Years ago, I had someone who worked for me that was really bright, really intuitive. I thought he had a lot of potential, but the problem was he didn’t have a technical degree.
So, I gave Matt the least technically challenging product line in the company to run. Matt did a great job. The businesses Matt was responsible for thrived.
Matt kept progressing in his career, and the ball kept bouncing his way. The CEO was against having non-technical people run business units retired, paving the way for new leadership.
The new CEO, who interestingly enough was an ex integrated circuit design engineer, was actually okay with non-technical people becoming business unit general managers. This led to Matt’s continued rise in the company.
Eventually, Matt became the number two person in this $2B/year company. Then Matt left the company to become CEO of a $14B market cap public company in the semiconductor space. All indications are that Matt is doing a great job running a complex technical business without a technical background.
Yet, Matt is the exception to the rule.
You may not need to be a technical genius to be a startup CEO of technology company, but you do need to be somewhat technical.
I’ll give you three reasons why you need to have some technical chops to run a technology business.
A. You need technical credibility with your technical team.
You need the respect of your technical team if you’re going to recruit the best and keep the best at your company. It’s a balancing act.
One the one hand, you need to show that you have a technical understanding of what the team is working on. You have to be able to challenge your team technically or you run the risk of them taking advantage of you.
On the other hand, you don’t want to be something that you’re not. If you start portraying yourself as a technical guru when you’re not one, then you will be found out as a fraud.
B. You need technical credibility with your customers.
You’re selling a technology product to your customers. And you’re the CEO, so you’re going to be the first salesperson the company has.
You’re going to need to explain the complex technology to your customers. Your customers may or may not be engineers. You will need to have more than a superficial knowledge of your product to succeed.
You can’t just memorize a few buzzwords and expect that to work. You’re going to have to be able to explain in depth how your product works.
C. You need technical credibility with your investors.
Your investors are trusting you to be able to build your company with their money. They expect you to more than a salesperson. They expect you to run all areas of your company.
Yes, you may have a great VP Engineering (that’s your first challenge, btw), but you can’t just be hands off. You have to be able to ask your technical VPs questions. How are you going to know whether you are being told the truth if you’re not technical?
Yes, Matt is living proof that you don’t need a technical degree to run a technology company. But Matt has a unique set of talents that many people don’t have.
So yes your marketing VP doesn’t need technology background, but you’ll have a much better chance of success with a technology background.
For more, read: Why Your Non Technical CEO Should Be Involved In Engineering