Steve Campbell


What it Means to be a Hacker Trapped Inside of a Marketer’s Body

Photo by Noah Buscher

Spoiler: As it turns out, it’s kinda where the world’s going.

First, Let’s Set the Scene…

Growing up, I was obsessed with technology from an early age.

I always lobbied for the latest gadgets in our house, and whenever I’d break one (presumably from overuse), I’d find myself attempting to repair it before having to throw it away.

I would take items — like my coveted Sony Walkman CD player — apart, assess the damage, clean and/or clear out any dust or debris, and put them back together again at about a 50% success rate, if I’m being generous.

When we got our first PC in the house (an old Compaq computer with a massive tower and matching CRT monitor), I remember spending countless hours on the phone with Microsoft whenever I’d break something in the operating system (again, likely from overuse).

Installing a game often meant inserting a floppy disk and running certain basic terminal commands. It was simple direction-following, but even still, it was hardly a walk in the park for a young “tweenager” like me.

At any rate, as PC’s and dial-up internet began to enter people’s homes, I quickly went from being just another average user to the unofficial neighborhood technician.

“Can Steve come over and look at our computer? We’ll pay him.” quickly became a regular phone call at our house.

I remember being about thirteen years old when P2P music-sharing service Napster first came around and changed the internet as we knew it.

Unsure of how to get it working with our ISP’s service at the time (we had CompuServe, 56k), I remember my mom asking the next door neighbor if she could have her older daughter’s then eighteen-year-old boyfriend come over to see if he could figure out what was wrong.

After spending about an hour at our house, he eventually gave up. Watching everything he had attempted to do, however, gave me a few new ideas, so I sat back down and had it up and running within 30 minutes.

And that’s how things went. As I grew older, I was always onto figuring out how to utilize and hack the next new thing.

I loved technology, and damnit, it loved me.

ENTER: The Harsh Realities of Academia

When it was time to go off to college, I remember sitting in my high school guidance counselor’s office talking about potential fields in which to major.

“I want to do something with computers,” I told her.

She provided a short list and without fully understanding the finer points of any of the roles, I chose Computer Science, which was housed in the engineering department of my now alma mater, Penn State University.

But when I got to college and began taking the assigned curriculum for that major, I immediately realized how ill-prepared I was for such a role.

My very first class was an early morning programming course in which the effective language we studied was C++. Having gone to high school where I did, this also happened to be the very first class I’d taken in which any programming language had been taught, and that includes HTML.

Needless to say, I did not do well.

I leaned heavily on the backs of my former classmates, many of whom grew up studying programming and were even able to take honor’s courses in their high schools. At the end of the semester, I was lucky to get a C.

Add in college-level Physics and Calculus courses and what you got was a disheartened, underperforming student who desperately wanted to change majors, immediately.

So, I took something a little more my speed: Info Sciences & Tech.

Suddenly, I was in a whole slew of tech-related classes I could more or less pass without even being there half the time.

I learned about computer databases, networking (and how peripheral network items like routers actually worked), project management, internet law, and everything in between.

When I graduated, I had completed project work with companies like Accenture and Deloitte, tested an online virtual world called Second Life (which I can hardly believe now given this was pre-’08), and I was effectively ready to enter the job market as a Systems Analyst or IT Consultant.

The only problem? THERE WAS NO JOB MARKET at the time.

No Job → Market Self → Social Media → Job in Social

Without continuing too far down the rabbit hole of my 32-year history and life’s story, I quickly found myself pursuing a career in another up-and-coming technology-related field at the time: social media.

Invented while I was in school, I quickly found myself spending all my time on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, familiarizing myself with their inner workings and eventually writing about it as a part-time Staff Writer for then popular tech blog

I took a job at a small startup in NYC, that startup exploded into a full-service digital agency, and I emerged some 7 years later a full-fledged expert in marketing.

But here’s the thing: that startup was owned by Gary Vaynerchuk, who saw the company as anything but a “traditional” agency.

No, he saw it as more of a business reaction to where the world was currently going, and that meant rapid adoption of emerging media and technology.

When I left the company last April to pursue my own endeavors and build my personal brand, I felt very much like a hacker trapped inside of a marketer’s body.

And that, my friend, is why you elected to click on this post.

To borrow a line from The Shawshank Redemption, if you’re reading this, you’ve gotten out. And if you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to come a little further…

Marketing + Hacking: Where Worlds Collide

The late Steve Jobs once said something to the effect that life can be much broader once you realize that everything around you was made up by people no smarter than you, and I think he was right about that.

Being a hacker — of computers, technology, time, or even life itself — means, at least to me, that you are somebody who thinks non-linearly. Somebody who sees the world a little differently than everyone else.

I’ve been told by life-long friends that they, at one time, noticed this about me, and through the years I’ve also come to notice it about myself.

To better describe what I mean, I ask that you refer to a Quora answer to the question “What is a hacker mentality?” that recently struck my fancy:

To me it is about non-linear thinking. It’s about seeing the phrase ‘If A, then B’ and asking ‘what about C?’. It’s about seeing patterns and then figuring out when those patterns stop applying, finding that edge between a yes and no and wondering how sharp that edge really is.

And as it turns out, that also happens to be what makes for a great marketer in this day and age.

You see, in spending the last seven or eight years studying social media platforms, emerging technologies, and capturing the attention of end users, I’ve essentially been applying the hacker’s mindset to the external world and hacking media and culture in order to grow accounts and convert sales more efficiently.

There’s a reason why more and more marketing specialists are referring to themselves as “growth hackers” these days:

The marketing world has evolved to the point where it’s common knowledge that businesses and brands need to have a meaningful presence on these social platforms.

Now that everyone’s sitting at the table, the meal (message) that people (marketers) are serving up is one of fast, exponential growth.

To succeed today, whether you’re a business person trying to market your product or service, or a computer whiz trying to hack together the next big application or tech startup (notice how these two things used to be quite separate and are now quite similar), you need to adopt this type of thinking or find and partner with someone who already does.

And so, in recognizing the stories of my childhood and personal and professional development above, it is only now that I am able to realize that I’ve essentially been a “hacker” all along.

My self-awareness has evolved to the point of being able to recognize that even though I have pursued avenues in different industries (like marketing, for instance) my mindset has really never changed.

I’m still that kid who’s eager to try the latest and greatest thing. And if I break it, I’m probably going to take it apart.

I recognize now that I tend to look at things from a place of ‘If A, then B.’ I guess the only thing left for me to do is ask: “What about C?”

More by Steve Campbell

Topics of interest

More Related Stories