It isn't hard to notice a trait shared by many founders of the world's most successful tech companies. Instagram's CEO Kevin Systrom was a self-taught programmer. Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg began writing software before entering high school, and still keeps a hand in coding today.
Dropbox CEO Drew Houston wrote the first lines of code for his company from a Boston train station. WordPress co-founder (and founder/CEO of WordPress's parent company Automattic) Matt Mullenweg used his technical skill to help build the democratic publishing platform from the ground up.
Microsoft's Bill Gates, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Google's Larry Page...the list goes on. Each of these leaders possessed a deep understanding of the technology that their business was built upon.
I believe this commonality is far more than just coincidence. Having technical chops as a C-level leader affords both you and your company many advantages over CEOs with a business-only background. Pairing tech savvy with exceptional vision and key leadership traits creates the perfect skillset to lead a tech-driven company--and even other companies that may not be considered tech-driven.
If the success stories above aren't enough to convince you, here are five more reasons why today's most successful CEOs are tech savvy:
Avoid the bubble. As the previously mentioned lineup of uber-successful leaders suggests, the best ones are those who really "get" their products--from the inside out. In a company's early stages, it's particularly beneficial to startups if the CEO is the one who maintains the closest link to the company's product. As Steve Blank said, "Startups are not just about the idea, they're about testing and implementing the idea." (His emphasis.) In order to do this, chief execs need strong technical skills, which provide them with more comprehensive knowledge about their company and improve their decision-making ability.
Many companies have leaders who the tech team would consider "suits": people with MBAs but no tech training. While these CEOs may be visionaries who excel in other areas of leadership, their lack of insight into the actual technology that underlies the business means that they live in a "bubble" of sorts. Leaders need hands-on appreciation of how to best leverage the technology along with the difficult issues that the company may face at different points in time during development. Without a firm grounding in this understanding, it's nearly impossible to make the best decisions.
To put a finer point on it: CEOs in the tech industry who lack familiarity with the inner workings of their own products may fail when it comes to making critical strategic decisions--ones that could determine the future of the entire enterprise.
I've experienced the flipside of this truism firsthand at my own company. My education in computer science and programming has greatly improved my decision-making ability at Pluralsight, which I've been able to draw on over the last decade of corporate growth. At start-up, my technical background allowed me (alongside our other founders) to author some of our company's first courses and help design both our website and our overall business model. Over time, this same background served me well when it came to identifying opportunities and quickly pivoting the entire business in a new direction (see below).
Gain the respect of your tech team. Tech-savvy CEOs have an easier time earning the trust of their technical group. You can't fake speaking the same language, and there's a certain authority and respect you can only command through knowing how to code. Personal experience with coding greases the wheels with everything from time management to delegation, because you know better what outcomes to expect. Asking your programming team to do things that you don't truly comprehend yourself is tantamount to trying to lead an army with no competency in military strategy.
Building rapport with your tech team is also an important component of creating a no-fear culture. When you as a leader understand the technical challenges that your company is trying to solve, you can empower your group to take the risks necessary to find creative solutions. By the same token, CEOs who lack tech expertise may quickly experience a disconnect with their developers. When you grasp your team's needs firsthand, it's a lot easier to create the type of work environment that can attract and hold onto top talent. In fact, gaining the respect of your tech team is an important precursor to effective recruiting, hiring, and retention.
Make smarter hires. As Kleiner Perkin's Mike Abbott said, "engineers close engineers." He should know, since while serving as VP of engineering at Twitter, he increased the company's engineering team from 80 people to more than 350. Because of the mutual respect that exists between engineers and a CEO who can talk tech from personal experience, tech-savvy leaders possess an indisputable advantage in attracting and retaining top tech talent.
For one thing, if you're a coder and programmer in your own right, it's much easier to identify the characteristics of stellar candidates. Since you know what you're looking for in your software developers and engineers, you can keep a hand in this part of the hiring process--which can be especially crucial at the startup stage. When you have the ability to explain the technical nuances of tech roles, it helps interest the best candidates in the positions.
Improve your ability to pivot. Tech-savvy founders have clearer vision, plain and simple. Their aptitude in tech empowers them in effectively identifying opportunities that someone without that experience wouldn't notice or know how to properly execute. Tech-inspired vision in leadership allows an organization to be more lean and flexible, to learn faster than competitors. It also helps increase insight into how to improve the flow of delivering value to customers, and facilitates quickly and radically pivoting the direction of your business when the right time comes.
As well-stated by Venkatesh Rao in Forbes: "[T]echnology changes suddenly expand the strategy canvas and offer new ways of doing old things, or entirely new things to do...The leaders who read the new game faster and better than competitors get ahead." In my own experience, having a technical understanding of my business facilitated my ability to know when it was time to transition Pluralsight entirely from classroom training to an online training model.
Improve resource allocation. A native understanding of what makes the most sense for the planning, design, and scheduling of software updates and product launches means that techy CEOs have an advantage in resource allocation as well. As Zuckerberg said in a recent interview: "So much of the infrastructure of what we do requires having good code and good abstractions, that actually being in there and seeing the work people are doing on a day to day basis gives us a much clearer sense of the investments we need to be making to run the company better."
In other words, when it comes to decision-making about the pipeline, tech-bred CEOs can fall back on their own experience to assess the feasibility of projects, goals, and timelines rather than being at the mercy of the opinions of those more in the know. This qualification can also bring a much clearer focus to illuminate exactly what you need to do to improve your business. Without a tech background, for example, it can be difficult for leaders to keep up with the constant changes in software updates, apps, and programming languages that can keep your company at the forefront of your industry (or cause you to lag behind). Tech-savvy leaders, on the other hand, can quickly analyze emerging technologies and decide which ones to adopt or reject. When shaping their company's strategic vision, they can also assess the potential impact of new systems on the market.
While a tech background is an important leadership skill, CEOs who come to the table with both technical and entrepreneurial expertise create a magical combination. Leaders who lack either tech skills or business and financial acumen will likely have a more difficult time maximizing their company's success. CEOs with expertise on the technical side, on the other hand, have an edge in helping to guide their companies to greatness in today's tech-driven world. This is true of all aspects of the business, from decision-making and resource allocation to vision and general management. Tech-savvy leaders can help their companies hire smarter, pivot faster, and ultimately lead better.