Today’s fast-paced startups seems to be run by leaders who are more Woz than Steve, but that doesn’t mean non-technical people can’t thrive in a successful tech company. Here are 10 pointers from CEOs, COOs, and heads of start-up incubators that non-technical people need to know to thrive in the tech industry.
Movies like David Fincher’s The Social Network vaulted the "tech geek" caricature to mythological status as viewers watched Mark Zuckerberg go from insecure coder to billionaire, leading to the wrong assertion that if you can’t code you have no business being in tech. But that’s not true, according to Charise Flynn, COO of Dwolla, who says the value of a non-technical perspective should not be underestimated.
"Your mind works differently and that is a great thing," says Flynn. "This perspective may create a better understanding of user flows, barriers to entry, and better context for non-technical customers’ needs."
It is such an understanding that often makes the difference as to whether a product will be successful or not. After all, the technical people in your organization are using their skills to make something that will be used by "average" people, most of whom are non-technical. You’re the liaison between those two groups and if you can’t understand the front end of your product, chances are your customers won’t either, no matter how clever the code is.
"But don't let your ego stop you from asking questions," Flynn says. "Tech teams have a high BS meter and won't believe you if you just nod and act like you know what's happening. By asking the question you may actually shed light on an area taken for granted."
Merrick Furst is the founder and director of Georgia Tech’s Flashpoint, an incubator that specializes in startup engineering. In his time there he’s observed myriad interactions between technical and non-technical people in startups and he says there’s something non-technical people need to know.
"Everyone is living in a filter bubble now," Furst says. "The technology to provide specific news and search results to specific segments has been applied first to techies, so you can assume your technical cofounders are especially living in a techie filter bubble. Your technical cofounders surely think the way the world works is consistent with the way TechCrunch, Pando Daily, and The Verge describe it. Of course, the world works nothing like that, at least not for 99.9% of the population."
"You can be confident your company is not in the 0.1%," says Furst. "When your technical cofounders say something that sounds absurd to you, such as, ‘This app is just like WhatsApp and if they’re worth $19 billion we’ll be worth at least a fraction of that,’ you should know that everywhere they look they see confirmations of this whacky way of thinking the world works."
As the non-technical person it is your job to recognize this line of faulty thinking and then call them out on it. Doing so will help the project and the company in the long run.
"These days product teams usually manage to deliver the products they set out to build. Technical founders work on problems that are often hard, but are most often solvable," Furst says. "Non-technical founders have much harder roles to fill in startups."
Furst’s point is that the current chest thumping from developers that code can solve all things is somewhat accurate—if all problems originated from a computer. But startups have to worry about much more than technology, such as finding a way how the company will have a viable business model, for starters. Then there’s the problem of whether the company will be able to hire and retain sufficient talent, or finding out how the company will be able to acquire enough capital when it is needed.
"These risks are usually unbounded," Furst says. "These risks usually cannot be ameliorated by technical solutions or product purchases. If you are a non-technical founder with high emotional intelligence it’s your job to figure out adaptive ways to mitigate these risks. Techie founders are likely to think your problems are like theirs. They are likely to think that your problems can be set up in some way, and then solved in some way, just like their problems. Wouldn’t that be nice?"
While non-technical people can thrive in the tech industry, don't think that you can get by with not knowing the language, according to John Fein, managing director of Sprint Accelerator, which is powered by Techstars.
"It's okay if you're a founder who can't write code, but you need to spend time with team members who can," says Fein. "Ask them questions. Lots of questions. Gain a clear understanding about the fundamental technology your product uses. Become close friends with technology road maps, flow charts, and life cycles. You don't need to write code to be tech-fluent when speaking with partners, customers, and investors. And if the conversation gets beyond a level you're comfortable with, have your CTO close by."
Which brings us to...
If you’re a non-technical cofounder it’s okay if you lack coding skills (as long as your ideas are brilliant). But you’re going to need a partner you can trust to help you with the more advanced technical stuff that may not be your forte.
"A non-technical founder relies on their CTO for many things," Fein says. "Perhaps most importantly, they need to wholeheartedly trust their CTO when it comes to how the product is designed, architected, and developed. When the CTO provides a time estimate, the non-technical founder should be secure in knowing it's reasonably accurate. Pushing back on estimates is fine, but in the end the CTO should be seen as a technical extension of their non-technical cofounder. Also, the CTO will need educate the co-founder on the product's technology. This is critical because the founder will often need to articulate this to investors and partners. Having 100% trust in the CTO is essential."
"If you're a non-technical founder, having and communicating a clear vision for your product is often the difference between success and failure," says Fein. "Your team is looking to you when it comes to prioritizing things like key features, functionality, UX, UI, and scalability. Don't assume that just because they're technical they should have the product vision."
