How strong techies destroy startups, and how it can be avoided

One of the hardest things about working in a technical field, and one of the biggest killers of startups, is the limited world view us techies usually posses and defend. In this post we will examine this startup killer, look at some examples of how it manifests itself, and discuss how to avoid these.

(Feel free to skip to the model listing below.)

I see this everywhere, and whoever I speak with I find it to be a painful subject for them as well. Hence, this post. I write specifically about techies, but remember — it can happen to all of us. I regularly get schooled on R&D.

There are many such “Techie Downfalls” throughout the life of a startup, but in this post we’ll discuss a very specific disconnect: Low maturity of experience outside of tech, or simply — immaturity.

One of the signs of immaturity* in technical geeks, especially the geniuses, is our** reducing the world outside our understanding into “easy simple b/s”. Fluff. Until we try it, that is, and then most break down dealing with the bias about how we see ourselves and how we really are.

* Immature: Euphemism for idiots and sometimes a-holes.
** Our/we: Me long ago before I pivoted in interests, and most of my friends.

Background: The Fallacy of the Artisan

(You may choose to skip the background)

Let’s admit it, technical people are smart. My experience detailed below is from long years of work with geeks (programmers, reverse engineers, and hackers), and my own experience as a full-of-myself-techie ages and ages ago. But it is true for any technical field.

“Physicists”. Source: XKCD,

It has been said that many of us suffer from the Dunning–Kruger effect, where we incorrectly assume we are experts in fields other than our own. After all, how hard can it be compared to what we do daily? Especially when often we are in fact correct?

This is not a new phenomenon, and was explained best as “The Fallacy of the Artisans”, by Socrates, when he conversed with a wise man who thought he was an expert on subjects other than just his.

“It seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know”.
- Plato’s Apology, 21d, (Tredennick).

Apologetics aside, trying to work with a techie who refuses to acknowledge what you do is hard work, or is done well, or that it even matters, can be infuriating. But you do have something in common — the frustration is mutual. It’s amazingly hard for a techie to work with someone we consider illogical.

Let me assure you right now, while there are exceptions (and let’s be honest, many of us are somewhere on the spectrum), techies are in fact (usually) not being thick on purpose.

We follow a rational thinking process, we just lack data. When you encounter a techie who refuses to acknowledge the outside world — don’t assume they are difficult people — they might be, but they are also usually open to be convinced depending on their level of maturity as professionals.

For example, my kickass CTO at Cymmetria, as is to be expected from a strong techie, did not feel comfortable at the beginning going to a customer with our product a month into development, but he understood my argument about the value of customer feedback, and we installed. Man was I lucky to find him as my CTO. This experience at the customer site drastically changed how we approached our solution.

Symptoms of working with an immature techie

The trouble with the immature techie is not about the Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s about the attitude with which we treat hard work outside of our field of expertise.

“I could do what you do in 2 seconds flat.”
“Does what YOU do even have value?”

Let’s break it down.

Models of behavior for the immature techie:

  1. X is stupid. Marketing is stupid: Anyone can go and write. Sales is stupid: If you have a good product people will buy. Sales is stupid: Going and talking to people all day long is easy. Especially approaching and pitching “stupid people” for 16 hours a day at a conference.
  2. I am all for building just an MVP… it’s just not ready yet. Install at a customer’s? But my product is not good enough yet. We can’t afford to be schooled. What do you mean MVP? Viable means STABLE, not EARLY BETA.
  3. Close him in the basement and let him work! Communicate? All I need is for the person to be able to code. I don’t need them to communicate what they do or why. I’m sure it will merge just fine and we will be able to figure out why they coded in MOO and made these decisions, so we can debug at the customer’s site a year from now. Culture schmulture, what do I care if he makes everyone else feel bad? Deal with it!
  4. What do you mean that’s what the meeting was about? What hint? What body language? What test? What signal? I was there same as you, I am not stupid, I have ears, and I heard different.
  5. X is easy, I could do it in my sleep. A variation on #1 above (“X is stupid”). Writing is easy, we don’t need to pay for it. UX? What’s so problematic about placing a few buttons the way I as a geek like them?

Communicating, finding middle ground, and kicking people out

Much like many CEOs, I pivoted from the deep technical world to the “fluff” world of people. I worked hard for years to achieve my expertise. But how do I convince someone I have this expertise, and it is far from “fluff”, when it’s not measurable?

How do you go about convincing someone who is sure they are right, of your experience?

There are only five solutions I found for this conundrum:

One: Communicate and decide on roles and responsibilities. Make it a recurring process.

  1. Communicate you’re an expert, and more importantly what you DO NOT know.
  2. Acknowledge what you DO NOT know, and listen to those who do.
  3. While there should be a process where you can make most decisions under your area of responsibility, be willing to be called upon to defend some of your decisions. Encourage it.
  4. When you defend a decision, come prepared. Construct clear arguments for why you chose to do what you did, or be honest you don’t have one.
  5. Avoid the situation to begin with. Consider what affects the whole company, what is a critical decision and what’s a smaller one you can turn back from later. Consider stakeholders and what affects whom, and update them in advance on any big decision. Remember: Making a decision is often more important than what the decision is.
  6. While it’s your decision, you must be careful not to cut the other person out of the decision making process, and you must watch out that you give them their time. It’s a bad culture move to not do this, and it can become common practice where other people’s decisions affect you. I constantly work to become better at this.

Two: Let them walk a mile in your shoes

It’s not that easy to create a good presentation, or to raise funds, or to pitch. Let them participate and help. This should not be their regular work, but they should dabble to at least understand how difficult the skill-set is.

Three: Educate them from a source they accept

This source will be articles from tech giants and startup superstars. It can also be a mutual friend or an experienced counter-part. Let someone else share their direct experience with them.

Four: Accept it for what it is.

Just accept it. There is a cost to working with good techies. They will never appreciate you. Grow up, and manage the situation like an adult.

Five: Fire them. Now.

If they are beyond just skeptic, but disruptive, or even toxic. Or, you find you spend a lot of your valuable time on them rather than on your work — don’t. Read up about separating from bad founders, or letting go of toxic employees. You will always ask yourself “why didn’t I do this sooner?”

In summary

We need to understand and accept that techies will be full of themselves. Techies need to acknowledge they often lack data and therefore look at the world through a limited set of lenses, which they can choose to expand.
They will not always have the broad view of everything — they have their own work to worry about.

It’s your cost of doing business. It will be a repeating cycle. Take the heat, and cook some dinner in the kitchen.

At Cymmetria we used to tell each other we’re “irrelevant” to a certain topic if we were out of scope in our understanding. That was a poor choice of words which we since changed, but it was a key term which we understood to mean the other person thinks we are fish out of water in a certain topic.

Do realize however that it’s an issue of maturity. You can learn how to communicate with techies, while at the same time they can learn how they lack data and are being dorks.

While this post was about techies, I get schooled daily on R&D and other subjects. And sometimes, I’m difficult. Remember, this isn’t just about techies. We all have egos.. There is a story a friend shared with me about a CEO who angered his sales team by telling them the product he built must be easy to sell, as it’s so shiny and perfect.

I’d appreciate your feedback and thoughts. Good luck!

Gadi Evron.
(twitter: @gadievron)

#Communication #techies #immaturity