The Female Lead

What non-technical founders need to know about tech

Developers turned CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates have become the successful tech CEO stereotype. This is further exacerbated by venture investors like Andreessen Horowitz, who favour investing in technical founders.

Yet, if we leave the creation of tech products to developers alone, we will usually end up with white men in hoodies making products for other white men in hoodies. Women make up just 17% of IT specialists in the UK, and this number has barely moved in the last 10 years. This figure decreases with seniority: only 5% of leadership positions in the tech sector being by women, according to The Economist.

This means that relying on female programmers cannot be the answer to having more and better products for women today.

I started a technology business when I was doing my MBA at Chicago Booth. My lack of technical background did not stop our company creating an app, a website, an analytics product and even its own algorithm. However, my insecurities about not knowing how to code lead me down several cul-de-sacs.

Around a year ago, I began teaching non-technical professionals what they need to understand about technology to succeed in the sector. I’ve taught this at London Business School and at startup campuses around the world, and always enjoy the creativity it unleashes.

Just as you would not get an accounting qualification to hire accountants, or go to law school to hire lawyers, there is no need to learn to code to hire a technical team. Instead, you need to understand how to set the right task, ask relevant questions and track progress.

Learn concepts, not skills

You need to understand concepts, but do not invest your time in learning to code or make prototypes yourself. A founder’s job is to understand their customers’ problems and make a viable business by solving those problems. In order to do this, founders need to know how to hire professionals to help them achieve their goals.

This view is also shared by many investors. When I interviewed David Segura, one of New York’s top angel investors, for my Forbes column, he said “you should become fluent and knowledgeable of software trends and best practices. Learn how to manage a technical endeavour from both a project and product standpoint, but you will not get credit or a moral victory for becoming an average coder in a world that only values excellence.”

The reality is, learning the basics is enough to get you started. If you do, what products could your creativity bring to the world?

Tech production is cyclical, not linear

Apps, sites and algorithms are made using a cyclical production process, whereas traditional products are made using a linear one. These products are constantly evolving, because its creators track how people use them and make improvements.

This means that you have to let go of perfectionism, create products that are by definition incomplete, and improve as you go. This is what Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn meant when he said, “if you’re not embarrassed of your first product, you’ve released it too late.”

Don’t let your lack of a CTO co-founder hold you back

I find that women are prone to putting off starting something until they find their “genius CTO co-founder.” This is the same impetus that Hewlett Packard discovered in their report that women do not apply for jobs unless they are 100% qualified, whereas men go for it if they reach just 60%.

Finding a co-founder is hard, but there are plenty of good outsourced development agencies. They will often have a project manager, who can act as your technical lead. You can also supplement your knowledge by getting a technical advisor. Advisors usually already have full time jobs elsewhere, making them easier to find.

Product goals are not business goals

Business goals, such as revenue or profitability growth, are linked to the product you are creating, but they are not the same as product goals. For example, the goal of the Netflix algorithm is to learn what you are most likely to be interested in and to show you that content. This algorithm is one of the aspects that feeds into Netflix’s growing revenues, along with quality content and a great marketing machine.

Do not make the mistake of giving developers business goals. It is the non-technical founder’s job to link product metrics like engagement to business goals, like fundraising or revenue.

Hire a User Experience designer first

When you are ready to move forward with your idea, your first hire should be a user experience designer, not a developer. User experience designers are the vital bridge between concept and code. Only once you have worked with a UX designer to produce prototypes, product specifications and wire frames, should you approach developers to build code.

Perfectionism often holds women back from setting out to reach their goals. We tend to think that before we get started, we need to take a six-month course, get a new qualification or find a person who has all the answers. I certainly wasted too much time and energy on all of the above.

The reality is, learning the basics is enough to get you started. If you do, what products could your creativity bring to the world?

If you want to learn more, Sophia’s Tech for Non-Technical Founders Course launches on 11 May and runs for 5 weeks. The Female Lead readers access it for a special price of £55. Offer link: https://www.techfornontechies.co/offers/fDxskFxi