Fein says it's imperative non-technical people, especially cofounders, be firm in their vision, and warns that most technical staff will push back at some point—and some will do this continually. He says it’s important to answer their challenges at every turn. "Be confident and firm. Your vision will likely change along the way but don't stop communicating it."
That’s something that Vincent van Leeuwen, founder of financial sentiment analysis startup SNTMNT. SNTMNT uses proprietary algorithms to capture emotions from social media mentions and translate them into how a stock will perform. Van Leeuwen was in the unique position of not being able to code a single line when he founded SNTMNT, but now is a proficient developer himself.
"Many non-technical people are looking for someone to make ‘their brilliant idea’ work," says Van Leeuwen. "This was a big mistake for my first startup. As a non-techie, I approached technical cofounders at the time to convince them of my idea. I found it doesn’t work like that. We ended up with part of a team that believed in a vision and a part that believe in its potential. When potential takes longer than expected—and believe me, it always does—this led to conflicts in our team. We were not aligned on the deeper ‘Why’ behind what we were doing. We should have spend more time to create a shared vision that all team members believe in and create our startup around that. I believe this is a lot more solid basis which is invaluable when times are getting tough later on."
As a high ranking non-technical member of the team, perhaps even its cofounder, you may find that much of your job can be done away from the offices where your coders are slaving away writing the best lines of code the world has ever seen. And though you may be out of the office at lunches or at conferences trying to shore up a network of future clients and partners, Wayne Barz manager of Entrepreneurial Services at Ben Franklin TechVentures says this could lead to deep divisions in your team.
"I’ve witnessed in several companies how a visionary founder—but not deep technically nor business-wise, for that matter—organized the team in such a way to spend so much time out of the office that the developers were left to themselves. In the recent case, they essentially took charge of the product development process in the vacuum of leadership from the company’s CEO, major shareholder and visionary. The founder would simply show up every two weeks or so and complain about the lack of progress. It was terrible."
Barz says he confronted the CEO with this corporate culture issue, only to have the CEO declare that he didn’t want to be in the office all day, micromanaging the developers.
"It took several conversations to convince the CEO that he needed to be in the office often—but not to micromanage the developers," Barz says. "Instead, he needed to continue to be visible and lead with his vision of where the company needed to go based on, one, customer feedback and, two, strategic partner feedback he was receiving. Frequent and lucid articulation of what the company is trying to accomplish is critical to ensure that the developers are continuing to follow the vision and the developers are rowing in the same direction with regard to product development ideas and expediency."
Barz also notes another thing he hears frequently among brilliant, but non-technical cofounders is that they are frustrated their developers aren’t working as long or as hard as they are.
"I lose my cool with the founder when they question work ethic in these situations," Barz says. "I come from blue-collar roots and I need to tell these founders that some young programmer working for 2% equity and ramen noodle salary can often be pushed…but not to the same extent that an 80% owner-founder is willing to push himself. Technical people find tremendous intrinsic value in developing elegant solutions to tough technological challenges…but are not unmotivated because they only work a few hours on Sundays. They simply don’t stand to reap the same sized rewards as the founder if the work is successful."
"Even worse, some on the technical staff believe that solving that technical problem is the ultimate goal. Non-technical founders need to be able to lead effectively to help make sure everyone understands that cool technical solutions are only a means to the end of building a successful business. Non-technical founders need to help everyone on the team understand that satisfied customers is the ultimate goal and ‘using a product wrong’ is not the customer’s problem, but the company’s problem."
While the above pointers show that non-technical people do thrive in the tech industry, Dwolla’s COO Charise Flynn says those who want to be leaders in the field for a long time should eventually try to learn what they don’t know even if they surround themselves with technical masterminds.
"As a leader you have to understand the basics of how all parts of your business work—especially at a startup," says Flynn. "Technology is the foundation of your business and you can't afford to not try and learn. Otherwise you won't be able to ask questions or engage in important discussions that have impact beyond just the technology."
That’s something that SNTMNT founder Vincent van Leeuwen heartily agrees with, having been non-technical when he first entered the industry.
"I’ve seen quite a lot of startups where the founders have lured around for ages to find someone technical to make their idea reality," he says. "This can become a tough and hard process that often involves months, if not years. This is all time you could have spent learning it yourself as well, which I think is time invested a lot better."
"Please note that I’m not saying you should become the CTO of your own company. But too many non-technical founders believe it’s impossible for them to pick up coding. I think this is a mistake. Don't be afraid, you can achieve much more than you think. Coding ain’t easy, but it’s not rocket science either. The fact that you’re not that great of a coder can actually be an advantage. It forces you to think learn about your solution. It helps you to stick to the essence, which is invaluable at the early stage of a startup."