Thursday, May 27, 2010

Startup Founder Developer Gap

I was just interviewed by Frank Peters - Tony Karrer and the Founder-Developer Gap.  It was a lot of fun for me.  I’ve listened to Frank’s show for several years.  And I always recommend it to people involved in early stage startups.

I received a follow-up question from an early-stage startup about the Founder Developer Gap that I’ve described before and that was part of the interview with Frank.  You can follow the link above for more details, but the basic idea is that most startup founders have a pretty good understanding of the basics of what they want to do and a vision for the product.  And there are all sorts of different kinds of technical people who might help with getting that product to happen.  However, many founders are challenged to engage with developers to make it effectively happen.

Right Questions and Answers

They may or may not be asking and getting the answers to the right questions.  There are a bunch of questions in Startup Software Development – Do Your Homework Before You Develop Anything and in Startup CTO or Developer.  And figuring out answers may take a lot of work.  But often, it’s really important work to make sure you get your product right and technical strategy right.

Determine Technical and Team Strategy

Okay, now you know what you want to build.  Now there are some hard challenges around what technologies to use to balance short-term and long-term.  This is somewhat the heart of what a CTO does. 

From the technology strategy, you then look at your plan for who will do what.  You have to determine in-house vs. outside development and what parts of the problem each person will do.  This needs to fit with risk, cost, schedule, flexibility, etc.  And this somewhat determines the specific skills you will need.

Source, Interview, Engage and Manage the Team(s)

Now you know the kinds of people you need, the next steps are finding the people or companies, interviewing them, engaging them, and managing them.

This is another potential gap.  Many founders are not equipped to evaluate the capabilities of a developer.  How do you know if they will produce good code for you?  Are they producing at a reasonable rate?  Are the million little choices they are making the right choices?

I’ve talked to many unfortunate founders who have had a Founder Developer Gap and it results in a Weak Development Team.  Sometimes this is fatal for early stage companies.  You’ve spent your money and now you need to rebuild and spend that money again.  Investors are most often not willing to help you.  It’s a painful situation.

What Should You Do?

Let’s say you aren’t sure if you have a Founder Developer Gap – what should you do?

I would highly recommend considering getting a really good technical advisor early in your process.  And this is not your buddy who does programming at some company.  I’m talking about a legit CTO type person with experience building the kind of thing you are building.  There are a few different ways you might engage with this person - see Technology Roles in Startups

Obviously, if you already know someone and they can help you informally, that’s probably the best starting point.  If you don’t, then contact someone like me or find someone through LinkedIn and network until you get help.

This person can evaluate if you’ve asked the right questions.  They can figure out how you can go get through technical and team strategy and can probably help you source, interview, engage and manage.  Obviously, the more this person does the more you should expect to compensate them with equity and/or cash.

We are not talking about a full-time role.  Do not hire a CTO at this point.   I can almost guarantee a full-time CTO hire is wrong for you.  They will either not be senior enough or they won’t be producing code enough.  Have this advisor person help you as a part-time endeavor to figure out what you need.

This answers the question I received, but does it answer your question?


Benjamin Kuo said...

Great interview with Frank! Very insightful!

Tony Karrer said...

Thanks Ben. I've not been seeing you as much at events. Are you getting out less?

Giles said...

Thanks very insightful.