Today’s software and technology industry is huge, and many of the companies within it were started by tech professionals who got tired of working for others and had some ideas of their own. But should technologists also start taking over non-tech companies? After all, digital is the future of business, right?
Marc Andreessen, the well-known Silicon Valley venture capitalist who, as the founder of Netscape, was one of the first to put the World Wide Web on the map, says that many companies would be better off with technologists at the helm. “Find the smartest technologist in the company and make him CEO,” he advises in a recent McKinsey interview.
The problem is that the most tech-savvy people don’t usually hold senior management positions – they usually work behind the scenes. And “there are only a limited number of super-smart engineers,” he elaborates. “That problem is that the real technologists inside so many big companies are not the people at the top of the company. They are not treated as first-class citizens.”
Witness Tesla, which is “led by the technologist who predicted it all and knows every aspect of how a self-driving electric car works,” illustrates Andreessen. “The big car companies are run by people who have a more classical business training, who are not inherently technologists.”
At Tesla, “the engineers working on self-driving cars are the most important people,” he continues. “Elon talks about them all the time, he talks to them all the time, and they’re basically the leaders in the company. The people who work on those things at traditional automotive OEMs are not. They’re still into this back room kind of thing. The people who have led the business for 40 years are the same kind of people who are now in charge.”
Should technologists take the reins of mainstream companies as Andreessen suggests, or should things rest in the hands of business-focused individuals who at least understand the power of technology? Industry leaders I’ve approached over the past few months about this question agree that technology knowledge is now part of leadership roles, but business knowledge is just as important.
“You don’t need to know how to code—although that’s a plus—but knowing technology is now a necessary management skill,” says Linda Dupree, entrepreneur and former CEO of NCSolutions. “Keeping up with emerging technologies and applications is absolutely necessary. Start by acquiring the technology skills needed to excel in your current role. Then commit to learning about machine learning, artificial intelligence, and visualization, and the innovative ways you can use these skills for organizational growth and competitive advantage.
Digital transformation “is changing the technology needs of enterprises, and leaders must keep up or risk being left behind,” says Borya Shahknovich, CEO and co-founder of airSlate. “This does not mean that enterprise leaders now have to be IT wizards as well, but it does mean that they must harness the potential of their employees to become citizen developers. Enterprises have the opportunity to work faster and smarter, led by the non-IT employees they already have.”
These times of disruption and turbulence “require leaders to be more dynamic, responsive and smarter than at any previous time,” says Dustin Grosse, chief marketing and strategy officer for Nintex. “Competition is driving companies to digitally transform the way they operate with more efficiency, less mundane, repetitive and burdensome work. Deep business insight into how to simplify work is key to achieving real digital transformations and avoiding the all-too-common issue of simply changing manual waste-making processes to digital waste-extraction processes.”
Aspiring and current leaders “need to be smart about how they lead their companies in this era of intense digital transformation,” says Shahknovich. “The latest software solutions, data and analytics, AI – these are all tools that leaders must take advantage of to expand their company’s business potential.”
Along with tech savvy, however, aspiring leaders must be “very collaborative and interested in feedback,” says Shahknovich. This is a role that can be taken on by business professionals, or technology professionals, who are willing to help lead their businesses from a strategic sense. “Strong leaders are committed to breaking down silos and emphasizing cross-functional efforts, which are especially important priorities as remote work and distributed teams become more standard. Leaders must also be interested in hearing from a variety of voices—employees, managers, peers, board members, customers—and in creating a culture where success comes from strategies informed by the feedback and perspectives of a variety of people.
People who aspire to leadership roles, regardless of background, “have to be ready,” Andreessen noted in his McKinsey interview. “I do sessions all the time with big companies where I spend all my time [about crypto and blockchain and Web3]. I see everyone around the conference room with their increasingly skeptical looks. They are all trying to calibrate each other. Will they feel like a fool if they’re the one to express emotion when everyone else thinks it’s silly? I assumed that by now more big companies would be more open to these new ideas. But there’s something in their culture, something in the structure of how these companies are set up.”
The key is to maintain “a learner’s mindset, even when you’re winning,” says Grosse. “It is not easy and successful companies must fight against the complacency that often accompanies success. There is no time to rest on your laurels which will be quickly copied and improved upon by competitors. Learn to be a constructive and authentic change leader within your team and across your group and company.”