Development and leadership

Frank Zinghini

Founder & CEO

I was talking to the CEO of a startup. He had been recently recruited into the position to serve as adult supervision. The startup was doing well – the guys doing the development were extremely bright – and they had been developing apps that customers liked, wanted to buy, and started to use.

The difficult part was keeping up with their success, in the non-development areas such as customer relationships, management, and support. The technology itself, while technically solid, hadn’t been properly engineered for maintainability, extensibility, and scalability.

That makes sense; startups need to focus on the first goal: get something out into the market and make sure it can sell before worrying about maintainability and scalability. At least, it makes sense for the short term. But this way of thinking causes problems later. By the time this CEO had been brought on board, development efforts were bottlenecked. His challenge was to take the application from phase one to phase two, making it scalable, sustainable, and manageable. In order to do that, he needed leadership, engineering discipline, and pretty much everything except really smart coders. He already had that in the bag.

I suggested that he look for a team leader with a military background, someone who understands leadership, who has experience leading young people under difficult circumstances, and who also has a technical background.

There are quite a few people in the military getting strong technical skills because of cyber security. In my experience, these people are extremely bright. I have infinite respect for our military because their training, doctrine, and organization all yield very strong-willed, self-confident, smart people.

When these people go into business, they often become powerful leaders because they understand that most people like to be led, despite what they may say. For example, take those wild-eyed young coders who love hacking. There are some who move on when it gets serious; but there are others who love to see their stuff grow and go out into the world and solve problems. At some point, they need real leadership. Code without leadership is a dead end.

In any situation, you must have leadership, whether it is overt or covert. It must always be present; otherwise, whatever is there will not survive. Anything that is succeeding means that someone is leading, even if no one realizes it.

Going back to the startup, and their conundrum. How do you plan for not ending up in a situation where you can’t get past a certain level of success? You actually can’t – and shouldn’t – avoid it. You can’t pull a startup together and say, “We are going to build this infinitely scalable, hugely maintainable, incredibly well-designed platform for a market we don’t even understand yet. Oh, and it’s going to take three years to do it.”

You can’t and shouldn’t do that. You need to start out just as this startup started out, but as you do, you need to see where it is going. Before the problem gets too large, and as soon as you know you are getting traction in the market, you need to ask yourself, “If this is going to work out, then what are we going to do in a year when we have five times as many customers? Are we ready for that? How do we get to the next level?” The answer is not throwing more programmers at whatever you are already doing. Real growth comes from leveraging, promoting, and supporting what has already been built.

The answer is to find a leader, one who will focus on where the company needs to go next, to continue building on the success that the coders have already achieved.

For more information on selecting and working with developers for your upcoming app project, please download a guide for CEOs about creating great software from Applied Visions today.

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