by James Zhao, co-founder of Thought&Function
Good communication is vital in the startup world. It’s the key to making sure every member of your team is working together as one unit, aligned towards the same goals. But for non-technical founders, communicating with developers can be tricky. From different ways of working to unfamiliar jargon, there’s a lot of room for misunderstandings to emerge.
But it doesn’t always have to be that way. With a little understanding of each other’s roles and the work they do, it’s easy for both sides of the divide to communicate clearly and bring the best out of each other.
Get to know the developer persona
The key to communicating well with your developers is appreciating that they have a very different style to you. As a founder, you’re likely quite strategic and have a “big picture” mindset — it’s what makes you so well suited to tasks like networking or shaping your brand’s vision. Developers on the other hand are often highly analytical and will drill down on details to solve problems but are less likely to be the most vocal in meetings.
But that’s not to say that all developers are the same. It would be wrong to assume that every developer on your team fits the stereotype of the Brilliant Introvert. Maybe you’ve got more of a Shoreditch Socialite — a trendy extrovert who’s happy to discuss their work in meetings. Or perhaps a Basement Hacker, someone with a deep level of expert knowledge in their field but who uses a lot of technical jargon.
What’s important is that you really get to know the people on your team, and learn how everyone prefers to communicate. As a non-technical founder, your developers are your link between vision and product, and you’ll need to make sure you’re getting their keen insights to give your company the best chance of succeeding.
Understand what they do (and how complex it is)
As well as getting to know your developers themselves, you’ll also need to have some understanding of their work and empathy for the complexity behind it.
As a manager, you’ll need to foster awareness of what you’re really asking from your developers in order to set realistic deadlines. Sometimes, a simple task can appear really simple from the outside but require a lot of work behind the scenes. It’s a bit like moving a plug socket in a house — fitting the socket into the wall might not take much, but you’ve also got to sort the wiring inside the wall for it to work.
And if you’re asking them to make multiple changes, you’ll need to allow them time to “clean up” the code afterwards. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a wall covered in holes and loose wires sticking out everywhere. This is commonly known as technical debt.
Try to keep in mind the trade-offs involved in tech. When it comes to quality, cost and time, you can’t have all three — if you’re asking your developers to produce something fast without it costing much, then the quality of the work is going to give.
It goes the other way, too. You need to communicate just as much to them the business reasons behind why you need certain things done or why you’re asking them to prioritise getting a new feature out over improving the base code. If you can help bring out some commercial awareness in your developer, it can be really powerful for your company as you’ll both be able to join the dots between the two sides of the project.
Align your goals
As well as appreciating the complexity of what developers do, it also pays to understand their way of working. In startups, a lot of friction can come from just not knowing how the technical process differs from the business side of things.
For creative work like coding, you often have to commit an hour of work to be able to get deep into a problem. That’s called entering the flow state, and once in it you’re able to see everything in a much clearer light. This is when a developer is most productive, able to solve the hardest problems.
While you might want your developers to be present at every meeting throughout the day, it’s important to remember that doing so will also break their flow. Ensuring they have sufficient time to properly engage with a problem will often lead to much better outcomes in the end.
But it isn’t just about understanding how techies work and leaving them to it. Ultimately, the best thing to do is embrace a shared mindset across the whole company so that everyone is aligned towards the same goals.
Take the Agile Sprint process, for example. It’s usually seen as a way for developers to build and test solutions quickly, but it’s also a really valuable mindset to apply to the rest of the business. While the developers are working towards introducing a new feature, marketing is working towards driving users to that feature, and you’re working on gathering data and prioritising what comes next. Keeping everyone focused on the same goal rather than working as separate groups is crucial to making your startup truly efficient.
James Zhao began his career as a software engineer. Four years ago he co-founded Thought&Function where he brings commercial and product expertise together – along with an understanding of the start-up process – to give start-up founders the start they need: advising on strategy, handling marketing and sales, all while still dabbling in the build process.