We’re used to talking about full-stack developers — people who can do front end as well as back end development, understand the layers of both hardware and software, and know how to access (and make accessible) the data and programmatic functions of adjacent software. Laurent Gellert provides a good description of these requirements here.
Although “full stack” has become a bit overused within engineering, it should be a new standard for the role of CEO. As an investor, I spend a great deal of time evaluating individuals who either hold the title already as a founder or who we are helping recruit to one of our portfolio companies. The needs and desired profile of a CEO vary for every business and are based on the strength of the executive team, industry, and stage. But there is, without question, a set of underlying qualities necessary to perform the job at the highest level.
Using the framework of a full-stack developer, here are those qualities as they relate to a modern CEO for a tech company:
Back office and front office knowledge. Understands, and preferably is a master of, both back office (product development) and front office (sales and marketing). Maintains enough knowledge and interest in each to be a “first class participant” regardless of whether he or she grew up in engineering or in marketing.
Business logic and well designed data flows. Ensures that each layer of the system “compiles.” All actions must perform seamlessly together. I talk about this in detail in a recent post about the “Kinesthetic Chain” of a Start Up.
Interaction interfaces and experiences. Makes clear to others in the organization how to access the people, information, and process in adjacent functions. In other words, what is the culture and the rules of engagement across organizational boundaries so people can collaborate effectively together.
Understanding the customer and business needs. As a CEO, it’s easy to get out of touch with customer needs because you’re so focused on internal challenges. A full-stack CEO “keeps it real” by talking to customers and having primary data about their challenges and needs.
Being CEO comes with many other demands — setting company strategy, hiring the right team — that make it similar to leading a full-stack engineering team. But the basic concept is clear — being an effective CEO requires knowledge and interest in both sales/marketing and product development in order to effectively knit together front end and back end. If you’re a founder or an executive with skills and experience in one part of the business, you have to build competency in the other to be a great, full-stack CEO.
Being a modern technology CEO is incredibly complex, dynamic, and challenging. To succeed, embrace the qualities of a great developer — leverage your “superpowers,” but acknowledge what you don’t know, surround yourself with people who tell you truth and teach you things you don’t know, be curious about parts of the system (in this case, company), and focus on improving how they function together.
Greg Sands is founder and managing partner at Costanoa Venture Capital.