Noel Wurst Of SmartBear: How AI Is Disrupting Our Industry, and What We Can Do About It

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Embrace the disruption. Acknowledge that AI has already transformed the marketing landscape. It’s not a matter of speculation or something that might happen in the future; it’s happening now. As a marketer, it’s crucial to recognize that AI is reshaping work across companies of all sizes and regions. The change isn’t on the horizon; it’s here, and embracing it is the first step to adapting and thriving.

Artificial Intelligence is no longer the future; it is the present. It’s reshaping landscapes, altering industries, and transforming the way we live and work. With its rapid advancement, AI is causing disruption — for better or worse — in every field imaginable. While it promises efficiency and growth, it also brings challenges and uncertainties that professionals and businesses must navigate. What can one do to pivot if AI is disrupting their industry? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Noel Wurst.

Noel Wurst is the Director of Storytelling at SmartBear, a leading provider of software development and visibility tools, and has covered the software development and testing industry for the last 10+ years. Along with scaling communication strategies through impactful storytelling, he loves helping build diverse and inclusive workplaces and evangelizing the importance of quality in our professional and personal lives. Noel has emerged himself in everything AI in an effort to stay on top of this rapidly evolving technology in hopes of helping others do the same. These efforts include inspiring colleagues to share their own findings and individual experiences with AI that have the potential to make impactful changes in their teams and organizations as a whole. In his free time, Noel enjoys nerding out over fashion documentaries, writing children’s literature, and hunting down exotic recipe ingredients.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I’ve been a storyteller for my entire life and really lucked out at my own coming of age alongside the evolution of the concept of content marketing. Early in my career, it was “enough” to simply have a blog. That was a real competitive differentiator. Then it wasn’t. Everyone soon had a blog. Then it was enough to just “be” on social media. You didn’t even have to be “good” at it. Then you could just have a podcast, then you could have a YouTube channel, and so on and so on. What happened in every one of these examples was that, initially, nobody knew how to market the content on any of these channels. That’s not a knock against them. I was one of them! It was that there wasn’t a need to market them. You just needed to publish. Content marketing changed all that. It suddenly became imperative to effectively market all that different content…to different personas…with different calls to action….and different expectations…and different metrics…and different publishing cadences…and a million other constantly changing criteria.

The one common thread that’s always existed amidst content marketing’s evolution over the years is that there’s been a single goal that hasn’t changed. It’s not only to tell a great story, it’s to make sure that story is heard. I’ve enjoyed trying to solve that challenge since day one.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Every company has competitors that, at face value, or perhaps from the outside, appear to be pretty like each of their competitors. SmartBear is no different. But once you begin to work here or become a valued customer here, you quickly learn that the people at SmartBear are special. I’m sure lots of companies make that claim, but it’s something that only your people can actually back up and prove to be true. Before joining SmartBear, I knew their products very well, I knew their brand from seeing them at various tech conferences, I knew their podcast and other content they published. But from my very first interview more than four years ago to every opportunity today that I get to meet someone new whom I’ve never worked with on a project, I’m blown away by the people this company attracts and retains. There are a million reasons to like SmartBear; our people are my favorite thing about us.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

There’s really only one character trait that I can think of that’s super important, though, maybe all of the others simply roll into this one: “Be a decent human being.” This shouldn’t be hard, and it’s concerning how rare it can feel sometimes to find the decent human beings in an organization. It’s not hard at SmartBear! I think I can list three things that decent human beings can almost always be found doing, and it’s really nice when those people are in leadership positions.

  1. Invite, encourage, and celebrate others utilizing your platform: Just because it’s “your” platform doesn’t mean you should be the only one speaking or presenting from it. Who on your team do others want to hear from? Who on your team can others learn from? Who on your team haven’t others heard from, but should! Your platform only becomes stronger and more valuable to your organization when others join you on it.
  2. Put feedback into action: It’s all too common for leaders or companies to ask for feedback, send out surveys, and encourage their employees to share their opinions through other channels. And, sadly, it’s just as common for that feedback to never be brought up by those leaders or companies ever again. And, what happens next? That feedback becomes more and more rare, because why bother? In some cases, that feedback stays rare from the get-go, because employees don’t feel safe sharing it in the first place and fear some level of retaliation. As a leader, thank your team for sharing feedback. Bring it up (more than once!) in future meetings. Point out that the reason for a change in your process or culture is because of that feedback so credit is given where it’s due.
  3. Balance accountability and the freedom to experiment (and fail!): Accountability is super important. No one denies that. But if accountability on your team means an absolute thrashing — public or private — should one of your team’s ideas or projects fail, your team will never do anything but toe the line with low-risk, low-reward initiatives that may not get them many accolades, but at least they won’t result in them being humiliated and forced to defend not hitting a home run with every swing of the bat. Encourage your team to experiment, try new things, and bring new ideas to the table. And, when some of those ideas fail, (and they will!) make the accountability focused on sharing what lessons were learned. What potential reasons for that failure can be navigated around or eliminated on the next project. There’s a lot more for your team to be accountable for than “only” results that still deliver positive value.

