Marketing Education with Shum Attygalle

This is the part of a series of interviews with B2B marketers. In this post we're talking with Shum Attygalle from Axonify on marketing education and what it means to hire new grads.

Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Shum and I am a digital marketer at Axonify by day and by night I teach digital marketing in some places. And then all the time I am a husband to my wonderful wife Lisa and a father to a baby boy named Jude.

You said your night job is teaching, why do you do that in addition to having a day job?
When I graduated, part of what I realized is that some of the stuff that I learned in school, at least for digital marketing, wasn’t actually reality in the workplace. There was a bit of a disconnect there.

I’ve always had a passion for education, I’ve always been inspired by good teachers; my parents were both teachers in their own industries. So after experiencing that gap I said “this needs to change.” For a long time I’ve been wanting to make an impact. Over the last year and a half or so I’ve been given that opportunity to teach in the classroom. I had a blog before, I had a podcast for a while too, but I think the real systemic change has to happen in classroom. I’ve been pretty fortunate to have that teaching experience at both Conestoga College and Wilfrid Laurier University.

Is the gap there because marketing is changing super-fast?
Yeah. The truth is that it’s changing so fast that sometimes when you think about the way traditional education is structured now—let’s say in a university classroom at the undergrad level— a lot of it is based on textbooks, textbooks can’t be written fast enough to accommodate the change. What’s happening, at least what I’ve seen, is this decentralization of education. Outside of the universities or colleges, vendors and marketing agencies are coming up with their own courses to teach this sort of stuff. They’re the ones on the cutting edge. Typically it involves their own software, and that’s fine.

Let’s look at SEO. If you’re a student and you want to learn how to do SEO well, you’re not going to learn that in school. You’re spending all this money and three-to-four years of your life in school but you’re not coming out of it with the tools you need. That means it’s up to you to seek these vendors or outside courses that are going to help you use technology and other things. It’s difficult.

The average university course is 13 weeks, and let’s call it an average of 3 hours a week. You do the math on that and it’s 39 hours of class time. An average workweek is 40 hours. If you want to teach at the university level, you have to teach students digital marketing—everything they need to know about it—in a week. A week of work. When you put it in that perspective it almost seems impossible to do well.

"A course is 39 hours, a workweek is 40. How can you learn everything about digital marketing in one week?"

Is there only one digital marketing course?
Yes, there’s only one at Laurier, where I taught most recently. Digital marketing is what I do and what I’m passionate about. But sooner or later the word digital is going to drop away and it’s going to be integrated into everything. But for now this is how it’s set up. In order to stay on top of it you can’t just have one course, you can’t teach this in a week. You can teach certain parts of it, maybe, in a week. But the reality is there needs to multiple courses.

I can only relate to my own experience. I currently just finished a term where I was teaching digital marketing with another prof. It was tough for us because we realized we were short on time and had to focus our energy in certain places. All we can do is hope that we gave the students enough of a thirst for it, that they’re going to go out there and learn about digital marketing for themselves.

I feel like the programs are setting people up to go work in Consumer Packaged Goods or consulting management or large businesses. They’re not learning how to do SaaS, stuff like inbound.
The interesting thing about that… let’s take Waterloo Region as an example. To your point, business education today, having been part of it myself, a lot of the work you do or the case studies are focused a lot on big corporate enterprise, CPG, Fortune 500 or Fortune 100 brands. Big companies. Those companies are innovating in some ways from a marketing standpoint.

But equally exciting, or I’d argue more exciting, are the smaller companies like the startups in Waterloo Region who are starting from the ground up. They’re trying to figure out how to build a business and without good marketing you can’t do that. I think there’s a huge opportunity in our region, given the focus on startups, sooner or later we’re going to have hundreds of companies between 10-50 employees in size that are really trying to make a difference. Without marketers that’s going to be tough to do.

