I had a really interesting conversation last week with David Cohn, aka DigiDave, of the crowdfunded reporting experiment Spot.Us. Talking with David has been a really helpful for me as I've worked on my startup over the last couple of months.
Reflecting on his experience as a non-techie managing web developers and building the site, David made the following observation: The key labor relations for news publishers of the 20th Century was the relationship they had with the ink printers and the delivery truck drivers. Managers of the newspaper era had to know their lingo, understand their needs and wants, and learn to manipulate them accordingly.
In the 21st Century, as news has been unhinged from the printed page, the new key relationship, he postulates, is that between management and the software engineer. It is they whose ways and mores we must now learn.
Now, I think David is really onto something here. Without software or web developers, us non-engineers are pretty much dead in the water if we want to leverage new web technologies or innovate with our storytelling. Learning how to speak Geek is a challenge. Do I need a software architect or a web developer? C++ or Java? PhP or MySQL? To the unitiated, it's a pretty daunting task to figure out the difference and the meaning of the lingo. Adding to the challenge is the fact that software engineers tend to be lacking in the communication skills dept.
This might sound cheesy, but as I try to answer the challenge myself, I take inspiration from the Obama model: find smart people, grill them, suck up everything you can like a sponge, and don't be embarassed about not knowing things.
I was reading some Peter Drucker today and he spoke to this very point. The startup founder, he said, needs to figure out the crossover between the growing startup's needs and what he/she can actually do well. The venture is going to have critical needs that need to be filled–sales, product dev, marketing, financial planning, etc–and it is unlikely that the founder will be strong at all of them. The key then is to build a management team that covers all the critical needs. Sometimes the founder is the right person to be CEO, sometimes not.
But back to managing techies.
My personal goal is to a) have the geeks educate me enough so that I can understand what needs to be done and hold them accountable for it, and b) always ask when I don't understand something.