Let’s now move to the main point of our discussion about AI. Can you explain how AI is disrupting your industry? Is this disruption hurting or helping your bottom line?

AI has disrupted the marketing industry, primarily in positive ways. However, it’s still too early to make definitive judgments, especially as opinions, including my own, are constantly evolving with the rapid development and introduction of new technologies. The disruption brought by AI is making us reconsider the value of manually performed tasks by offering ways to automate or expedite work that isn’t always better or more value when done “by hand.”

Don’t get me wrong, plenty of our work as marketers still needs to be performed manually and not shipped off to AI. And it can, initially, feel scary to hand AI work to do that others have always counted on you alone to do. But once you do, and you can verify that it’s up to code, or can be quickly edited to make it up to code, and you suddenly realize that it took you a fraction of the time that it used to? That fear can quickly transition to unbridled excitement and opportunity.

At the same time, it’s too early to determine the impact of this disruption on the bottom line. AI hasn’t been around long enough, nor has it been used extensively enough by individual marketing teams or the broader marketing community, to provide substantial, long-term data to support a consistently positive or negative impact you can depend on seeing in every future campaign.

While some marketing teams may have observed certain impacts, either positive or negative, on recent campaigns or over the past year, these observations shouldn’t be the sole basis for total confidence or outright dismissal of AI tools. Instead, it’s crucial to continue evaluating AI’s impact, considering that its true influence might only become apparent over a more extended period and with broader adoption.

Which specific AI technology has had the most significant impact on your industry?

At this stage, it’s undeniable that generative AI holds the title. Reflecting on my previous points, its capacity to generate a diverse array of outputs — from text, frameworks, and outlines to graphs, charts, tables, videos, images, and audio files — is transformative. These generated pieces might be initial drafts, but they don’t need to be polished to make a significant positive impact on our work.

Generative AI serves a multifaceted role, acting as a brainstorming partner that can kickstart the creative process. It’s akin to those valuable discussions with a teacher when planning a major project or paper, ensuring that your path forward is worthwhile and will lead to an outcome you can take pride in.

For me, the beauty of generative AI lies in its collaborative nature. I don’t just use it to validate my ideas or solely rely on it to generate ideas for me. Instead, I prefer to propose an idea to AI and then refine it by asking, “How can I enhance this? Given the goal and the audience, what can make this better?” Depending on the project, I still sometimes choose to execute the manual creation of the content, and that’s perfectly okay.

Can you share a pivotal moment when you recognized the profound impact AI would have on your sector?

My pivotal moment came from being an early skeptic of AI. Initially, the work I saw being shared online didn’t impress me. I was convinced it wasn’t up to par. So, when I started using tools like ChatGPT myself, I subconsciously wanted to validate my skepticism. The work I got back from ChatGPT was mediocre at best (and often much worse) but I didn’t realize that it was largely due to the quality of the prompts I was giving it. The prompts lacked context, audience specifics, tone guidance — they were just too bare bones. And, as a result, the tool would produce something underwhelming, which I then gleefully criticized.

However, the gamechanger for me was when I began to learn about the concept of prompt engineering — how refining your prompts with invaluable context (the same context you should provide a human you’re tasking with that same job) will significantly improve AI’s work. Many tools are now evolving to make this easier, to bridge the gap between a user’s input and AI’s output. But I still believe there’s immense value in being as precise and detailed as possible in what you ask for.

The moment I recognized that I was largely responsible for the subpar outputs I was getting back, my perspective shifted. It was a realization that these tools have much more potential if you know how to effectively interact with them. Once I grasped that, I became far more open to exploring and leveraging what AI could truly offer.

How are you preparing your workforce for the integration of AI, and what skills do you believe will be most valuable in an AI-enhanced future?

