You can be both a great maker and a great manager. (BCV)

Growing Into a Leader as a Technical Founder

Technical founders can develop into great leaders by hiring smart and getting in the weeds.

6 min read October 24, 2023
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I work with a lot of founders who are technical, and I’ve watched many of them grow into great leaders of their companies. Some are CEOs, some are CTOs, some are in other positions, but all have matured as leaders using some of the same techniques. 

Doing so requires a certain level of humility to identify things that they are not good at or areas where they need help. This can be difficult, requiring self-awareness in a business world where admitting to not knowing something can be seen as a failure. There’s a delicate balance between the confidence to manage or run a company with the humility to say, “I’m bad at this, and I need to hire someone to help. But that’s what leadership looks like.

Transitioning from technical founder to leading a company or part of a company requires learning new skills. Never lose sight of the idea that you should have confidence in your abilities to grow. An open mind, a willingness to listen and a way to get honest feedback will help you transform from technical founder to world-class leader. Here are some lessons I’ve learned that will help you gain leadership abilities and thrive.

Find the right role

A technical founder can succeed in any C-suite role but it’s important to find the right fit. You have to decide both where the company needs you most and where you can have the most impact. 

My view is that the CEO should be the person with the strongest product vision and the strongest opinion on what the market and the customer needs. The CEO is setting the direction of the company, is the primary interaction point with investors and is responsible for selling new candidates. 

That may or may not be the role for you as the technical founder. If it’s not, perhaps your best role is chief architect or CTO. There’s no shame in knowing what you don’t know. Being honest and thoughtful about where you fit is the first step to becoming a great leader.

Hire smart

Once you know where you fit, you can be thoughtful about hiring for other roles.

 A common mistake I see technical founders make when hiring is that they don’t trust their own instincts about whether someone is good or great, as they assume that someone with experience is likely good enough. There are traits to look for that will translate to leadership ability.

Just because a potential hire has a long career in a customer-facing role or long tenure at a big company doesn’t mean they will make a good hire. You need to find someone who has that same level of startup urgency, a willingness to learn, flexibility and a shared vision. 

There’s a media narrative about needing to hire an “adult in the room” — an experienced executive — and sure, if you can get a real adult, that’s great! But don’t settle for mediocre adults.

Urgency matters

Over the years, I’ve found that the best founders have a strong sense of urgency. 

Many modern engineering teams are operating in organized sprints, with an aim of balancing quality, velocity and building the right things –  speed is often the result of deliberate focus. On the other hand, commercial opportunity, including selling and recruiting, is often best addressed on its own ad-hoc timeline of as soon as possible. Time kills all deals. 

The founders I work with who have been successful immediately jump on commercial opportunities. They schedule a call, get into the meeting, onboard the customer or do whatever else needs to happen. For example, Hightouch founders Kashish Gupta and Tejas Manohar started onboarding customers directly on sales calls in order to close faster. 

Get in the weeds

I think it’s important for technical founders to delve into all parts of the company if they want to become great leaders. Onboarding customers directly, being on the sales calls and other non-technical tasks are really interesting and vital ways for a technical founder to grow. If you’ve primarily served in engineering roles, you don’t necessarily think through how all these different aspects of the company work day-to-day, and participating in them gives you a point of view that you lack otherwise and also demonstrates good habits for the rest of the company.

The founders of Pallet were both engineers, but they had been sales engineers who worked closely with clients. In fact, they were top salespeople, landing some of their former employers’ biggest accounts. That quality combined with their strong technical foundation really helped them with acquiring early customers and recruiting high quality talent because they knew exactly what skills were needed. 

Don’t forget about commercial success

Commercial reality is important — products generally don’t sell themselves. 

There’s a common saying that first-time founders stress about product, while second-time founders stress about distribution. I think that’s true, and it’s something technical founders can overlook. 

Distribution advantages are real, and getting your product out to customers is as important as having the right product. If you come at building a company from a technical side, growing into being a great leader involves nurturing your creativity and determination in marketing and sales. Even if you don’t go into selling, you need to be aware of the process and how your sales and marketing teams are talking about the products you’re building. 

Watch, then do

I’m a big believer in experience as the best teacher, and I think learning to be a leader is a little bit like riding a bike. Shadowing someone whose leadership you admire and seeing them in action can be extremely helpful, even if it’s a bit awkward — you have to see greatness first before you can practice it. 

Think about it this way: If you’re an engineer or an applied scientist, you’re most likely an experimenter. What better way to learn what to do than to watch someone else run experiments, then run them yourself?

Be a maker and a manager

Not all of these tips will work for all types of technical founders. Some will be more helpful and applicable than others. 

I have seen proof, however, that any technical founder can grow and mature into a thoughtful, effective and skilled company leader. Becoming a maker and a manager isn’t mutually exclusive. It does, however, take effort. Now go forth and lead.

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