If the education system isn’t making those sorts of jobs attractive to students and we’re going to lose a lot of opportunity. There are three schools in this region, Waterloo, Laurier, and Conestoga, and they can easily feed talent into these companies. It’s not just engineering talent, but marketing talent, that they can funnel into these companies.

"If the education system isn’t making digital marketing jobs attractive we’re going to lose a lot of opportunity."

That’s something we’ve seen done well in Waterloo’s engineering program. They have co-ops every term. And at Axonify you always have a business co-op. I haven’t seen that in many other startups. I don’t even know how to get involved in that.
I’ve been with Axonify for almost 3 years. When I started we always had an engineering co-op. At some point, we realized we could use some help or new ideas, not just in the short-term but more so the long-term—when you invest in a co-op you’re not investing for one term and you’re done. It’s not a four-month thing and that’s it. When I first started we didn’t have a co-op in marketing at all, and the first co-op we did get bridged a role between marketing and sales.

Part of the decision making there was asking if there is enough valuable work that the co-op can be part of, as opposed to there is a lot of work no one wants to do? That’s not really valuable for both parties. The co-op isn’t going to get much out of it and they’re not going to be motivated to do their best. The reality of startups is there is going to be that kind of work and you just have to do it. That’s the reality, you and I both know that, and that’s fine. But when thinking through whether or not you want to bring in a co-op for this function, you want to ask if there’s going to be enough valuable work.

For my co-op that I have right now, I understand buckets of what she’s going to be involved with, but her term is going to look very different from another co-op’s term. The needs of the business are going to change.

To get involved, once you’re ready, the schools have great, robust co-op programs. It’s just about reaching out to them and saying “I have a job opening for this sort of role” and once you post it they make sure they find good candidates to fill that role.

I’ve had a co-op consistently for two-and-a-bit years and it’s been great. We’ve grown the number of co-ops we have to four, and in the Winter term we’ll have six.

"I think it’s a pretty big shock to the system for new grads."

What do you see with those new students, or even new grads, what’s their perception of their education and how do they feel after their co-op term?

I think it’s a pretty big shock to the system for them.

In our current situation, given the state of our organization, we’re growing pretty fast. Some companies are more mature, some co-ops will have experiences at companies that have been around for multiple, multiple years, their experiences will be slightly different. Their projects will be longer-term focuses.

At a small company you’re going to be involved in thirty different projects with various lifespans. You’re going to get to see your impact before you leave in multiple ways. Sometimes what that looks like could be drastically different from what you thought it might be based on what you know about marketing so far. If you’ve only been exposed to stuff in school from a marketing perspective, and then you come into a work term and realize things are a bit different, you get to see, a) how they’re different, b) how to do them, and c) what that looks like as an end result.

So what I think a lot of students get perspective on with us and similar companies, sometimes the “sexy” jobs in marketing aren’t the ones that are always talked about in school. Even an inside sales role, we don’t talk about what it’s like to build that system. Or email marketing. People don’t talk about that as a “sexy” role. But the people I’ve worked with in my digital-focused area, they’ve gone away realizing there is a lot of value that can be driven from channels like those in a company like ours, and there are hundreds and hundreds of companies like ours that need that talent and can’t find it.

Which leaves us with hiring new grads… so what’s the gap we need to cover to get them up to speed?
There are two parts to this. One of them is almost impossible to fill ahead of time, and one can be filled ahead of time through education. The two parts are strategy and tactics. By tactics I mean understanding the tools. The tools are going to change all the time, so it would be naive of us to say “Hey, new grad, I expect you to know X, X, and X.”

"If you can teach them how to think, it is a great start."

But do they understand the categories, like automation? CRM?
That is more important. That’s where thinking around the strategy is. As a new grad you’ve taken courses you’ve hated, but you passed, so you know how to learn something. A new tool shouldn’t be difficult for you to grasp. New grads are growing up in the digital world so learning how to use a new digital tool shouldn’t be too hard.