At SmartBear, we’re proactively gearing up our workforce for AI by emphasizing training and the exchange of ideas. We’ve established internal AI councils, bringing together diverse perspectives to brainstorm, identify potential risks, and highlight opportunities. These councils are instrumental in organizing workshops and training sessions on new tools we plan to adopt. We encourage participation across the board, involving members from product, engineering, infosec, the c-suite, and marketing. The goal is to ensure a comprehensive understanding and approach toward the tools we’re considering.

Additionally, we’ve set up specific communication channels for team members to share discoveries about new tools or innovative use cases for existing ones. This open platform allows everyone, regardless of their role or department, to contribute, learn, and voice their concerns or skepticism.

When it comes to skills for an AI-enhanced future, being open, curious, and willing to explore are paramount. It’s about embracing tools and approaches that might be entirely new to your role or organization. At the same time, it’s crucial to balance this openness with a clear understanding of potential risks. Blindly diving into new technologies without considering the implications isn’t wise. Conversely, dismissing these advancements or refusing to acknowledge their potential is equally unproductive.

The landscape of AI tools is evolving at an unprecedented pace, making adaptability, critical evaluation, and a balanced approach the most valuable skills. It’s about being flexible, not setting rigid boundaries, and being willing to adjust your stance as these technologies and their impacts continue to unfold.

What are the biggest challenges in upskilling your workforce for an AI-centric future?

The first major challenge is the rapid pace at which AI tools are evolving and being introduced. The landscape is constantly shifting, meaning that training provided today might become outdated in just a few weeks. For instance, how we use a tool like ChatGPT today might drastically change tomorrow, either because we’ve found more effective ways to interact with it or due to updates in the tool itself, introducing new features or capabilities that weren’t covered in initial training sessions. This dynamic nature of AI tools necessitates continuous learning and adaptation, rather than a one-off training session.

The second significant challenge is tackling the dual issues of misinformation and overhype. There’s a lot of noise around AI — some of it is genuinely exciting and promising, but some can be misleading or overly optimistic. Sifting through this information to find the truly valuable insights is not just challenging but crucial. It’s about striking the right balance between being open to the immense possibilities AI offers and maintaining a grounded, realistic understanding of what these tools can and cannot do at their current stage. This requires a culture of continuous education and critical thinking, where the workforce is encouraged not just to keep up with AI developments but also to critically assess and understand them.

What ethical considerations does AI introduce into your industry, and how are you tackling these concerns?

Ethical considerations around AI are extensive and could easily fill a separate interview. Focusing on marketing, a significant concern is the information we input into these tools. It’s tempting to provide more context to AI tools to enhance their output, especially in personalized, account-based marketing. The thought often is, “The more context, the better the output.” However, it’s crucial to adhere to company policies and legal boundaries regarding the information shared outside of your organization.

Many organizations are still developing policies around this, and it’s vital to consult with relevant parties within your company to understand what information is permissible to use. This is especially true for sensitive data like financial details, private information about customers and colleagues, or any proprietary company information. Everyone using AI tools must be well-informed about these boundaries to ensure the safe and ethical use of AI.

Being proactive and acting as a leading voice in advocating for the responsible use of AI tools not only protects your organization but also strengthens your position as a proponent of these technologies. Ensuring that your team is vigilant about the information fed into AI systems is a critical ethical consideration. Moreover, being transparent and protective of your customer’s personal information and data fortifies trust and showcases your commitment to ethical AI use.

What are your “Five Things You Need To Do, If AI Is Disrupting Your Industry”?

  1. Embrace the disruption. Acknowledge that AI has already transformed the marketing landscape. It’s not a matter of speculation or something that might happen in the future; it’s happening now. As a marketer, it’s crucial to recognize that AI is reshaping work across companies of all sizes and regions. The change isn’t on the horizon; it’s here, and embracing it is the first step to adapting and thriving.
  2. Be vocal. Share what you learn about AI tools, whether it’s through a blog, press release, a new tool on the market, or a novel feature set or use case. Your insights should include not just the positives but also any concerns or skepticism. Sharing knowledge helps build a well-rounded understanding of AI within your organization.
  3. Encourage others to be vocal, too. No single person can or should be the sole source of AI information in your company. The field is too vast, and the perspectives too varied. Encourage colleagues to share their findings, insights, and even reservations about AI. This diversity of thought is crucial for a comprehensive understanding of AI’s role and impact.
  4. Adopt a “This Could All Change Tomorrow” mindset. AI is evolving rapidly, and today’s understanding or stance on AI might not hold tomorrow. Encourage yourself and others to remain adaptable and open to change, understanding that the AI landscape is in constant flux.
  5. Keep exploring. Stay curious and continue to explore new AI developments. Pay attention to how other companies are utilizing AI, stay informed about emerging concerns, and continuously consider how increased AI usage might affect your organization. Being at the forefront of AI technology is exciting, but it’s crucial to recognize the speed at which the field is advancing and to ensure that your organization’s approach to AI evolves accordingly.

