When you understand what goes into building a website, web app, or mobile app you can be a better startup founder.
Knowing how technology works—specifically how to code—gives you a better understanding of features that can be added to the product, how to set realistic timelines, how to be a better communicator with technical team members, and more.
Below guest writer Kevin Kononenko shares seven ways startup founders are better leaders when they know at least a little code.
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Today is the first day of your new company, and the optimism is endless. Everybody at your new co-working space or incubator welcomes you. You sit down in the conference room for your first team meeting. The road to building a product that users love seems like just a few wireframes away.
But let’s stop the story right here. Your ability to take on business challenges after this point will be significantly affected by whether you know how to code or not.
Crafting a product that users love is challenging enough in the first place, even for seasoned entrepreneurs. It will be close to impossible if you do not have any experience of building software products! This could result in unclear timelines and a broken chain of command. When things are moving so quickly, the last thing you need is internal strife over how to get a product out on time.
Your team will look to you, the founder, for direction. If you do not know any code, your uneducated guesses on product development will bring skepticism from teammates. But, if you know some web or mobile development, you will have at least seven unique leadership advantages.
1. Your team will avoid “overbuilding” your first product.
Your team will be full of enthusiasm about taking on your new challenge. You will plan an ambitious roadmap full of delightful features. In fact, you will likely include many features that are not critical in the first version. This is commonly known as “feature creep.” This is when one adds unnecessary features to a product. Months may pass, and the product still won't be ready.
You may have to spend extra time cutting out the unnecessary features. Finally, you end up with a reasonable product to present to users. But you're way past deadline.
Feature creep is a huge problem. But a founder who knows how to code will not make this mistake. Instead, a founder who knows how to program will say, “Wow, this is going to take forever!” after looking at the whiteboard at the first meeting. As the leader, this perspective is crucial, even if it may be unwelcome. If you look at a complicated product roadmap and give the okay, the team will be pumped at first. But they will soon feel overwhelmed. After you understand the amount of time it takes to develop a functional site or app, you can help decide if your team is taking on an extreme challenge.
As the leader, this perspective is crucial, even if it may be unwelcome. If you look at a complicated product roadmap and give the okay, the team will be pumped at first. But they will soon feel overwhelmed. When you, the founder, knows even a bit about coding you'll better understand the amount of time it takes to develop a functional site or app. With that knowledge, you can decide if your team is taking on an excessive challenge or not.
2. You will be qualified to decide the product vision and how to execute it reasonably
If you know little about programming, it'll be tough to figure out key features for your technical product. Because you won't even know what is possible!
Non-technical founders might assign weeks for day-long tasks, or days for week-long tasks. The team may not question your judgment since they are expecting product leadership.
Founders who know how to code can understand what is technically possible. You can use that knowledge to make accurate product decisions. You will be able to quickly break a feature down into smaller parts and give an estimate on timing if your team is unsure how long it will take. A founder who codes can also listen to a user’s feedback and translate that feedback to code.
3. Your team will be able to make decisions together and hold each other accountable
The role of product manager can be a little unclear in the early days of a startup. It could be the CEO, who makes the business decisions, or the CTO, who develops the product. Frequently, good ideas need to come from both parties since the product vision is flexible at an early stage. But, a team member who is non-technical will have a hard time combining product ideas with the existing code. They will not be able to understand whether they are making reasonable demands of the rest of the team. If a founder can’t code, then his or her teammates have a limited number of ways to react if they do not agree:
They will not be able to understand whether they are making reasonable demands on the rest of the team. If a founder can’t code, then his or her teammates have a limited number of ways to react if they do not agree:
- Listen but question the decision-making
- Don’t listen, and a build a solution that differs from the plans
Teammates will have no ability to have a technical conversation with the founder. There will be no way to have a debate. This will erode the trust between teammates, resulting in teammates leaving or going rogue. A founder who codes can have a technical conversation with teammates. You can avoid the embarrassing moments of giving instructions you may not understand yourself.
A founder who codes can have a technical conversation with teammates. You can avoid the awkward moments of giving instructions you may not understand yourself.
4. Your team will respect your initiative rather than doubt your qualification
A non-technical leader of a technical team introduces misunderstandings in companies of all sizes. The issue arises when a business-oriented person leads with specific marketing and sales goals. At the same time, the team of engineers has specific technical targets. This creates two misaligned value systems. A technically capable leader of an engineering team will naturally encourage agreement and understanding.
At a startup, relationships between teammates have a massive effect on productivity. Technical team members will feel appreciated when they can explain their challenges to you. You will be able to create a culture of transparency rather than defensiveness.
5. You will become a better manager by learning the “maker schedule”- fewer meetings/interruptions!
The last thing you want is a mandatory half-hour meeting when you are focusing on the code in front of you. It will completely disrupt your thinking. It could take up to 15 minutes to get back to where you were before the meeting. Engineering tasks demand many hours of intense concentration. Otherwise, your brain will feel stressed from different types of tasks. This is what is sometimes known as the “maker schedule.” You will be able to understand this as a leader only if you have been there yourself. Engineers will thank you for the uninterrupted time, and they will be more productive.
Many development teams accomplish this through a “scrum”. A scrum is a brief daily or 3x per week meeting. The development team can summarize what they have accomplished and what is next. They can raise any questions, and everybody can then spend the rest of the day working on the tasks discussed. This should not take longer than half an hour and will minimize interruptions for the remainder of the day.
6. You can chip in to help out your team rather than spend more time/money building product
A deadline is approaching. Although your product is close, you are unsure if it will be ready on the day you planned. And your customers are expecting it to have all the features you promised. Your options are:
- Delay the release and risk losing customers/users
- Deliver the product with fewer features and hope customers are happy (they won’t be)
- Yell at the development team and remind them of the stakes. Have the team stay later every day to meet the deadline
- Delay any of your own tasks that are not totally necessary. Join the development team to take on some of the more tedious work that does not require expertise (like HTML/CSS).
The option with the highest probability to meet your product goals AND keep the team happy is option four. If you don’t know how to code, the only way forward is to either disappoint the customers or bring more stress into your teammate's lives. By chipping in, you can contribute valuable hours. Your teammates will get a burst of energy from having you there to help.
7. You can figure out who to hire/contract rather than taking the first candidate
You may have the budget to at least bring on an intern or some contract help at first. You will get some interest from a few intern candidates or contracting firms. But you will need to choose a candidate who will be able to contribute to a full range of development work. In other words, you will need a generalist, not a specialist.
If you have written code and built a few projects yourself, you will know what skills to look for. A candidate is not qualified to work for your startup because the cool projects on their resume. A candidate with experience in a range of technologies will be more likely to conquer the challenges he or she will face while working with you. And you will be able to ask them the right questions to allow them to show their range of skills!
Starting a tech company is tough. But when you know how to code, you can avoid many of the internal challenges that often emerge along the way. This will free up your time to focus on the most important thing – making your customers happy!
Have any experience with building startups? Tell us about it in the comment section below!
About Kevin Kononenko
Kevin Kononenko learned these lessons by being the startup founder that DIDN’T know how to code. No longer the case. He is now the founder of Manual, a developer’s guide to the most useful coding tutorials on the planet.