What to know about working with technical co-founders and engineers
"There aren’t many 'unicorns' — people who are extremely good programmers, incredible people managers, and also top designers. This happens with technical hires a lot, where you expect the world from your first technical hire. Sometimes that can be a blocker for making the hire you need. You might need to hire someone who's not the best communicator, but they're a great programmer, and you just have a communication debt that you'll have to pay off over time by hiring a great manager."
We hosted a panel with three Propel members and technical co-founders to cover some of the most common questions we get from founders and early-stage leaders, namely: "how do I find the right technical co-founder or early team member, and how do I set us up for success?"
The conversation was full of tips and learnings based on their lived experiences as engineers. We've quoted and shared many of them in this post.
Jared is the co-founder of Pineapple AF. Pineapple AF is creating tools for people to have healthy relationships, focused first on enabling friends, family, and new connections to communicate thoughtfully and with felt presence, bringing people back together across the separation of cultural silos, filter bubbles, geographic distances, and time zones.
Tiffany is the founder of Cowrie, a social marketplace for underrepresented and underserved early-stage entrepreneurs to get the support they need that actually moves the needle. She's also a Product Marketing Data Operations Manager at Disney.
Paul is the co-founder of Stream Club, where he and his team are building a future where live streams are more collaborative, social, and easier to create.
On finding a technical co-founder:
"If you’re a non-technical founder, figure out what your superpowers are and show them off. Showing how your skills may complement your technical hire is super valuable."
On ways to share your vision with a prospective technical co-founder:
"Think about how you're telling the story or sharing it. Maybe create an interactive mock-up or visual that can help the engineer better understand where you're trying to take your idea."
"You can say all these great things, but I'm more mindful of how you're saying it and the intention behind it. I would definitely lean more towards providing that level of authenticity and bringing your full self. It’s okay to express and acknowledge where you want to be better and hope that partnership can help you be better. Nobody is perfect."
On what to prioritize when finding a technical co-founder:
"Rather than just looking for specific qualities, you should work on a project together to see how compatible you are. You can pay the engineer as a contractor and work on a small project and spend several hours together building something."
"There aren’t many 'unicorns' — people who are extremely good programmers, incredible people managers, and also top designers. This happens with technical hires a lot, where you expect the world from your first technical hire. Sometimes that can be a blocker for making the hire you need. You might need to hire someone who's not the best communicator, but they're a great programmer, and you just have a communication debt that you'll have to pay off over time by hiring a great manager. If you look for unicorns, you're going to be looking for a really long time, or paying a lot."
"A really good technical co-founder quality that you can screen for is the desire to solve problems. Do they enjoy solving problems? And do they have a genuine desire to understand and learn technology in order to solve problems? That passion for building and for solving problems that are ahead of them — that they’ll have to learn and haven’t done before — is a really good thing to screen for.
I also look for an eagerness to communicate and teach technical concepts in non-technical terms. That's a really valuable skill because it will help you grow your engineering organization in massive ways over time."
On the power of patience between business and technical teammates:
"The most important thing when working with technical folks is to have a lot of patience. I think there's often a huge lack of context between what's going on in the technical person's mind and the non-technical person’s mind. You may be asking them to change one feature, which could end up being a complete change of the system. The best communication stems from mutual trust and patience. In the bad technical and non-technical relationships that I’ve seen, the trust isn’t there."
On improving communication across business and technical hires:
"It’s really valuable and pays dividends to have some amount of skill in everything that you want to collaborate with somebody on at some point. You might benefit from taking a few coding classes at freeCodeCamp.org. It can give you a foothold to be able to have a slightly more meaningful conversation with your technical folks.
If you never give yourself any kind of foothold in technical understanding, any amount of communication engineers do over time falls on untrained ears. I think there's definitely value in giving yourself at least some foothold."
On understanding success metrics for technical and product teams:
"I’m generally very value driven and want to ensure that whatever is being asked of me to deliver or build is something that I can articulate the value of at many different levels.
For example, I may be working on a set of features that align with a KPI. If I'm speaking to investors, they want to know how I’m going to maximize their returns. I want to show them KPIs and how a specific feature is contributing to it.
There’s also monetary value. At Disney, we have the 'Group Watch Feature' and the specific experiences within this feature can increase the subscription rate. Then I can pinpoint the estimated dollar value in that experience.
Then, there's people value. How can we ensure that a certain experience or feature has stickiness and keeps people coming back?"
If you're interested in joining a group of peers who support each other in building products and teams, get in touch!