Every Startup CEO Should Learn to Write Code

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When I first started out in December of 2000 my goal was to build a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) content management system for small businesses (see Iterate or Die). I had been building simple HTML (CSS wasn’t even part of the equation then) sites for three years but didn’t know how to write code. At the time, I enlisted some classmates of mine to be summer interns to build out the product for $10/hour. The thinking was that I could just focus on product management and sales.

Well, at the end of the summer I quickly ran out of money. Only having a couple customers that paid $30/month wasn’t enough to fund much software development even if it was relatively cheap at the time. Not knowing any better I picked up a teach yourself PHP book and jumped in head-first to writing code. It was one of the best moves I ever made.

Every startup CEO should learn to write code.

Here are some benefits of startup CEOs learning how to code:

  • You understand the technical architecture and trade-offs of different product decisions
  • You can call B.S. if a technical person pushes back on something being too difficult/time consuming
  • You become a much better manager of other technical people
  • You never run out of things to do (believe it or not I’ve had non-technical co-founders come to me saying there’s nothing for them to do as they are waiting for the programmers to finish something up)
  • You can better communicate with prospects and clients as you’re not dependent on a sales engineer

Startup CEOs should learn to write code and become a better leader. Programming, much like finance or logic puzzles, is easy to pick up with some effort and patience. The goal isn’t to become a full-time programmer but rather to be a stronger part of the team.

What else? What are your thoughts on startup CEOs learning to write code?

14 thoughts on “Every Startup CEO Should Learn to Write Code

  1. A little bit of knowledge can be dangerous. learning to write code (as opposed to learning a handful of languages features and being able to produce test cases for each feature) takes decades. So what you are suggesting is that CEO’s waste some of their time, which is usually in short supply, learning something they have no use for, and then try to use this very small amount of knowledge to interfere with the experts. All of the benefits you mentioned assume that the CEO in question is an experienced developer.

    1. The situation this best applies to is a bootstrapped technology startup with limited resources. From my experience it typically takes 18-24 months to get off the ground, and that’s plenty of time to become a decent hack that contributes meaningful to the technology. Once there are some customers, investors, etc the CEOs time is best spent in whatever areas add the most value.

  2. I completely agree! There are times when opportunities present themselves that code needs to be developed on a faster timeline that cash-flow will allow. If you don’t have cash-flow, you still have your brain and developing code is cheap with plenty of help on the other end of Google searches if you run into problems.

    When cash-flow allows, you can then hire good programmers to laugh at and then fix whatever code you come up with. And, as you mention, you become a stronger more productive member of the development team, not to mention the company.

    You also stand a chance of gaining a deeper respect from your development team, which I’m sure helps build a stronger culture.

  3. Great topic and I agree with your observation. With that being said, do you have any book suggestions for individuals who want to learn how to write PHP code, but don’t have a technical background?

  4. A non technical CEO should probably not call B.S. on any technical topic, even if he knows how to write a web page. Actually, unless it’s this CEO’s job to be CTO as well, he should not give opinions regarding technical matters in a formal fashion.

    It’s ok to ask questions about why something is said to be too complicated and evaluate the answer, it’s another thing to say “this is BS, I know how to add columns and save rows. This should be easy!”

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