Engineers are known for being a quirky bunch. We tend to like precision and predictability. Yet, many successful company founders and/or CEOs started their careers as engineers: Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Sundar Pichai, Steve Wozniak, Jeff Bezos, Alexander Graham Bell and Henry Ford, to name a few. Studies have shown that startup founders with an engineering background outnumbered those with MBAs by about three-to-one.
Why do some engineers make great CEOs? Though it may not seem obvious, there are many transferable skills that engineers can tap into to make the transition to company leader.
First of all, both roles involve building. As an engineer you are creating a tangible product. You can see the results of your work by running your code, watching some graphs and seeing people use it. It’s a quick feedback loop with real and immediate impact.
As a CEO, you’re building too, but you need a lot more patience. You sometimes won’t know the impact of projects you work on until months or years later. Instead of coding something once, you have to communicate the same messages repeatedly. All your impact is delivered through other people, and whereas software is just ones and zeros, people are often irrational, emotional and unpredictable.
The interface between people
There are a lot of shared principles in designing interfaces within software and interfaces between people. In both cases, communication should be simple, efficient and high fidelity. You don’t want to repeat things too frequently, and you also want to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.
With software, you can count on things being stable, and, if something breaks, it’s easy to trace it, figure out why and fix it. With people, things aren’t always stable, and it’s not always easy to trace back problems. So, you have to design your interfaces to be a lot more fault-tolerant and resilient. One way we address this is at our all-hands company meetings each month. At this meeting, teams present both wins and losses, so peers can capture learnings from the front lines. We’ve also incorporated a biannual 360-degree review program where our team can align, and course correct based on thoughtful feedback from their business partners.
The recursive algorithm
One thing I draw on from computer science is the concept of a recursive algorithm, which is a way of solving big problems. You work on smaller and smaller subsets of the problem until you’re down to its smallest atomic unit. The solution produced for that unit can then be used to solve a slightly bigger problem, and this cascades back up until you’ve solved the original problem.
As a CEO building and scaling an organization, you have a large problem to solve, which is the vision and direction for the company. Individual teams will take a subset of that problem to work on, and subgroups of that team will take a smaller subset of that, on down to the smallest atomic unit, the individual contributor. If everyone does their job as an individual contributor, it should theoretically roll back up to making progress against the overall vision for the company. For example, each of our employees is responsible for setting, communicating and monitoring Objectives and Key Results (OKR) on a quarterly basis. Companies like ours use OKRs to connect business, team and personal objectives in a way that is measurable and promotes a single, unified direction.
Successful leaders see the big picture and define problems in such a way that each team can take a smaller part. Sometimes, I think of it as being the chief constraint officer — defining not only the problem but the constraints (usually around time and money) in such a way that people can push themselves to be creative as they look for ways to do more with less.
Investing in debugging tools
Software is bound to have bugs, so as an engineer you always invest in debugging tools to help you figure out why things are working the way they are, and how you can optimize the system.
People could be said to have bugs too, in the form of different values and personality traits. What we try to do at my company is help everyone understand those using a tool called Tilt, which helps people understand their biases and how they show up in certain situations.
Our self- and peer-assessments help us understand how we are all different and how we can balance each other. That’s half the battle of working together. Great leaders, like engineers, should be able to recognize abilities and differences, and turn them into a synergistic output.
Related: Do Salespeople Make Good Founders? Here’s What They Do (and Don’t) Bring to the Table.
Drawing on machine learning
Making the transition from engineer to leader comes down to adaptability. As a leader, the onus is on you to change and scale along with your company. You have to be able to reinvent yourself at every stage.
Sometimes I think of it as a machine learning mindset. Yes, you’re a physical human with atoms and molecules rather than ones and zeros, but you need to be able to continually take in new information and adapt and improve. This is a key component of the engineering mindset, and ultimately, the key to success as a CEO.