PHP may be good choice. It is the easiest code to deploy, as all popular web servers will support PHP.
Python is also used to build websites with frameworks like Django and Flask but more often, sites that are built with Python are apps built with a specific, custom purpose. Unlike, PHP and Ruby, which are designed for, web development; Python is a general-purpose language, which makes it go-to languages for data-science. (The resources featured here are most about how to learn python as that is the language I have focused learning the most. It has been great!)
For the technical marketer, Python is useful for scaling big(er) data science-y processes like web scraping, querying API’s, interactive analysis and reporting. Many processes that are carried out manually can be programmed using Python and run on a cron job or other triggers. One major benefit of Python is that it is so easy to learn thanks to the number of educational resources and friendly syntax. If you find yourself venturing into the world data science, you will be well prepared with Python as a large and active data science community supports it.
Ruby on Rails, well, I really haven’t played with it much but I have heard it’s very nice. The key, I hear is that it is good for rapid Web app development.
Database Querying and Analysis
Digital marketing without data is not digital marketing and the digital marketer who is not data-literate is just a marketer. I am not arguing that all digital marketers should be become SQL ninjas but learning this skill, like programming, is as much about gaining an intuition about how systems and applications work as it is about developing a practical skill.
For a real-world use case that employs this skill as both intuition and a practical skill, look no further than Google Analytics. The Google Analytics web interface is ‘simply’ an elegant way to query, sort, filter and visualize site usage/performance data that is collected in a database. Having a general understanding of how Google Analytics stores data and how different data points/hit types interrelate allows you to be much more precise in your analysis and confident that the data that you pull from Google Analytics is accurate.
SQL knowledge can also help you in times that you need to pull raw data out of Google Analytics for further analysis or to avoid sampling. With Google Spreadsheets’ QUERY function, you can query spreadsheet data using SQL (Structured Query Language). For quick analysis and more complex inspection of data sets, writing SQL queries to explore and form data to your needs can be much quicker and easier to debug than writing a successive set of spreadsheet functions.
When dealing with large amounts of Google Analytics and sampling becomes a significant issue, Google’s BigQuery can be hooked up to Google Analytics to provide SQL-like query functionality with greater speed and scale. When you become comfortable with this GUI-less interface, the ability to query any database become much less daunting. You can then answer question by directly querying databases such as a website’s MySQL database using phpMyAdmin.
“Every question can be distilled into a database query,” Adam Ware of SwellPath told me when I first started learning about databases. The phrase seemed very exciting and has since proven accurate. I have come to realize that databases simply hold all the raw information in a defined structure. By asking the right question in the right way, your digital marketing insights are limited only by your data.
Once you start to understand how databases operate you will notice their appearance in apps across the web from ecommerce stores to analytics platforms to blogs. The understanding of how data is stored and how to extract the data that you want will also significantly improve your ability to use applications to their full potential, ideate optimization for existing apps and learn new applications. This intuition is skill that helps turn data into to knowledge and as you knowing is half the battle.
How to Learn Web Application Programming
This is a great place to start with any web programming language. It is the quickest, easiest and most fun way to get up to speed with a programming language that I have found. Best of all it is free. It offers courses in PHP, Python and Ruby and hosts very helpful Q&A forums for coders who are just starting out.
Once you have gotten a feel for programming (and a few bumps and bruises to go along with it) the next place to go is to start to understand the real power that programming offers. Udactity’s Inro to Programming in Python picks up where CodeAcademy.com leaves off and introduces capabilities rather than just syntax and style.
For the digital marketer, this course is especially useful because the course is taught through constructing a very rudimentary search engine crawler (or at least the general idea of one). This application opens a window of understanding how big applications work and will make you think differently about how search engines operate.
There is a lot more than just programming that differentiates marketers who can program from web developers. From hosting, to caching to cookies, this course does a good job introducing these concepts.
From my experience, it was a bit too difficult as a follow up from the Intro to Programming in Python course to actual create and deploy a web app, but it does give a substantially understand of technical web terminology to communicate effectively with web developers. (This is a very valuable skill if you ask me.) From this course you will have an understanding of what topics you need to take on in detail to accomplish what you need to do as a technical marketer.
How to Learn Data Analysis with Databases
Become Data-Driven: Intro to Data Science (U. Washington & Coursera)
In my opinion (and I am a bit of a biased data-geek), this is the best online course I have taken. Each lesson offered “aha!” moment after “aha!” moment while teaching really useful skills.
The course assumes only a bit of Python experience and offers a comprehensive introduction to everything from interacting with API’s with Python and to querying databases from the command line to how to think and communicate with data. Taking this course will make any digital marketer more data-driven and will back them up with the skills to take action.
Slightly more academic than Intro to Data Science, this course provides a very strong foundation for understanding data and databases. If you are a “why does this work” type of person, this course will be very interesting.
From a practical standpoint, the course offers very good lessons on JSON and XML formats which are everywhere in digital marketing and their understanding is essential for working with API’s. The database portion of the course will take you at least as far as you will need to go for the digital marketing applications of databases.
If all these courses have been interesting to you and you have a good handle on programming, then this is the course for you! You will build a real webb app from the ground up while learning MongoDB hotness. Another digital marketing specific benefit to this course is that the app that you build is a blog. Understanding how blog content is retrieved and presented will help you understand a lot about semantic SEO.
I hope you have at least one direction that you are excited about. Leave a comment if you have any questions or follow the rest of the $10k Technical Skills for Digital Marketing series by signing up for email notifications when new posts are up. API’s, web scraping and “how to learn” are still to come!