Getting Candid with Khalid El Khatib
Check out today’s interview with Khalid El Khatib, Chief Marketing Officer at Stack Overflow! Khalid is responsible for marketing, communications, and advertising initiatives at Stack Overflow. Throughout his career, he has elevated and transformed the awareness and perception of global brands, most recently at GLG where he was Vice President of Marketing and Communications. Before GLG he worked as a senior director at Group SJR, a WPP agency, where he led a diverse portfolio that included General Electric, Goldman Sachs, TED, and Xerox. He began his career working in communications at Teach For America which fostered a passion for social impact; he continues to volunteer in NYC schools and fundraises for numerous refugee relief organizations today. Khalid graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in political science and creative writing. In his free time he contributes to VICE, them., and PAPER where he writes about art, culture, and LGBTQ issues.
In this interview, he talks about what he has learned and embraced in his professional journey so far being a marketing leader, how he takes crucial decisions for his company and employees, his advice to the upcoming companies and leaders in the tech field and finally what he likes to do outside of work and a peek into a day in his life!
Being a marketing leader and having experience as a digital strategist and media relations expert, what are some of the key learnings/observations that you have taken back?
If you work in the field of marketing, or communications, you have to be relentlessly curious and committed to continuously learning. Marketing is a field like technology that’s rapidly changing. Ten years ago, for example, when I was working at an agency, launching social media campaigns, and building websites, everything was done radically differently than it’s done today. So among a lot of factors, I credit my success to my commitment to constantly learning and improving and trying to stay on top of trends in my field.
What are the most strategic and crucial decisions you take for your company and employees and how do you approach it?
Every year our company announces our strategic priorities and then my team sets goals that relate to those priorities. So every decision that we make, whether it’s big or small, we ask ourselves, how does it ladder up to these bigger priorities? That approach ensures that we are consistent in all of the decisions that we make. The other factor that comes into play beyond the goals and strategic priorities, is relying on the expertise of my team. A business leader, whether it’s in marketing or outside of marketing, is only as strong as their team. I have five functional teams under the umbrella of marketing and communications and every leader on my team is really crucial in any decision that I make. I don’t pretend to know everything about demand generation, graphic design or communications, I rely on their expertise, and their business acumen.
What is the one incident (or more) that you believe really had a significant impact on your professional life, moulding it to be what it is now?
To answer at a high level, I credit a lot of my success to really generous, smart and successful mentors and managers. When I started my corporate career as an assistant to a vice president, my manager advocated for me to get promoted and acted as a mentor to me for many years. My current boss, the CEO, gives me constant feedback and pushes me to be a better leader. That mentorship has been invaluable. I believe one inflexion point in my career was when I was working at an agency that is now under the umbrella of WPP and there was a big campaign that the agency was taking on. It required someone to temporarily move to Washington DC. At the time, no one at the agency wanted to leave New York — including me. I was young, and I was enjoying my time in New York. But I recognized that there was a huge opportunity there. So I raised my hand, and I ended up commuting to Washington from Monday through Thursday for several months. In DC, I became the Interim Director of Digital for a large company that was going through a huge transformation — relaunching all its social properties, and web properties, and launching an advertising campaign that reaches hundreds of millions of people all over the world. Concurrently, I grew the account to be the most valuable account at my agency. That opportunity had a domino effect on my career, and I was promoted very quickly. That’s a perfect example of a time when I was able to see around corners and recognize a big opportunity professionally, even when it required me to make some personal sacrifices.
You are also an advisor to several early-stage companies in the tech sector, what are the top 3 mantras you stick to for these upcoming companies and leaders?
I help a number of early-stage companies in the SaaS space. The advice I give to every company is different because it depends on the stage they’re at and the product that they are working on or towards. But I think there are a few things that I think are applicable to everyone. One is to scale responsibly. I’ve talked a lot about that within the scope of marketing. A lot of CEOs say they need an incredible CMO. They’ll call me, and they’ll say, “Do you know anyone who could be the CMO of my company?” And the first question I ask is not what is your product? What is your industry? Who are you looking for? I ask — what do you need this person to do? Because what I often find is that, especially in an early-stage company, they don’t need a CMO. Rather, they need a vice president of demand generation or a sophisticated marketing operations leader. Another piece of advice, specific to marketing is that there are many facets and components to marketing. Anyone who works in marketing likely has a speciality within one of those lanes. So identifying what the company’s exact need is, is super critical in order to get the right person. Finally, I tell people to take a step back and assess which resources they need in the house and where they can augment their capabilities with freelancers. I think we’re living in a really interesting time, for a number of reasons, but because people are rejecting the notion that our job is nine to five in an office in the city or country in which we live. This has opened the floodgates to really incredible talent all over the world from non-traditional backgrounds. Here at Stack Overflow, for example, when I started working here, we were published on our blog twice a month. Today, we’re publishing every single day. And that’s not only because we have a really strong team in-house, but because we’ve built a bench of really sophisticated contributors all over the world. The same story can be said for graphic design and for some of our video capabilities. So it is important to not think so traditionally, or linearly about your own growth.
What is the one activity you are involved in outside of work?
When I moved to New York 15 years ago, I wanted to be a writer. I was applying for MFA programs and freelancing. Though I chose a different career and lifestyle, I’ve been really committed to freelance writing for the full 15 years that I’ve lived here. I’ve contributed to a number of magazines writing about things that are super different from my day job. I’m not writing about tech, SaaS or business advice. I’m writing about art, culture, and food. I wake up early on Saturdays, I spend a few hours writing almost every single weekend. I think the real bonus there is that it’s made me a better marketer and communicator. Because I’ve invested in my writing skills, I’m better able to speak to diverse audiences and better able to provide counsel to executives within my company.
How would you describe a day in your life?
It sounds cliche but every day is really different for me, especially now that our company is remote first. I’m based in New York, where we’re headquartered. But I’m not always in New York. So my day depends on where I am at any given moment. That said, I wake up pretty early and I start work quite early also. My team is based all over the world. We have a number of folks in Europe, as well as a number of folks on the West Coast. But the majority of my team is based in the US. So I really appreciate using the mornings, starting around 7:30 am, to catch up on email, review dashboards and things of that nature. This way, when the majority of my team comes online between 9 am and 10 am, I feel a little bit caught up, and I can start to enter meetings. I spend the majority of my day in meetings. I’ll often break up my day with some sort of exercise. I don’t often have time to go to the gym, but I try to run a few miles along the waterfront in Brooklyn at least twice a week. That’s a good way to decompress and process some of the things that I’ve been thinking about; it also helps me stay in shape since I spend most of my day sitting in front of a computer screen! I also try to front-load my week. I clear out my Monday morning so I can process anything that came in on the weekend. And then the majority of check-ins with my team and recurring meetings are on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I try to keep my Fridays clear so that I can dedicate them to project work. I’m really lucky to have an executive business partner who helps me manage my calendar, and some of those activities also.