Becoming a Growth Engineer

August 18, 2020
Michael Taylor

This post is the fourth in a series on Growth Engineering:


You may be wondering how to get started as a growth engineer — maybe you're a marketer learning to code or a developer interested in marketing. I run a community of Growth Engineers and I can’t say anyone has taken the same path, but if I tell you my story, that might help.

My Growth Engineer Career

I was completely enthralled by the Growth Hacking trend, and the promise of applying my economics background and budding interest in coding, to my accidental profession of marketing (I graduated in 2009). I hoped to correct the injustices of ‘gut’ decisions by technologically and analytically clueless senior managers, and work more with the smarter, untouchable class of developers I admired.

For me Excel was a gateway drug — if you can understand a spreadsheet and formulas you’re actually a lot of the way there towards understanding how and what to code. In my first startup job I was working on large-scale Google ads, where I had to implement hundreds of campaigns and it just wasn’t possible manually. Scale is the key I think — whenever you’re in a role where it’s impossible (not just improbable) to get your work done without templates, formulas and macros, you’re on the right path.

In my next job I learned Google Analytics by telling people I knew Google Analytics then Googling whatever they asked me. I learned basic JavaScript to implement tracking tags for campaigns, rather than waiting 3 months for the IT department. I then put my career on the line by forcing through a $60,000 annual purchase of Optimizely, the A/B testing tool, where after 5 failures, I managed to add $800k in revenue to the bottom line on my 6th experiment.

That caught the attention of the CEO, who put me in charge of 4 developers as the “Associate Product Manager for Marketing”, and started flying me out monthly to Silicon Valley. I worked harder during this period, than almost any other time in my life (the exception was the 1st year of founding Ladder), to the point where I had a bit of a mental breakdown and got myself fired.

Fast forward to today, and I’ve been fired another 2 times since, founded a company, gotten married, bought a house and had a baby, but I’ve never lost my passion for what I’d now call ‘Growth Engineering’. At Ladder, we grew to 50 people surfing the growth hacking wave, and I built the Data Science, Automation and Product teams. 

At Ladder we built an exceptional team of scientific marketers, running over 7,000 experiments across 200+ clients and tens of millions in marketing budget. We delivered growth engineering projects for companies like, Monzo Bank and Time Out Magazine, as well as small early stage startups who needed to hack growth with limited resources. I transitioned out of Ladder in February and now work on Growth Engineering as the founder of Saxifrage.

Timeline to Becoming a Growth Engineer

It’s only now, a decade into my career and 7 years since I wrote my first code that I’m billing myself as a professional Growth Engineer. I studied tutorials in evenings and weekends and rarely had an excuse to code in my job until this year. What that did teach me is systems thinking — learning to code is learning how to solve problems, and has far reaching benefits even if you never build a single production application. 

All in I’d say I averaged about 1,250 hours (4 hours a week for 6 years, or about 8 months full time) before I felt confident enough to charge money for coding. Sometimes this was 20 hours on a weekend, and other weeks I did nothing. Recently I progressed far more rapidly, when 8 ½ months ago I started to code 20 hours a week (another 680 hours, or 4 ¼ months full time). If you add it up I have just over a year’s experience, making me a pretty amateur coder, which is kind of depressing after 7 years of effort. 

The good news however, is that as I secure more freelance contracts my hours of code will approach 40 per week, and maybe beyond (family permitting), and I have 10 years experience in marketing (60 hours a week, so likely over 30,000 hours), so I know exactly what to build! If you’re looking for advice in this domain, my major recommendation is to take on a side project — I vacillated for years doing endless tutorials and getting nowhere, but nothing pulls you in like releasing a product in the wild and being committed to the customers it attracts.

How to Learn to Code as a Marketer

The first two tutorials I took that got me interested in coding were One Month Rails by Mattan Griffel, and Michael Hartle’s Rails Tutorial. I then switched to Codecademy to learn JavaScript (more useful for tracking and a/b test implementation), and later found FreeCodeCamp to be a fantastic resource I wish I had when I started. 

Finally I switched to Python to learn Data Science and felt at home — this is now my language of choice. Elite Data Science gave me the process, Dataquest gave me practice and MIT’s Introduction to Computer Science and Introduction to Computational Thinking gave me a challenge. This wasn’t around when I was learning, but Ryan Kulp’s course Founder/Hacker looks great in terms of learning the right mindset, which is more important than syntax.

How to Learn Marketing as a Developer

If you’re a developer, congrats, you have one of the most valuable skill sets in history! Just reverse the advice — pick up a side project which will force you to do some marketing ~4 hours a week, even if it’s helping out a friend’s business. You’ll find you think more creatively about how to solve problems, and knowing how to code gives you an edge over the non-technical people you’re competing against. 

As a developer you might find marketing a little fuzzier than what you’re used to, but that’s an opportunity — find any way to decrease uncertainty and you have an edge. Don’t get imposter syndrome from more experienced marketers, because unlike in computer science, very rarely is there a good reason to be that certain about something.

If you’re looking to learn more about marketing, then I recommend reading blog post rather than doing tutorials — despite the valiant efforts of people like Byron Sharp and Binet & Field, marketing is still largely unscientific and hard to measure. For people new to growth here are the foundational posts: after reading these you’ll get a lot of mileage out of just Googling a topic, reading everything that ranks, then reading everything they link to.

Growth Reading List


If you enjoyed this post, check out the rest of the series:

September 16, 2020
August 13, 2023

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