minutes read

I’m a non-technical CEO. What do I do?

Written by
Zbigniew Czarnecki
Published on
October 29, 2015

This article shows you how you can improve your startup condition and work on your technical approach while remaining a non-technical CEO.

Zbigniew Czarnecki
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This article shows you how you can improve your startup condition and work on your technical approach while remaining a non-technical CEO.There are many reasons to think that a good CEO should know how to code. Seemingly, most of the great CEOs either received formal engineering education (like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg) or learned programming by themselves (Instagram’s CEO Kevin Systrom). It is very tempting to be able to develop your product by yourself and properly review the performance of your dev team.Hoping to be the next Silicon Valley luminary, you might think that learning programming is this one final step you need to make to take your startup to another level. When reality sets in, however, it turns out you don’t have that much time you can dedicate to coding or that this is not really your thing.You're officially a non-technical CEO and it's not the end of the world (or your startup).This is not another blog post that lists all of the resources that allow you to learn how to code. Sure, it’s not too late for you to start programming and it’s not rocket science (unless it is, but I assume you’re not into aerospace engineering).I believe, however, that not every CEO has to be a coder and that there are ways to stay relevant and effectively communicate with your tech team without this commitment, and this is what this blog post is about.

The loneliness of the non-technical CEO

There are at least several problems that non-coding CEOs face on daily basis.First of all, you often struggle with internal communication, especially with the dev team. Let’s not beat around the bush here, some programmers seem not to see non-technical people as equal partners when talking about product development. It’s not rare that they simply tell you how things should be based on their judgement without taking your ideas into proper consideration.After all, you’re not one of them.This kind of tension may jeopardize your leader position in the team and your ability to perform CEO duties. The fact that you don’t fully understand the technicalities of your product makes it extremely difficult to set goals and milestones.Recruiting the developers is yet another challenge you face, as it takes some technical experience to assess a real programming talent.Finally, when you lack an in-depth technical understanding of your product it becomes extremely difficult to sell or pitch your product to seasoned professionals and investors.These are some gloomy prospects but there are ways that help you conquer these challenges without actually dedicating hundreds of hours to learn programming.What you need to realize is that coding is not just about writing the code. There’s a reason why developers create astonishing things and it has not that much to do with knowing the syntax of a given programming language.What’s more important and brilliant about top devs is critical thinking, strong analytical skills and their ability to come up with unexpected solutions. These create the “technical approach” so many non-technical founders wish they would have.Is it fully learnable without the coding part? Probably not, but there are several ways in which you can advance it to feel comfortable in the technology world.

How to stay on top of things with little time to learn?

Let’s start with the most common obstacle many founders encounter - lack of time.Unfortunately, there is no way around it - you have to spend some time expanding your knowledge. From my personal experience, the best way is to dedicate a fixed timeslot during the day.Once you have the timeslot chosen, the most basic thing is to browse the web. There are at least several sources that you should check out daily, below you can see a list of some of my favorite reads:

And for quick glances:

Checking these on regular basis, you should be able to get content that you find both interesting and useful.

Or, maybe it's worth considering a partnership with a tech company? Learn more about picking the right tech partner in this article: How to dodge terrible technology partnerships?

The science of tech-related decisions

There is no recipe for good decisions, but you can try to discuss your ideas and doubts with people with more technical experience. There is a solid chance that you already frequent some events.Try to diversify them topically and attend some tech-oriented ones. Apart from super specific events focused, for example, on Angular JS, there are also some that are more general, where even someone who’s not a programmer can grasp interesting insights.Obviously, you know that there is more to industry events than just what you hear from the speakers. More often than not, networking proves to be the most valuable part, and it’s no different for the tech events. Getting to know technical people is beneficial for you not only because you can find a trusted CTO for your business, but because they provide a great crowd for you to test your ideas and come up with new solutions.Why is it beneficial to talk about your vision with your tech friends that don’t work for your company?First of all, they’re objective - without having you as their boss, they will tell you point blank if you’re idea is bad.On the other hand, they’re not the ones who are going to code it, so they tend to be more eager to encourage challenging solutions, whereas your in-house devs might want to stay in their comfort zone.As a result you become more versed in the technicalities and you have a chance to improve your product.

Hiring the right developers

Recruitment is a crucial process for building a successful startup and hiring devs can be very scary if you’re not really able to assess their coding skills.The easiest way to go is to ask a programmer that is already working for you to join the interview. But what if you’re hiring the first dev?Some general questions that already give you insight into the way a given candidate thinks are:

  • What was the best part of the project you’ve recently worked on?
  • If you could get any job at any company in the world what would they be?
  • If you were to name one product that could revolutionize the market, what would it be?
  • Can you predict some trends for IT industry in 2025?

These questions allow you to see what are the ambitions of the candidate you’re interviewing, his visionary abilities and creativity.Another crafty way is to move the interview to your field of expertise while assessing technical approach in the meantime. How does it work? Let’s say your background is in marketing and community management.Ask the candidate what social media tool he would build to automate the process. Since you’re familiar with this field, it is easier to assess the answer.What if you're a non-technical CEO that wants to pick an outsourced tech team? The most important thing is to select people that critically approach your idea and want to help you shape your product.When you’re not well-versed in technology the last thing you need is a team of people who couldn’t care less about your product and just mindlessly code to order.From my experience, the most important thing when working with non-technical founders is to educate them on the possibilities and limitations of technology their product is build with.What is more, every founder has to realize that product is a living organism and all of the modifications affect the system as a whole.Finally, even a non-technical CEO should be aware of the process, so that he can take full advantage of the work methodology, for example the usefullness of giving proper feedback on Sprint Reviews when working in Scrum.

Keeping the team together

You might feel that you are no partner to the devs in your own startup. At the end of the day, however, it may change significantly, when you employ the culture of ownership in your company. Once people feel they have real impact on the product, they are more likely to become helpful in setting goals and milestones. The common effort in the decision-making process can be truly beneficial here. One last thing - never forget to check how your competitors do things. If their business took off it probably means they’re doing it right. Read their blog, gain the knowledge they share and analyze your market to learn how to improve your own product. Learning how to code might be the next thing you decide to do to develop your skills but, contrary to what you may hear from many people, it’s not a dealbreaker if you decide not to pursue programming.Working in the tech field, however, requires you to stay relevant in this constantly changing industry. I hope this article inspired you to use some ways to progress your technical approach while remaining a non-coding CEO.