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.