Are non-technical startup employees stigmatized in Silicon Valley? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
Non-technical founders of startups are stigmatized everywhere.
From Silicon Valley to London, if you aren't technical, you aren't getting in. This is true at venture capital firms and incubators. It's made technology an exclusive club that is incredibly hard to infiltrate. Do we really want the potential for innovation to be contingent on whether or not the founding idea was conceived by a techy?
We are constantly hit with the stick that ideas are dime a dozen, there is no value in an idea unless you have the means to implement it, and that implementation is everything. That there are no new ideas. Everything old is new again, brought into the new world by a reinterpretation of existing technologies. In the same way, Uber is the modern equivalent of taxis and the iPod was the next iteration of the CD.
The true voyage of discovery is not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes. But having new eyes is no longer enough; if you don't have the skills required to implement the ideas you imagine, you're discarded and branded as worthless.
That mindset, however, is ignorant of the reality of the evolution of several huge companies. Of course, the implementation is the essential necessity that marks the birth of a company, but the genesis of the idea is the seed. Without it, nothing can germinate and flourish.
Take Twitter, for example. Developed as a side project in a two-week hackathon in the final two weeks before Odeo was disbanded and the investors money returned, Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone developed Twitter. The genesis of the idea was Jack's, of course, but the product was significantly influenced and designed by Biz, who would be considered non-technical. I believe the development would in many ways be characterized as being non-technically led. By this I mean that a lot of the product ideas were led by non-technical people, be that Biz or the early adopters (looking at you, hashtag, which was a user-developed feature.)
It goes further. It's far easier for a technical founder to get funding for a terrible product idea than it is for a non-technical founder to get funding for a great idea. If a terrible idea is funded, does a technical founder have a better chance of salvaging the project than a non-technical founder has of building a technical team around him to create the product he envisions?
The generally held belief is that the former is true, but in reality, the latter is.
That, I believe, is the perception that cultivates the stigma attached to non-technical founders. The contrarian truth is that non-technical founders have a far higher chance of building a great team and leading it to success than a technical founder has of salvaging a project destined to fail from the start. We have been conned into believing the actuality of the pivot, like it is a purposeful decision conceived at inception instead of the post-rationalization of serendipitous chance that it is.
In reality, having a Plan B sets you up for failure. If you are already conceptualizing any possible outcome except success, you're not fully committed to the current idea.
The argument, though, is colored by the successes of VC-backed companies that have featured technical founders. Like anything in life, when something is forced down our throat by the media it's hard not to believe the hype. The romanticized story of the isolated technologist who changed the world by leading a product revolution grabs attention. The story about the average man in the street who spotted a problem and built a team to tackle it, less so.
Everybody loves a story until it becomes a fallacious, conventionally-held belief.
I can understand the argument, but a true visionary needn't be able to code or understand the idiosyncrasies of syntax. Look at Steve Jobs.
That's what worries me about the stigma. It holds people back. People are almost laughed out of the room unless they are able to create something. How many great ideas are we missing out on by our closed-mindedness, by thinking we know better?
Has the next Steve Jobs been brushed under the carpet and forgotten about because she doesn't have the requisite coding skills?
Stigma is an act of control. It dissuades individuals from realizing their worth, and non-technical founders have been suppressed. It discriminates against the dreamers and visionaries who have spent their time conceptualizing a better world around us.
To flourish and grow, we must become more inclusive. This is true in technology and in society as a whole. We must embrace the things that challenge us to think and appreciate viewpoints different from our own.
Revolutions can start anywhere. The tech sector has become far too insular. It must embrace external ideas or die.
The non-technical founder can provide new eyes, but only if first viewed as an equal.
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