When a developer ascends to the C-suite, they have a big advantage in figuring out how to deliver products faster or find solutions that work better.
By Aaron Skonnard
It wasn’t very long ago that the surest path to CEO was an MBA and a decade or more of working in sales or finance. That’s still the case in many traditional businesses. But there are a growing number of startups and new companies that have engineers as CEOs—companies like Google, Attlasian, Stripe and Pluralsight. I can only speak from my experience and what I’ve observed, but, in my opinion, having developers on your management team (and even as CEOs) helps shape a different kind of company culture with a few advantages over more traditional business-led organizations.
Developers as CEOs: information sharing matters
One big difference I’ve seen in organizations with an engineer as CEO is information sharing. Developers inherently believe in the power of transparency. Information sharing fuels the thinking and problem solving on development teams. If a dev team is going to get to the root of a challenge, the whole group needs to share their experiences and ideas to come up with a solution. This same bias for information sharing at the C-level has a positive effect on the whole company. Instead of keeping everything in silos, information is shared more quickly with everyone. And as we’ve experience at Pluralsight, this transparency is especially helpful for front line employees who need it to make informed business decisions and maximize their efforts.
Compare that to more traditional corporate groups conditioned to protect information. I’m not trying to be critical here—employees in situations like this often have good reason to control information so it doesn’t get into the hands of the wrong people. The culture often demands it. But protecting or controlling information creates office politics. And information hoarding keeps good employees in the dark. Without the details they need to make smart decisions, employees’ performance will slow an organization’s progress.
Developers as CEOs: problem-solving & solutions
Developers are problem solvers so they have to be analytical and process driven. Figuring out how to deliver products faster or find solutions that work better is written into their job descriptions. When a developer ascends to the C-suite, they bring this same bias for problem solving with them. They think of everything from sales to marketing programs to the hiring processes as a series of inputs and outputs—if you put in X, you’ll get X in return.
They ask questions like how can we speed up our product cycles? Can we test and iterate our marketing strategies? What new channels can we use to get better candidates into our hiring funnel? By looking for new solutions to everyday problems, the developer-leader can have a big impact on the entire company’s culture and performance.
Developers learn early on that shipping something that’s only “good enough” is better than shipping nothing at all. On the management team, they help foster a culture that is willing to try new things. The result won’t always be perfect, but the organization can iterate and improve as needed.
Developers as CEOs: fostering a “growth mindset”
Perhaps, most importantly, developer-led companies place an emphasis on learning and many subscribe to a growth mindset. Because technology is always changing, developers are constantly learning new skills, adding expertise and keeping an eye on upcoming changes. But learning isn’t just for the tech teams. Instilling (and supporting) a bias for learning across the entire organization has an enormous effect on employee morale, engagement and performance.
In addition to learning, developers have a bias for hiring highly talented people. Most developers work on a team and are dependent on their coworkers to do their best work. When it comes time to add someone to the team, they are ruthless in the interview process, probing to discover weaknesses and asking questions to make sure each candidate’s strengths will elevate the whole team. It’s an emphasis that can benefit the entire organization.
None of this is to say that organizations without a developer in the lead can’t do some or even all of these things. They can. And many great companies do. But, it’s important to look for leaders that exhibit these characteristics and can thrive in data-driven environments.
Could your organization benefit from adding a developer to your management team? And I’m not talking just a CIO whose contribution is limited to discussions about the organization’s IT and dev programs. I’m talking about engineers in other positions who can apply analytic thinking and a process focus to the biggest questions your management team faces. Given the success that a growing number of organizations are seeing with engineers in leadership positions, it may be something your company should try.
Aaron Skonnard cofounded Pluralsight in 2004 with a small team of internationally renowned software developers to change the way technologists learn. As CEO, Aaron focuses on Pluralsight’s business strategy, future direction, product development, strategic partnerships and management of senior staff.
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