Many of Quovo’s customers are shocked when they learn that I actually know how to read and write code. Sure, I’m founder and CEO but this is a tech innovation company so strapping on the coding “tool belt” can be just as important as wearing the leadership hat. While I’m hardly a rock star engineer, being entirely self-taught and seldom able to devote a full day exclusively to writing or reviewing code, I still feel that technical understanding is an important contributor to my effectiveness in the workplace and the success of the firm.
I’ve always been of the mindset that I “wouldn’t buy a steak from a vegan butcher.” Put differently, I think people want to buy products from someone who knows their stuff. And when you’re a high-tech, data-rich company like Quovo, that means having technical aptitude.
Of course, tech-savviness isn’t the full story, and the correlation between coding ability and successful leadership isn’t perfect. At Microsoft, Steve Ballmer’s rather spectacular implosion towards the end of his tenure as CEO would suggest that perhaps Bill Gates had a steadier hand and a deeper understanding of MSFT’s core capabilities (Quora seems to agree). However, few people would argue that Steve Jobs (who didn’t have particularly strong technical skills and never wrote any actual code himself) wasn’t a transformational leader for Apple. Granted, two of the largest, most influential technology companies of the past forty years are probably exceptions rather than the rule, but you get the picture.
In theory, at least, it all comes down to what you’re selling (the “butcher” role). For companies with products that compete based on better usability, simplicity and efficiency (arguably the Apples of the world), a disproportionate bias toward technical details might actually obscure good product decisions. Getting lost in the weeds of elegant code or slightly faster database queries can be a distraction to the core user experience. Conversely, if a company’s brand promise is horsepower, reliability and raw processing capabilities, then it’s probably absolutely necessary to have a technical leader at the helm -- especially during the early stages of a company, when priorities that will have deep technical implications must be delineated.
But, in practice, even this dichotomy isn’t as simple as it sounds.. Quovo tries to sell extremely high quality complex data sets (MSFT), packaged in an elegant, intuitive application (AAPL). It’s hard to say which is more important: technical proficiency or product design.. With bad data, any spiffy app is an empty car without an engine; Quovo takes pride in making our data services as intuitive and usable as possible, since unusable data is all but worthless.
At the end of the day, I ultimately feel that you can’t overlook either area of focus; but since the technical side of things seems to be more commonly overlooked as a core skill set in business leaders versus the product/commercial side of things, I feel that my technical skills give me a perspective that executives may not always have. And for that, I’m grateful.
Have you struggled to take off your “tool belt” from time to time? Which do you think is the more important driver of success for your firm: technical ability or leadership skills? Add your comments here and I will reply on the discussion thread.
Lowell Putnam is co-founder and CEO of Quovo, Inc., a data science platform optimized to extract, manage and analyze financial portfolio data.