As a tech entrepreneur, how important is knowing how to code? The startup community seems to be divided.
On the one hand, technical founders have a clear advantage—it's easier to manage external programmers and lead an in-house technical team. "Familiarity with programming and other IT topics is a huge advantage in the 21st century, no matter what your role is," explains marketing consultant Joseph Peterson in a Clarity discussion about the benefits of learning to code. "Lack of direct experience will hamper many aspects of anyone's professional career."
But here's the problem: Entrepreneurs are time-strapped. The process of learning to code comes at an opportunity cost—the more time you have to spend learning a programming language, the less time you can spend leveraging your growth in other areas such as business development, marketing and sales.
"You're too busy doing what you're already competent at," explains Tom Williams, an active angel investor and serial entrepreneur, during the same Clarity discussion. "I think that if you work closely with great engineering talent, you will increase your overall product sensibilities."
But what if you want to develop technical fluency? The process could take years and potentially set your business back in its trajectory.
"Given the rapidly changing nature of things," Williams says, "maintaining a core competency in programming requires a constant learning cycle, one that will inevitably compete with your core competencies."
To Code or Not to Code?
If you're struggling with this question, you're not alone. To help you determine your best choice, ask yourself the following key questions before signing up for a Python class or jumping head-first into a tutorial:
1. What is the anticipated ROI? Small-business owners wear many hats, but most importantly, they are sales leaders, project leaders and managers. You need to ask yourself if learning to code will help you save time, save money or boost your ability to grow.
It may be the case that you want to learn to code because you think it'll make you a better leader or manager, as you'll be better able to communicate with your consultants and engineering talent. For small-business owners, these goals are absolutely valid reasons to learn to code.
There are alternatives, however. You could hire a technical co-founder, or interview your top engineers to learn how and what they're thinking through their technical challenges. Deploy the communication skills that make you a strong sales and marketing professional, and you may get all the information you need to lead your team successfully.
2. What is the opportunity cost? What do you lose when you learn to code? What could you be doing instead, and is it worth sacrificing? Will you need to put key business milestones on hold? Will your growth begin to stall? Are there other skills you should be learning instead of a technical skill?
Business owners constantly face trade-offs every minute of every day. Even if you see learning to code as a win, you need to be realistic about what you're losing. At the very least, try to quantify that time into a specific dollar amount.
3. Would a technical skill make you happy? Happiness is an investment and an asset. You need to pursue activities that you find enjoyable and intellectually appealing. The answer to "Should I learn to code?" doesn't have to be logical. Don't over-think it. The time you spend brooding over this question is time that you could be spending learning to code.
Your best course of action is to stop Googling what other non-technical co-founders are doing and stop wondering whether your peers are judging your decision. If you want to do it, then do it—go all-in, and have fun.
Ritika Puri is a writer specializing in business, entrepreneurship, marketing and quantitative analysis. She has written for Forbes, Investopedia, CrazyEgg, Unbounce, the Contently Blog, the SAP Innovation Blog and others.
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