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The Case for Learning to Code

Several experienced entrepreneurs argue that being a non-technical founder puts you at a severe disadvantage. It's time to learn to code, already.

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A few days ago here on Inc.com, Danielle Weinblatt, CEO of Take the Interview, wrote about her successful experience starting a software company even though she can't code. Being a non-technical founder has clearly worked for Weinblatt, but across the Web several entrepreneurs are arguing that her experience is the exception rather than the rule, asserting that founders—even if they're the marketing or business brain of the operation—really should learn how to code.

The first example comes from a post on Business Insider, which is provocatively titled "Non-Technical Founders Will Always Make Subpar Products That Fail Slowly." In the post, Shontell relates the experience of New York Tech Meetup's Nate Westheimer. He started out as a non-technical entrepreneur until he spoke to Drop.io's founder Sam Lessin, who said: "Idea people who can't code have to relay their vision to others, and part of the vision inevitably gets lost in translation. Lessin said non-technical founders like he and Westheimer fail slowly," according to Shontell.

Despite Drop.io selling to Facebook, producing what could be seen as a successful end result for Lessin, Westheimer took this advice to heart, Shontell reports:

Westheimer took to books and started to learn back-end development. He was fueled by a product he wanted to build—an online meeting management system called OHours. Two years later, Westheimer is working on another startup, Picturelife. Instead of being the product manager like he used to be, Westheimer is the back-end developer. He's working on Picturelife with OMGPOP founder Charles Forman and Threadless co-founder Jacob Dehart.

Forman told him, "I'm glad you learned to code, otherwise we wouldn't have been able to work together."  Forman and Dehart are both technical guys with a lot of ideas and designing talent, Westheimer explained. They didn't need another idea guy, they needed a developer who could pull weight.

The bottom line for Westheimer is if you have ambitions to start a software-based company and think you can't or shouldn't learn to code, think again. To help out he also offers tips to help you learn to be developer. And he's not the only voice on Business Insider taking this position. Cristian Castillo, co-founder of instaDM, has also argued that at least rudimentary coding skills are key, though for slightly different reasons.

"What I'm able to do is avoid investors and fail quickly, and move as needed," Castillo said of his basic coding skills in a separate post. He hacks simple prototype projects, expecting only one one in ten to gain any sort of traction and be worth refining. "At some point, in the past, I tried to go the 'easy' route and hire other people to do the coding, but the product takes longer and it's worse," Castillo concludes.

Who's right, Weinblatt or Castillo and Westheimer?

Last updated: Apr 6, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.
@EntryLevelRebel




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