Spam Resource Spotlight: Marcel Becker

Marcel Becker is a self-proclaimed email nerd, product guy, public speaker and actor.

With a long history in the email sphere, manning product roles for various iterations of Yahoo Mail (and AOL Mail before that), Marcel is somebody that has opinions about the right way to do email and isn't afraid to let you know what he thinks. I like that, so I'm very glad that he has kindly agreed to sharing some of what he thinks here today.

You can find his Linkedin profile here.

Marcel, thank you for taking the time to talk to me today! I'll jump right into the career questions to kick us off.

Though perhaps your initial AOL experience wasn't email specific, it is impressive to me that you've been working on some version of the same or related or descendant platforms for somewhere around twenty five years. How did you get started in email ... or at least, how did you get started in the proto-internet that was AOL?

In a way, email found me. I started my career at AOL (in Germany actually) doing something completely different. But I was always fascinated by email. Or rather the ability to have conversations with anybody anywhere in the world. I was introduced to the fascinating "online" world when I was a high school exchange student in the US (in the early 90ies) and got hold of an AOL CD (yes, ironically). Back in Germany I bought a modem, set up a BBS system (look that up!), became a FIDO network member (look that up too! ;-) I was 2:248/4004) and have been fascinated by that technology ever since. I started hosting my own email service somewhere around 1996.

Fast forward to the early 2000s I had the opportunity to reshape how webmail actually looks and works, bringing it to devices like the I-Mode in Japan or collaborating with Macromedia to build an actual rich media application before that was a thing. Eventually there was an opportunity to lead the AOL Webmail product team and I got the role. And I guess that's when the email fever really hit me.

It feels to me like your career path suggests an evolution from a bit of a product/project generalist, to more of an email-specific subject matter expert. Am I getting that right? How did that evolution come about? Is this always what you wanted to be when you grew up?

Yes, I think you are right. And no, I actually wanted to do something completely different. I wanted to be a pilot. I did however end up creating my own little technology start-up (I guess that's what we call this today). When I eventually studied computer science I quickly found out that I was missing some creative element. I didn't really want to know HOW this stuff worked. I wanted to BUILD things. (Knowing how it works is beneficial of course; I admit.) I started playing theater.

Among the many industry friends I know and talk to, you're one of the few who has always worked on the "receiving" side of things. Meaning, you've never worked for an email service provider or email marketing platform. Though, you certainly get to hear an earful from those of us on the sender side, at conferences and in day-to-day industry interactions. I don't know that I think of that as limiting, but more as you've been very hyper-focused on a subset of email and anti-abuse/anti-spam. What do you think? Would you ever want to trade jobs with me and come man the MTAs and policy compliance dashboard for an email marketing platform? It might give you a whole new way of looking at certain types of deliverability challenges!

Here's the thing: When I became responsible for AOL Webmail, I knew nothing about "anti spam." I still remember the question marks in my head, when somebody mentioned "DKIM." But I learned and I was eventually asked to be the product manager for that as well (that's my problem with having opinions about things). While I was responsible for building great user experiences and email applications (Go look up Alto Mail! ;-) ) and ensuring our users stay safe and secure, I quickly realized that the setup was broken. I was missing a huge piece of the puzzle. That was the "other side of the fence." The world of the senders. So I forced myself to learn more. Meet and speak with the sending community. Understand their needs and pain points. And that's when I learned that things are even more broken -- and complicated -- than I thought. There's still much to learn for me. But there's also still much to learn for everybody and there's much to do for all of us to work together. And I am really grateful for the community I found.

Since you mentioned it on Linkedin, I have to ask: Actor? When and where and what kind of acting have you done or are you doing currently?

Theater. I am a "certified amateur theater director" (Germans love their certifications). But my passion lies with Improv. Which I started missing dearly once I moved to the US (turns out language is important when doing Improv). But eventually I started teaching Improv in the US as well. And right now I think I am not doing enough. Much to the annoyance of my wife as I just love to slip into roles and personas.

Would you call acting your primary hobby? If not, what other kinds of things do you like to do for fun?

Yes, pretty much. Anywhere and always ;-) Beyond that I think it's probably hiking and traveling.

Having emigrated from Germany to the US, is there one food stuff that you just can't believe Americans eat, or that pales in comparison to the German version? Or what's another kind of culture shock or disappointment that you still shake your head at today?

We as human beings have the tendency to compare everything to our existing frame of reference. To what we know. And we tend to think what we know is the best version of whatever we look at. The thing is: That's hardly ever true. So there are probably things I really love or find strange in the US and in Germany. Or any other country. But I rather think that's what makes this planet so great. The diverse cultures, tastes and customs. It would be super boring otherwise. So people: Go out and travel. See the world. Increase your frame of reference.

If you could corner every email marketing sender or deliverability person and inject 1-3 specific points of knowledge directly into their brain -- what would you tell them?

Not really knowledge but: Put yourself into the receivers (the user!) shoes. Do you think what you are doing there is something you would find interesting and great? If not, why do you think doing that is a great idea?

I really believe that's what it boils down to. Do the right thing for the user. Everything else is secondary.

I know everybody in the world has been asking you 100 questions about the new Yahoo Mail sender requirements. I've covered it on Spam Resource, you've spoken about it to many folks, and many email platforms and industry groups have been working hard to educate folks on these new requirements. But we can always make room to share more, if needed. Here's your chance, if there's anything you'd like to share with folks or remind people about with regard to these updated requirements.
  1. Don't ask me how "One Click Unsubscribe" works. 
  2. See my answer above. That's really what is driving those requirements. We don't want to increase the tax or the burden on the sender. But we need to improve this ecosystem. This medium we all love so much. Otherwise it will just be this unmanageable barrage of emails nobody cares about or asked for intermingled with unidentifiable scam and junk sent by those who don't give an F and just live to abuse this wonderful technology. 
Marcel, thanks so much for your time and words and knowledge and opinions!
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