Tuesday, March 20, 2012

If You're An "Ideas Guy", You're Doing It Wrong

There's a disturbing trend that I'm seeing more and more of lately in Silicon Valley, and it's the commoditization of engineering talent in the minds of non-engineers. I'm not sure what they're teaching in business schools these days, but I keep meeting freshly-minted MBAs who "have a great idea and just need some devs to implement it". So lemme just throw this out there:

If you're an "ideas guy", and "just need a couple of engineers" to build your company, YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG.

See, for instance, this recent TechCrunch article which blithely implies that engineers are "coding themselves into irrelevance", and before long, "the business founder [will have] the advantage that today's technical founders enjoy." Huh? Guess what - in healthy companies, it's not such an adversarial relationship. If it is, then you're doing something wrong.

There is no greater turn-off to a prospective tech co-founder or engineering hire than insinuating that they are nothing more than a replaceable tool. Last fall, I even flew to Korea to tell an auditorium full of engineering students that they are not tools, but instead are the engines of innovation for their future companies. Ideas are a dime a dozen - if you can't execute on them, then you are the replaceable part, not the devs you're looking to hire. A good experiment for any company is to switch roles for a day and see who is more productive - the "business guy" given a codebase and a problem to solve, or the "engineer" given a full day of "product strategy review" meetings. I'll leave that as an exercise to the reader.

Lest I be misconstrued, I'd like to point out that some of my best and most respected friends in the Valley and elsewhere are "business guys" (and girls), but what sets them apart is that they know their shortcomings (the same holds true for good engineers), they're willing and excited to learn about the tech world they do business in, and they treat engineers as partners rather than pawns. As a result, their teams are stronger than the sum of their parts. They have fostered an environment of mutual respect, where ideas can flourish and roles are not necessarily so artificially constrained. If you're a "business guy" that's just starting out, or you've been struggling to find good engineers, maybe it's time to reflect on your approach rather than decrying "how hard it is to find talent".

Remember: Engineers are people, not tools or commodities. Treat them well, and together you will build something great.


  1. I'm sorry Darren, but I couldn't disagree more. Engineering is a marketable and commoditized trait. I can pay $X for Y engineering hours. Different engineers have different skill levels, but engineering work is something you can buy and this is completely independent from the ability to discover and execute on good ideas. There are as many bad ideas that come from engineers as from non engineers and if you look back at the most prominent founders of the last three or four decades you will find that they never finished an engineering degree at all and/or most of the engineering work was not done by them at all.

    I don't know where this myth of "only engineers can come up with good ideas for anything that requires engineering work" came from, perhaps Google, but it's very silly. Maybe brick layers believe they are the only ones who have good idea for "successful" buildings?

  2. I almost completely agree with "Unknown".