AKF Partners

Abbott, Keeven & Fisher PartnersPartners In Hyper Growth

How Technical Does The CEO Need To Be?

Putting the bottom line up front, it is not the CEO’s job to be a technical wizard in ANY company.  The CEO has to be worried about too many other things to also need to worry about being the CTO or for that matter the CFO, CMO or any other “C”-level position within the company.  You need competent people in the CTO/CIO position doing the technical heavy lifting.

From our perspective it is also inexcusable for the CEO of a technology company to not attempt to make a connection and better understand the teams and technology that build and comprise the product offerings of their companies.

It is hard to imagine that someone would rise to the position of CEO and not understand how to read a balance sheet, income statement or statement of cash flow.  That same person, unless they have an accounting background or were a former CFO is not likely to understand the intricacies of each accounting policy nor should they need to do so.  The CEO’s job is to ask the right questions, get the right people involved and get the right outside help or advice to arrive at the right answer.

The same holds true in the technical world – the CEO’s job is to understand some of the basics (the equivalent of the statements mentioned above), to know which questions to ask and to know where to get help.  Here is some advice for CEOs who have not been a CTO/CIO, do not have technical degrees, or have never been an engineer:

Ask Questions and Look for Consistency in Explanations
Part of your job is to be a truth seeker, because only with the truth can you make sound and timely decisions.  While we do not think it is commonplace for your team(s) to lie to you, it is very common for teams to have different pieces and perceptions of the truth.  When you do not understand something, or something does not seem right, ask questions.  When you are unable to discern fact from perception, look for consistency in answers.  If you can get over any potential ego or pride issues with asking what might seem to be ignorant questions, you will find that you not only quickly educate yourself but you will create and hone a very important skill in finding truth.

Seek Outside Help
Seek help from friends or professionals who are proficient and knowledgeable in the area in question.  The proper approach is not to bring them in and try to sort things out for you – that can be very damaging.  The approach we suggest is to create a professional or personal relationship with a firm or peer who is more technically literate and can help you generate the right questions or coach you on approach to your technology team or technical concern.

Improve Your Technical Proficiency
Create a list of your weaknesses in technology – things about which you have questions -and go get help to become smarter.  You can ask questions of your team and outside professionals.  Read blogs on technology relevant to your company or product or attend workshops on technology for people without technical backgrounds.  You probably already do this through professional reading lists on other executive topics – add technology to the list.  You do NOT need to learn a programming language, understand HOW an operating system or database works or understand how “Collision Detection Multiple Access/ Carrier Detect” is implemented.   You SHOULD understand simple concepts such as the interactions between time, cost and quality in development.

We know that your responsibilities as a CEO are enormous, and your time rather limited.  We believe that simple changes to your self-education approach, additions to your professional and personal network and modifications to the way in which you ask questions can pay huge dividends to your company.

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Comments RSS TrackBack 11 comments

  • Abbott, Keeven &#038 Fisher Consulting

    in June 20th, 2008 @ 14:46

    […] In an earlier article we discussed how technical the CEO needed to be in a technology company.  No discussion on this topic would be complete without addressing how business savvy the CIO or CTO needs to be in nearly any company. […]

  • F|R: Top 5 Reasons Business Execs Fail to Work Effectively with Product and Engineering Execs - GigaOM

    in August 16th, 2008 @ 16:00

    […] The truth is, business execs don’t need to be very technical — they just need to have a strong understanding of, and respect for, the ethos of their technical leads and show the hallmark qualities of good leadership: ethics, determination, discipline and humility. By examining the top five reasons business execs fail to work effectively with technical execs, it’s possible to anticipate and avoid some common problems. […]

  • axel

    in November 23rd, 2009 @ 04:58

    Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any one thing.

  • george kyaw naing

    in March 16th, 2010 @ 02:52

    I agree with Axel. Matsushita has said that a business leader’s enthusiam compensates everything else.

    John Sculley did badly at Apple as a non-techie manager.
    Then, waht about John Chambers at Cisco?
    What about Lou at IBM in the 1990’s?

    Even in software, non-techie managers have a big role to play.

    I also have written something about CEO here : http://ethicminds.blogspot.com/2010/02/what-does-ceo-do-part-2.html


  • Technology Governance – Lessons from 13 Bankers | AKF Partners Blog

    in June 21st, 2010 @ 08:02

    […] efforts.   CEOs often do not have a deep technical background and while we’ve written that they do not necessarily need to be technical, we’ve also stated that they should ensure that they have the appropriate internal technical […]

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