Guest Columnist

Column: Knowing how to code is essential for founders

Guest columnistMarch 11, 2013 

Joe Procopio, guest columnist

I used to be very technical – crazy geek technical – but now I’m at the point in my career where I get to come up with ideas and have younger and smarter people make them happen.

I’ve always believed that everyone, especially tech company founders, should have some understanding of technology that includes a basic grasp of how a machine uses ones and zeros to get data from one place to another and make it useful.

There’s a lack of technical talent in the Triangle and nationwide. Combine that with the increased ease of coding (thanks to tools such as CodeAcademy.com and Amazon Web Services), and the ability to code could become a necessity for founders, if it hasn’t already.

“For a tech company, yes,” said Justin Gehtland, co-founder and chairman of Relevance, a Durham-based provider of software development. “If you were co-founding a pie bakery, I’d argue that you ought to know something about pie, or baking. There is no difference in a tech startup.”

But founders don’t necessarily have to be the ones baking all the pies. The benefits of knowing how to code can be indirect.

“If you are code ignorant, then you are blind when it comes to managing development,” said David Hadden, founder and CEO of TheraSim, a medical software company in Durham. “You also don’t have the ability to understand what can or can’t be done technically.”

But do founders actually have to work on the product? Maybe not.

“Coding is a real skill,” said Justin Benson, CEO of Spreedly, a cloud-based credit card vault in Durham. “I don’t think you can just dial it up and produce a good product if you’re not already so inclined.” There are people who can do it faster and better, and founders probably have better things to do.

“If you are trying to run a company and juggle many things at once, like marketing, investors, design (and) research, coding may not be a priority,” said Keval Mehta, founder and CEO of Durham’s INRFood, a technological platform for detailed nutrition information. “If I’m not the best coder, let someone do it who can do it efficiently.”

However, founders should have a role to play in the development of products, regardless of whether or not they’re slinging code.

“A founder needs to have a certain niche that is critical for the implementation and deployment of the company,” said Justin Miller, co-founder and CEO of Raleigh’s Deja Mi, a media-sharing app company. “Rather than try to be decent at several things, hone in on your true talent and become amazing at that, and then fill in the void where needed.”

There’s another problem that learning to code solves instantly.

“The number of times I am told ‘I’m looking for a tech co-founder’ is astonishing,” Gehtland said. “There is a dramatic shortage of tech co-founders. So quit looking and become one. You’ll soon enough be able to hire more experienced hands when you’ve proven the point.”

Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer and speaker. Follow him on Twitter @jproco or online at joeprocopio.com.

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