Aaron Skonnard is the CEO and co-founder of Pluralsight, an online training resource for Web developers and IT professionals.
Venture capitalists look for a variety of intangibles when evaluating the entrepreneurs who they consider backing — vision, passion, integrity, confidence — but how many look for a background in software development?
Whether they’re computer science grads or self-taught coding wunderkinds, business leaders with 0s and 1s in their blood have a leg up on their B-school counterparts in the tech startup scene.
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Let’s look at five advantages code-savvy founders and CEOs bring to their investors and businesses:
1. Navigating the tech landscape
With software updates released every week, programming languages constantly going in and out of style, and more than 20,000 new apps hitting the App Store every month, it can be difficult to keep up with the fast-paced tech world.
Leaders well-versed in all things code can quickly size up and digest emerging technologies to decide whether to adopt or stand pat. They can see the potential impact of new systems on the market — or the lack thereof, if it’s just a fad — and shape their company’s strategic vision accordingly.
2. Building a developer-friendly culture
Despite good intentions, CEOs who wouldn’t know PHP from a hole in the ground tend to experience a big disconnect on the front lines. With a developer-cum-executive who speaks the “language,” it is easier to create a culture that is conducive to developers’ preferred work environment.
The software developer community is pretty tight-knit — word will get around if a workplace is awesome or awful. There is also a certain authority and respect that one can acquire only by spending time in the industry. If you ask your programming team to stay late fixing bugs, they’ll be much more responsive if they know that you know what you’re asking for.
3. Understanding the delivery pipeline
Beyond sheer empathy, code-bred CEOs bring a native understanding to the planning, design and scheduling of product launches and software updates. Instead of being at the mercy of the engineering team’s opinions, a coding CEO can lean on his or her own experience and know-how to accurately allocate resources and ensure projects are delivered on time.
That isn’t to say that they are micromanagers; rather, they can assess the feasibility of projects and goals and recognize when their team needs to be praised or pushed.
4. Making informed decisions
Recognizing the demand for a better mousetrap is one thing, but actually building it is another thing entirely.
Tech CEOs who aren’t familiar with their product’s moving parts may not be equipped to sign off on strategic decisions that will make or break the company. Do we go with HTML5 or Flash? Should we make the API available to developers? Is this whole “iPad” thing going anywhere?
WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg needed both vision and technical skill to build a democratized publishing platform from the ground up. Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom taught himself programming. And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, perhaps the most famous founder to know his way around PHP, acknowledged in September 2012 that the biggest mistake Facebook made was “betting too much on HTML5 as opposed to native” in its mobile products. This understanding helped him arrive at his decision to reverse course and revamp Facebook’s iOS app.
In the fickle tech market, perhaps more than anywhere else, the devil is in the detail.
5. Acquiring top talent
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of software developers is projected to grow 30 percent from 2010 to 2020, far eclipsing the 14 percent average growth for all occupations. On U.S. News & World Report’s latest annual ranking of the 100 best jobs, “software developer” nabbed a spot in the top 10.
All this is to say the battleground for attracting and retaining top talent will only get more competitive. There is a mutual respect that exists between developers, so a CEO who doubles as a programmer already has a leg up in hiring the best software developers.
The next time you’re evaluating prospective tech execs, take a closer look at those years they spent slamming out code in their dorm room. You might just discover that your executive team needs a little less Wharton and a little more Web dev.
Image credit: Patrick Lux/Getty Images