If You Want To Be The Donald Trump Of Startups, Learn To Code

The Donald built an empire because he knew what every piece and process cost him. If you can't say the same for your software, you won't.

Programming is a practical application of abstract math combining esoteric theory with experiential practice. And learning it can be every bit as brain-scramblingly incomprehensible and front-row-seat-for-Celine-Dion tedious as the previous sentence suggests.

But, if you want to start a technology company, you should learn to code. And the reason is Donald Trump.

Say whatever you want about the man (and, as a New Yorker, I can say plenty), Donald Trump achieved no small level of success in the real estate business. His real estate portfolio stretches from sea to shining sea, including a good-sized chunk of Manhattan, skyline causing Forbes to estimate his worth at $2.9 billion. He sits at #134 of that publication's list of wealthiest people in the United States, fomenting a serious bit of celebrity and funding a less serious flirtation with the White House. All this without the ability to get through a press conference with a single complete sentence or eat a New York slice correctly. How is a man whose public image is punctuated by obtuseness able to out-earn quite nearly anybody who reads this article by orders of magnitude?

If you were to ask him the secret to his success, he would point to a competitive edge handed down to him by his father: He knew what everything cost. Meaning he could look at a foundation and given its size, the type of concrete used, the techniques involved and a few other factors, Trump's old man had a rough sense of how much he should pay. His son often says that knowledge—the knowledge of what everything costs—is the linchpin of the Trump empire’s success. When looking at that ability across all that goes into real estate development, it is little wonder.

Demolition, architecture, plumbing, electrical work, heating, air conditioning, permits, labor, interior design, lumber, dry wall, 12-foot-tall golden letters spelling your own last name—Trump's big edge is he knows the going rate for all of it. There are hundreds of details that go into turning a hunk of capital into a building; Donald Trump wins because he knows what all those details cost. And his competitors don't.

Reconsider, then, why you should learn to program as a non-technical founder. In our current environment, your most precious resource is not money—it is time. With a macroeconomy still allocating capital to angel and venture at a rate disproportionate with the risk those asset classes represent, a wealth of cloud services that bring down the capital expenditure needed to build a software company to near zero, and a market for developer talent hotter than the surface of the Sun, days of developer time have eclipsed American dollars as the most valuable commodity in the startup game.

Why learn how to program? Because you'll learn how much time everything should take. Will sharing content on Facebook take more time than authenticating with Twitter? Is it more development effort to implement a recommendation engine or add full-text search? If a developer hands you a login page written in an afternoon, is it quality work? Will rewriting the site in Ruby really only take three months?

It is true what they say about learning to code—it is easier or cheaper than ever before. But for the born hustler well removed from college whose recollection of algebra is as fuzzy as the name of the junior high cafeteria lady, programming is still a damn difficult thing to get a handle on. The difficulty curve from understanding programming fundamentals like variables and conditional logic to producing your first web page is steeper than the hockey stick growth you're expecting with your company. Scaling this mountain is further complicated by the realities of coding for a modern web where—bare minimum—you'll need comprehension of four different languages to do anything and five if you want to do anything important. And this is to say nothing of the hundred odd operational obstacles you'll also need to hurdle to get the code from your laptop to a domain name where anyone on the Internet can pay you with a credit card.

However, if you do learn to program, you—not your technical cofounder, not your first engineering hire, but you—will have a good sense of the answer. You may not be able to do it yourself, but you will have a far better sense of how long it would take for a professional. You will know what software costs. And in the startup business, the people who know what software costs tend to be the biggest winners.

Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. Larry Page. Jeff Bezos. Mark Zuckerberg. By the time they were billionaires, they were each likely as useful committing code as they were mopping the floor. But when any of them were presented with a feature, they knew about how much development time it should take. And the knowledge of that cost coupled with their singular intuition for their customers' needs and vision for the market propelled them to the decisions that would build world-changing companies.

The bald truth is learning to program is still hard, despite recent gains in accessibility. And to pile on to the bad news, programming is a lot harder for a father to pass to his son than a contractor's proposal. The only way you can ever learn how much time development is going to take—how much the software you wish to build will cost—is by building some yourself.

There are few CEOs who know the cost of building great software. Those who do hold a stark competitive advantage over the legions who don't. And if there is anything we could possibly learn from a guy like Donald Trump, that edge can be all you need to build a fortune.

Rob Spectre hacks at Twilio, blogs at Brooklyn Hacker, and tweets @dN0t.

[Image: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]

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  • Rob

    " the code from your laptop to a domain name where anyone on the Internet can pay you with a credit card."

    or you could pay squarespace a hundred bucks a year and use google payments to get started???

  • geoffbeckman

    Oh. For. God's. Sake. Your general premise -- that it's very difficult to run a tech company if you don't understand the work on at least SOME level-- is valid. Joel Spoelsky makes the point more entertainingly in "My First BillG Review" (Google that phrase, since I don't know if I can post a URL into a comment), but you're not too bad.

    But Donald Trump is to wealth building what Rachael Ray is to molecular gastronomy. His father Fred built a real estate fortune of over $200 million. The Donald was sent to the best schools, worked in his father's business and then Dad gave him a large amount of money (amount not certain, but well into seven figures) to go out on his own. 

    The Donald also used tax abatements and low-interest loans offered to developers to invest in depressed areas. He's created limited partnerships where he put up very little of the money-- some of which returned less to investors than a decent Money Market fund. But he-- or companies bearing his name-- have filed for bankruptcy in 1991, 1992, 2004 and 2009. 

    The $2.3 billion estimate can't be documented, and he sues people who dispute it. He makes money now from his reality show and his endorsements and speaking fees. A 2009 Forbes piece said " He has mastered the art of defining the core values of his brand and leveraging his brand equity to appeal to a wide customer base." Had you wanted to  pick someone as a worst-case example of "have substantive knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the business you want to pursue", you simply could not have picked a worse example. .

  • Maggie Morlan

    And if you could of done it you would of to. Don't hate!!! I want to be a Donald Trump!!!

  • geoffbeckman

    I'd recommend shaving your hair off (so you have to glue a woodchuck to your forehead) and taking steroids (so you become delusional and loudmouthed). You missed the key ingredient, unless your father is still alive. Kim Kardashian is a much greater entrepreneur.

  • Annette

    Steve Jobs needs to be removed from your list of "coders" he did not code.  He was however a great marketeer.  Another needed skill for another topic.

  • Aquraishi

    Steve was not an engineer and I don't think he learned how to code. He had three secret weapons though: Woz, a great idea (the pc), and $1,000,000 (inflation adjusted) investment from Mike Markkula. He was also a great visionary able to sell his ideas to others.
    Knowing how to code is valuable though - if you want any part in the design process.

  • johnwerneken

    I think  it was Clemenceau who said 'war is too important to be left to the Generals'. In any business, the leader absolutely must understand what makes the heart of the firm beat.

  • Eric Rice

    I'd change the focus. We often use "programming" as shorthand for the entire design, implementation, and test process. Agile development has encouraged that conflation. But knowing how to write basic functional code doesn't teach you good design practices (hell, a lot of programmers wouldn't know good design if it systematically beat them over the head precise force and reliable consistency!). 

    You don't need to be in the trenches running wires and writing code to understand what it takes. You do need to have something of a technical mind and an attention to detail, but you can osmos a lot about design and risk from close involvement as a project manager, scheduler, or other non-technical doer. 

  • Kevinezeadiugwu

    Estimating development times can be learned through roles as a project manager, product manager, and designer and through experience within software development projects. Learning to code is nice but not a requirement.