Many of the great technology companies out there today — Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon — have a code-savvy CEO, but these leaders don’t spend much, if any, of their time coding.
Which brings up a couple interesting questions.
Is it important for tech startups to be helmed by someone who knows their way around Python, even if they make minimal contributions to the actual code? If so, why? What aspects of a technical background relate to leadership and business skills?
VentureBeat spoke with a group of Silicon Valley CEOs to find out how much time they spend coding, and what it means for their business.
Software analytics company New Relic’s CEO Lew Cirne said coding has been his passion since 1982.
“I fell in love with creating software when I was 12 years old and my parents bought me my first computer,” Cirne said in an interview. “My mom says she hasn’t seen me since.”
Cirne’s first startup was Wily Technology, which he founded in 1998 and was acquired by CA Tech for $375 million in 2006. That was his first time as a CEO, and that experience influenced his approach to leading New Relic, which he founded in 2008.
“At Wily I was young, a little insecure, and tried to change who I was to be the ‘protoypical’ CEO,” he said. “I spent a lot of time in meetings and tried to go toe-to-toe with my VPs to make every decision. But you can’t be everything to everybody. The second time around, I surrounded myself with the right people so I could do what I wanted — lead product decisions.”
New Relic now has nearly 350 employees and is growing at over 100 percent a quarter. It is poised to generate more than $100 million in annual revenue run rate.
Cirne repeatedly emphasized the importance of bringing on “world-class people” to take care of the decisions he doesn’t have the bandwidth, expertise, or interest to make. Find people you trust, who are experts in their roles, and let them do what they do best.
Delegating is key, but it should be balanced with the need to stay connected to the “cadence” of the business. Cirne said he has lunch with New Relic’s president every Monday to talk about operating decisions, and its the one thing on his calendar he won’t miss.
However there are times when Cirne “rolls up his sleeves and codes”. New Relic has come out with a range of new products this year and Cirne was an integral part of building it.
“There is a season where I need to be very focused on building software at the code level,” Cirne said. “I went heavy into it in January for what turned into the genesis for our new product. I was heads-down, off-the-grid in remote locations coding. But I can’t do that non-stop. When I came back I did a complete 180 and visited customers and focused on operations.”
Cirne said that he is a more effective thinker when involved in solving technology decisions. Thinking creatively and problem solving provides perspective into other business decisions, that relate to pricing, hiring, marketing, positioning, strategy etc.
“I remember the moment clearly a two to three years ago when I thought to myself, ‘I love everything about this job and this company,’ and I just want to keep experiencing this joy. I recognize that as the company gets bigger, there will be a ton of other important work that has to get done, and if I don’t plan for it, I will get sucked into all those other decisions.”
Lew Cirne will be speaking at our upcoming DevBeat conference, Nov. 12-Nov. 13 in San Francisco. It’s a hands-on developer event packed with master classes, presentations, Q&As, and hackathons, all aimed at boosting your code skills, security knowledge, hardware hacking, and career development. Register now.
Suhail Doshi is the cofounder and CEO of Mixpanel, a mobile and web analytics company that helps businesses track user engagement and target specific users.
Doshi studied computer science at Arizona State University but dropped out to found Mixpanel in 2009. He has experience with backend programming as well as front-end development and design. But now he only has time to code on the weekends.
You know, for fun.
“It’s tough to find time to code because great engineering organizations typically demand that you continue to maintain any code you write and ship into production,” Doshi said to VentureBeat. “It wouldn’t be fair to my engineering team if I wrote code because it’d be tough for me to maintain [it].”
Doshi said that he often spends five to six hours on a Sunday night (when the rest of us are watching HBO) writing code for a project that is “tangentially” related to Mixpanel. This keeps his skills sharp and can provide inspiration for new product ideas, as well as empathy for the needs of Mixpanel’s developer customers and developers.
“It’s pretty tough to run a technology driven company if you can’t talk the talk with your fellow engineers,” he said. “Everyone wants a manager who understands how much time something really takes, how valuable it really is, and appreciates what they do for the company.”
Working as a developer and as a leader require different skills. Developers often say that their best work happens at night when they are alone working on a difficult problem. CEOs are constantly interacting with other people and working on multiple challenges at once, rather than focusing on one project.
For someone who got into this industry due to a love of coding, the shift in roles can be difficult to reconcile.
