Where are the hackers? Solving the Founder-Tech Gap

Owen Davis spoke at my Columbia B-School Lean LaunchPad class a few weeks ago, and his words to my students always hit home. Founder-turned investor, Owen is clearly one of the brightest lights on the NYC tech scene, and founded NYCSeed after launching and selling several companies.

Founder: “We know what to build. Give us the money and we’ll hire the tech team.” Owen’s simple two-word answer, “get out,” said as always with a smile while making a powerful point.  These words hit me like lightning: tech wisdom must be on the inside, not the outside, for a startup to succeed and prosper.

This reflects a very common problem for many startup founders. They may be the non-technical, “hustler” type of person. Know the domain well. Have a pretty good idea. But they lack their “hacker” partner. What are they supposed to do? Is there something they should do other than “get out of the building?”

I’ve been discussing the “tech gap” with Tony Karrer, a well-known startup CTO in Los Angeles. He’s been running the Los Angeles CTO Forum for more than 10 years. It’s a group of more than 300 CTOs – mostly from startups. So Tony knows quite a bit about the hacker side of things, and he regularly (like several times a week) talks to non-technical startup founders, most facing this dilemma.

First, we both agree that non-technical founders who go directly to outsource their technology will likely run into issues, as anyone would when “outsourcing” a vital organ. As I commonly tell startups, “No startup can ever outsource marketing to an agency. It’s like a human being outsourcing or renting his aorta.” Tony tells me he’s surprised how many times he talks to startup founders who have outsourced their technology without anyone helping them navigate the conversation with the firm. The founder doesn’t know how to look at code or have any real sense of what’s going on under the hood. And once things run into problems, the adversarial relationship between outsourcers or software shops and the startups paying their bills heighten startup risk to a great degree.

Even when the hustler has a hacker, there’s often still an issue. It’s rare to find a hacker who’s both able and willing to code 24×7 and is strategic about technology. A startup needs both, but a LOT of the coder. And if they have the coder, too often it leaves the team without critical advice on key questions including architecture, strategy, and team development. Who are the right hires, and in what order? Where is the hacker strong or weak, and how does the team compensate?

Every good leader needs a mentor or several—and the mentor who can coach a strong hacker brings a dramatically different skill set than the mentors a hustler will need along the way. Recruiting both skill sets early in the game can dramatically enhance the startup’s chances for success. Tony refers to this as the “founder -developer gap.”

For the non-technical founder facing this gap, they have the responsibility to close the gap in two ways. First, they need to build some knowledge in three areas:

  1. Product design: This is much more than “I have an idea for a startup,” and includes features and functions, UX, wireframes, UI, interface design and more. Some of the least tech-savvy founders can’t even describe the difference between UI and UX, or think wire frames go on cool eyeglasses. There is no excuse for not getting up to speed on the basics of product design.
  1. Software architecture: Once you have a handle on #1, then you can tackle getting up to speed on some basics of software architecture. You should be familiar with the differences between native and mobile web. You should know what code is running server side vs. client-side. You should have a basic idea of some of the more popular web frameworks and third party technology services that apply. Tony has some sage advice, “You won’t know the details of any of these and you should never pretend you know more than you do with a technologist, but technical people hate discussions with non-technical founders who have not bothered to learn even the basics.”
  1. Development Process: You should be familiar with Agile development processes. You should also have an idea of what you will be getting in what timeframe and be wired into the specifics of what’s happening.

Even founders who have a fairly good understanding of the above three will likely still suffer from a founder-developer gap. You don’t know what questions to ask, can’t tell a bs answer from a brilliant one, and this often leads to horrible hiring decisions, let alone management and design decisions. So here’s the other aspect that both Tony and I preach: get help. You can’t afford and don’t want to hire a full-time CTO or architect. But, advisors, coaches, and mentors can often fill the bill. Getting someone who’s fully employed somewhere else to work with you on a limited basis to help close the gap is hugely important for the non-technical founder.

I’ve used consultants many times to augment competencies of internal techies when new challenges came up or we were about to spend a pile of money and I wanted a “gut check” on my internal person. These are relatively easy to recruit, and I’ve often asked either a friend or another techie I’ve worked with to do the final interviews of CIOs and CTOs for me, since they know the questions far better than I do. The key lies in a founder knowing exactly what he or she doesn’t know, and recruiting the talent and leadership necessary to assure that the core technology—the heart of the startup—is as strong and well-developed as all other elements of the business model.

Tony Karrer has a slightly different take on this issue.  Again, he runs the Los Angeles CTO Forum so his answer is to tap into groups like his(www.lactoforum.org) to find CTOs who can help on the side often as an advisory board member. “Many of our members take on advisory roles with startups. That said, you need to have done your homework and have a reasonable chance at success before you approach a CTO asking for their help.”

Bottom line, to avoid the “get out” kind of answer, you need to (a) get smart, (b) find the advisor and (c) find the coder. For non-technical founders who’ve not done these, “get out” is quite deserved.

Need help More to say? Contact www.lactoforum.org or akarrer@techempower.com




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