It’s common wisdom that all software startups should have a technical co-founder. Someone who can lay down code, it is said, allows the company to move fast and build a product well and cheaply. As a technical co-founder, I clearly agree with this statement.
Having a solid engineer as a co-founder isn’t just good from the standpoint of being able to build product quickly; it’s also good for recruiting (smart engineers want to work with other smart engineers), hiring (how would a non-technical founder adequately interview a technical hire?), fundraising (investors want to see solid technical talent if you’re working in a technical domain), and acquisitions (if you sell early, chances are the acquirer is buying your technical talent).
But it’s not all rainbows and butterflies being a technical co-founder. Especially when the technical co-founder is the CEO. I’ve been running into this lots with MobileDevHQ, and it wasn’t until last week that I finally bit the bullet — I’m no longer writing code for production.
What does a startup CEO do?
It took me a long time to figure this out, but if you’re a technical CEO and your startup is scaling, please put down your editor. You’re doing yourself, your employees, and your company a disservice.
What’s the job description of a CEO? According to Fred Wilson (via an unnamed source), the only responsibilities of a CEO are:
A CEO does only three things. Sets the overall vision and strategy of the company and communicates it to all stakeholders. Recruits, hires, and retains the very best talent for the company. Makes sure there is always enough cash in the bank.
In short, the CEO’s job is to be a storyteller. Tell a story to current employees, investors, media, etc. Tell a story to potential employees. And tell a story to potential customers and investors.
Why is being a technical CEO bad?
If your job is to be a storyteller, why is being technical bad? Presumably, you can tell a much richer story with the technical expertise to back it up. At the very least, you can understand what is possible versus what isn’t.
I think that’s true, for the most part. But, unfortunately, there’s also a curse that goes along with being a technical CEO.
In a startup, the vision in your head is constantly ten steps and two years ahead of where you are today. You know of every bug and every future feature you want so badly. And you’re certainly resource constrained.What to do, then? Well, if you’re technical, it’s dead simple for you to just dive into the code again. Pull the latest code from GitHub, fire up the editor, and fix a couple bugs. Heck, maybe even implement that feature you wanted so badly but that your engineering team hasn’t had time to get to yet.
This ease of getting back into product development works well in the short-term, but it’s not scalable in the long-term.
At a higher level, working on code as a technical CEO is really just a symptom of being a “gap filler.” When you’re a doer by nature (as all engineers are), you want to do. So you’ll find any holes in your team and you’ll fill them, doing those things.
But those things aren’t things you should be doing. As a leader and CEO, you should be finding ways to open capacity for your team, to help them become leaders and be as effective as possible. Don’t be a crutch for them, doing the engineering work they haven’t been able to yet. Be a facilitator to make sure they’re able to get their work done better and faster. Invest in processes, people, and helping them become better.
The curse of the technical CEO is that it’s too easy to dive back in and get involved in the nitty-gritty. You’ve probably spent your entire career getting dirty and building things. Resist the urge to continue to do. Take a step back and make it a better place for the doers to do. Focus on being a storyteller. Continue telling a better story to current and future employees, customers, and investors. This is how you win.