What are the most common misconceptions about AI within your industry, and how do you address them?

One of the most persistent misconceptions about AI, not just in marketing but across various sectors, is the belief that AI is meant to fully replace humans. Unfortunately, there are individuals who are curious about this possibility and may even explore it. However, it’s crucial to understand and communicate that AI’s true potential is realized when it’s used as a powerful tool in the hands of intelligent, creative, and hardworking individuals.

The synergy between human ingenuity and AI’s capabilities can lead to outstanding results. On its own, AI attempting to replace the unique traits of humans has, in many documented cases, led to subpar, embarrassing, and even dangerous outcomes. It’s about leveraging AI to enhance and augment human skills, not to replace them.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

I played baseball for many years as a kid. Anytime I hung out at one of my best friends, or called him on the phone, or ran into him in town, if his father was around, he would say, “Noel. Always remember. Keep your eye on the ball, and get a hit.”

When I was playing baseball, this made sense. While “getting a hit,” isn’t really the sort of thing that any baseball player would ever forget the importance of doing, he was a nice guy, and I would say, “You got it, Mr. Bruckner. Thanks for the advice.” After he knew I’d recently played a game, he’d ask, “Did you keep your eye on the ball and get a hit?” Given the fact that I wasn’t a strong hitter, I’d sometimes have to confess, “No, unfortunately, I didn’t.”

And, like clockwork, his reply was always, “Well, next time, keep your eye on the ball…and get a hit.”

Long after I’d stopped playing baseball, when I’d run into this man, he’d ask how I was doing, how my job was going, and how my parents were. Before we parted, he’d say, “Well, that all sounds great. Tell your parents I said ‘hi,’ and do me a favor. Don’t ever forget…to keep your eye on the ball, and get a hit.”

Maybe it’s just my sentimental nature, but it was the times he said this to me when I was no longer playing baseball that meant the most to me. Whether he was just being silly, or really was trying to impart some life lesson on me, we’re all taking “the field” each day in some regard. We’re all facing opponents, we’ve all got to be brave enough to step up to the plate and face some truly nasty stuff being hurled our way, and we’ve gotta keep our eye on the ball if we want any chance to get a hit.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

I’m grateful that work-related issues don’t keep me awake at night. It’s essential for me to switch off my work brain at the end of the day. Life encompasses so much more than just work, and family, friends, health, and community are so important. Once work hours are over, my focus — and sometimes worry — shifts to these matters. I know that many people find themselves lying awake due to work worries, and I’m thankful to not be one of them. This separation is something I value deeply and hope I can always maintain.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

One movement in particular that I love advocating for centers around recognizing and appreciating the often unseen or underappreciated work in organizations. Behind every major announcement, product release, or significant corporate milestone, there’s a multitude of contributions that rarely get the spotlight they deserve.

I’ve seen firsthand the power of when those efforts are proudly brought into the spotlight, not just the work itself but the individuals behind it. This recognition can take many forms, from mentioning someone’s contributions in daily stand-ups or weekly meetings to dedicating a Slack channel for kudos and gratitude, or even through spot awards and annual recognitions.

It’s crucial to ensure that recognition isn’t reserved just for the “usual suspects.” Many individuals work tirelessly behind the scenes, and their efforts, though less visible, are integral to a company’s success. Acknowledging these individuals can have a profound impact, not only on their morale but also on fostering a culture of appreciation and visibility within the organization. It’s about creating an environment where every contribution is valued, and every effort is seen, creating a ripple effect of positivity and motivation across your entire organization.

How can our readers further follow you online?

LinkedIn is good for work stuff, Instagram if you want to see what I’m eating these days, and then I’m hardly ever on Twitter anymore. Thanks, Elon.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

You’re so welcome, and, thank you for the opportunity to ramble on as long as I did! I hope your readers don’t just learn something, but share something as well.

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.