“The most challenging aspect of being a technical CEO is quickly coming to terms with the fact that you won’t be as good at nontechnical things like marketing and sales as you are at programming,” Doshi said. “But building a company that is great at the nontechnical things too is often the difference between success and failure.”
Ilya Sukhar recently sold his company Parse to Facebook for $85 million. He earned a computer science degree from Cornell University and worked as an early engineer at Ooyala and Etacts, which Salesforce acquired in 2010.
He left Etacts during the great social-mobile wave of 2011 to build a consumer app, but the experience was different than he anticipated.
“I was building this app, and it was really painful. I thought I’d be spending all my time on functionality and figuring out how to get users and how to build a great interface. But I was actually spending my time on the boring stuff.”
Hence the inspiration for Parse arose.
Parse provides a mobile-backend-as-a-service platform that developers use to power their mobile applications. It takes care of the nitty-gritty server side stuff so developers can focus on front-end projects.
Sukhar is a self-described generalist. While he hasn’t written code at Parse for years, he said the ability was important to get the company off the ground.
“It’s harder to get anywhere in the early days if you can’t make progress on your own vision,” he said. “Letting go of coding can be hard, but any measure of success should push you out of it pretty quickly. So embrace it as a sign of good progress.”
Furthermore, the skills that you hone through a technical background can be useful in other areas of the business.
“Programming is always incremental,” he said. “You constantly start from nothing and steadily build your way up to something functional. Having that mindset as you tackle entirely new roles like marketing, sales, and recruiting can be really helpful.”
A tech CEO’s day involves a flurry of activities, particularly when the company is young without a large support staff. It can involve meetings with team members to communicate, delegate tasks, and set goals as well as product strategizing, calls with investors and partners, PR and marketing, hiring and administrative tasks, checking on analytics, keeping track of competitors, and of course, managing cash.
Fred Stevens-Smith is the CEO of Rainforest, a small, stealthy startup working on QA tools for developers. The company only has three people, but Stevens-Smith still only spends about one-third of his time writing code.
“I think the most important thing in any early-stage company is to have deep empathy with your customer, to have real experience of the pain point you’re trying to solve,” he said. “If you don’t have that, you have no business leading the company. So if you’re building a product to solve a problem that developers have, then I think you need to be a developer yourself.”
Stevens-Smith said once you get past the minimum viable product stage, a CEO can’t spend all of his time coding. Building a “killer” product is crucial, but only half of the equation. There are other important tasks like sales and marketing that may be less fun to a developer, but someone has to do them.
“CEOs should continually evaluate whether you’re focusing your time on high-leverage work,” he said. “It’s so easy to lose focus, and a lack of focus creates crappy products with no customers. Coding is superfun and tends to come much easier to nerds than talking to customers or sales or hiring or all the other necessary work.”
Like Doshi, Stevens-Smith also emphasized the importance of being technical when leading a technical team. In an environment where software engineers are in high-demand and the good ones are getting wooed from all sides, CEOs have to make sure there is an attitude of respect.
“Programmers are creative people at their core,” he said. “In my experience, ‘business’ people tend not to realize this. Perhaps in this current climate they pay lip service to the idea that programmers aren’t just code-monkeys by providing unlimited Red Bull and by calling programmers ‘rock stars’ or something, but you can really tell the leaders who see developers as just a resource, and it shows in their metrics and the churn rate of technical employees. I think it’s hard to have credibility with developers if you don’t have a nuanced understanding about what they do.”
A coding CEO who doesn’t code may seem like a bird who doesn’t fly, but this skill set extends far beyond the act of writing code. Whether the company is large or small, developer-centric or consumer-facing, programming skills are like many other important skills in business – part and parcel of understanding your product, your customers, and your team.
New Relic, Inc. is the all-in-one web application performance management provider for the cloud and the datacenter. Its SaaS solution, which combines real user monitoring, server monitoring, application monitoring, and availability mon... read more »
Mixpanel is the most advanced analytics platform in the world for mobile & web. Mixpanel's mission is to help the world learn from its data. To achieve this, they've built the most powerful web & mobile analytics platform in the world.... read more »
Lewis Cirne is the founder and CEO of New Relic, recently funded Software as a Service company focused on providing application performance management solutions for over 35,000 customers. The company is funded by Benchmark Capital, Ins... read more »
Ilya is currently co-founder and CEO at Parse. Parse is a platform that makes it dramatically easier to build cross platform mobile apps. Parse was acquired by Facebook in 2013 and continues to operate independently. Before Parse, Ilya... read more »
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