“We are hugely in favor of the technical founder. We will generally focus on companies started by strong technologists who know exactly what they want to build and how they are going to build it.” – Marc Andreessen
I’ve always prided myself on being a “technical founder.” Basically, it means that if I were hired as a dedicated software engineer I could make a pretty meaningful contribution to a software product, but that my primary role is to guide the growth of the company as CEO. I used to think that being a technical founder was an absolute advantage over non-technical founders since not only could I do the business thing, but I could really understand at a deep technical level how viable something is, and I also know what’s possible, which enables me to come up with product ideas and visions that non-technical founders might not be able to.
But life has this funny thing where our biggest strength can also be our biggest weakness. The trick is being honest with yourself about what they are.
On the positive side, being technical is wonderfully empowering. When I talk with our development team, we review details down to the database diagrams and how that will ultimately affect the product vision. I know with confidence at a deep technical level how powerful our software is and how that power can be leveraged in the future. I can formulate ideas for products based on knowledge of our database schemas, recognize problems that have high value to a client and are technically less challenging, or have an appreciation for those problems — like online registration, for example — that are actually quite complex and require considerable thinking.
I realize I love technology so much that these conversations are pure joy for me.
On the negative side, though, loving technology so much means you think in terms of technology. During engineering or product development meetings that works great. But when it comes time to put on the CEO hat, a mindshift is required. Because in CEO mode, those technical details are not empowering. In fact, they’re the opposite, they just get in the way.
Earlier today I had the opportunity to speak with an accomplished healthcare IT entrepreneur who could probably reasonably consider himself technical as well (MIT graduate). As I reflected on our conversation, I realized that there were moments in our conversation where he asked me questions that had a business — not technical — spirit behind them, yet I answered as if I were an engineering consultant, not a CEO.
The problem? My technical mind interprets his question first and foremost on a literal level and launches into a literal response! And sure enough that’s exactly my comfort zone! Comprehensive, technical responses.
But the funny thing is when I’m surrounded by businesspeople who only want to speak in high-level terms and I absorb their high-level mindsets for a small amount of time, I find I quickly adapt to the high-level thinking. Questions asked with a business spirit are answered in a business spirit, even if they have a technical element to them.
And this is the domain of the CEO. You step outside of the trees and speak only in terms of forests. You use the background technical information as minimally as possible, calling on it only when the situation makes a special request for it. You transfrom from being precise and comprehensive — a critical trait when designing software — to being loose and general.
Sometime this year it finally dawned on me why the CEO has to speak and think in these terms: because no one else cares about your details. They only listen to what your “proposition” is and then make a decision about whether you appear legit or not. The details simply aren’t important.
And sure enough we see this phenomenon in other spheres of life, too. I was SHOCKED to discover that one of the worst ways to sell software is to show it. Instead, the more you talk about it and the less you show it, the more inclined people are to buy it. Why? Because most people don’t care about details.
To summarize the conclusions in this post:
- Being a technical founder is awesome
- But watch out for situations where it gets in the way