The strategy, the thinking around which tool, why, what not to focus on, that can be taught. That stuff needs to be taught. Bringing someone onboard who can dabble, learn, and evaluate what’s right for your business at the right time. If you can bring someone on who knows if marketing automation is right for your business, or if you have automation in place already to know how it’s impacting your business. That’s the stuff I think needs to be taught at the undergrad level so that when they come out of it… at the very least they know how to think like digital marketers.

Acting and actually doing it you can do on the job. If you can teach them how to think, it is a great start.

Part of what you’re saying is they’ve been teaching strategy in a way that doesn’t take modern tools into account, and to plan a strategy in today’s world you have to know those systems—that’s what your strategy is made of today.
Totally. This brings me to a slightly different point. The courses I remember taking, the structure I was given in undergrad, is that you’re being groomed to be an intermediate or entry level manager. You’re learning strategic things, big tools like a SWOT analysis that only consultants use.

Marketers can leverage these in some ways, but not in the ways we’re taught in school. Too often at an undergrad level you’re trained in a certain way of thinking that you won’t even use in the first two years of your career. The strategic side of it should change a little bit to focus on those first two years. You’re not going to be called in to do a SWOT analysis, you’re going to be brought in to evaluate which tools we should be using, how, and why. That’s the level of thinking we need… but the perception is that it almost seems too shallow, too entry level to teach that.

But people struggle with that at every level. Even CMOs don’t understand that!
That’s the reality. What better time to teach these things than an undergrad level? Now when you have new blood come into an organization, that thinking is native to them. They know it inside out. As you groom them to go further into the organization they’re bringing that level of knowledge further and they’re teaching the rest of your organization.

The course that we just taught, we would call that type of person a digital integrator. Someone who understands how digital fits into the bigger strategy. It takes a bit of time for people to get into, but no one is better poised for it than undergrads. They’re starting fresh.

If they’re still in school or a new grad, where do they go to learn more? How do you stay up to date?
Learning is a big thing for me. Not only teaching but growing my own knowledge. Continuous learning is part of what I lacked as an undergrad, I didn’t have the time or in some cases the desire. When I first graduated I’d read a lot, a lot of books. Now it’s blogs.

Marketing Land has a great newsletter they send out every day that summarizes a bunch of different topics in digital marketing from trusted sources. Instead of going to all the individual sources I just picked one.

Your newsletter, FunnelCake’s—that’s a huge plug for you. But it’s super curated. As a marketer I’m not interested in finding hundreds of articles myself, I’d rather find just one that has great content. That’s harder to find and more valuable. I really appreciate the timing and cadence of it. Once every fortnight is perfect for me.

There are certain individuals who I do follow. I don’t use Twitter as much as I used to, I don’t have the time. Seth Godin who is almost a marketing philosopher. I follow him religiously. But he’s moving more into the philosophical thinking and less of the tactical thinking.

Some of the biggest learning I get is just by being observant. Understanding what to look for when you see something, looking at things offline in a non-marketing space. How can we take a great experience we have physically and replicate that online?

"A good marketer is always thinking 'How can I take this feeling I have right now and deliver this feeling to my customers?'"

I do that too—even when I get a good email or phone call from someone I write down all the things that happened and how it made me feel.

Even like at a restaurant when you’re served well or they do something different. When you think “I enjoyed my experience here,” instead of saying “Yeah, that was great” a good marketer is always thinking “How can I use this feeling I have right and use that to deliver this feeling to my customers?” That’s something I always try to think about.

Last question, what’s your favourite 90s dance song?
I saw this and I had to think really hard. I listen to 90s music almost exclusively, except for a few modern artists. I think 90s music is amazing. If I had to pick one song I’d pick the song we opened up our wedding dance party to. That’s Getting Jiggy With It. Me and my friends know that song inside and out. We used it as a great way to kick off a night of dancing. Will Smith defines rap for me in the 90s.