Technologists with business knowledge or business people with technical knowledge?

Today’s software and technology industry is huge, and many of the companies within it were launched by technology professionals who were tired of working for others and had some ideas of their own. But should technologists also start taking the helm of non-tech companies? After all, digital is the future of business, right?

Marc Andreessen, famous Silicon Valley venture capitalist and, as founder of Netscape, one of the first to put the World Wide Web on the map, says many companies would be better off with technologists at the helm. “Find the smartest technologist in the company and make them CEO,” he advises in a recent McKinsey interview.

The problem is that the most tech-savvy people usually don’t hold top 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 true technologists in so many large companies are not the main characters of the company. They are not treated as first-class citizens.”

Witness Tesla, which is “managed by the technologist who envisioned the whole thing and knows all aspects of how a self-driving electric car works”, illustrates Andreessen. “The big car companies are run by people who have more classical business training, who are not inherently technologists.”

At Tesla, “the engineers who work 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 of the company. The people who work on those things at traditional automotive OEMs are not. They’re still into this kind of backroom stuff. The people who have run 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 remain in the hands of business-focused individuals who at least understand the power of technology? Industry leaders I have approached over the past few months about this question agree that technology knowledge is now part of leadership roles, but business knowledge is also just as important.

“You don’t need to know how to code—although that’s a plus—but technical expertise is now a necessary management skill,” says Linda Dupree, founder and former CEO of NCSolutions. “Keeping up with new technologies and applications is absolutely necessary. Start by acquiring the technical skills necessary to excel in your current role. Then commit to learning about machine learning, artificial intelligence and visualization, and the innovative ways you can deploy these capabilities for organizational growth and competitive advantage.”

Digital transformation “is changing the technological needs of businesses, and leaders must keep up or risk falling behind,” says Borya Shahknovich, CEO and co-founder of airSlate. “This does not mean that business leaders now also need to be IT wizards, but it does mean that they need to harness the potential of their employees to become citizen developers. Businesses have the opportunity to work faster and smarter, led by the non-IT staff they already have.”

These times of disruption and turbulence “require leaders to be more dynamic, responsive and digitally savvy than at any previous time,” says Dustin Grosse, chief marketing and strategy officer for Nintex. “Competition is driving companies to transform how they operate digitally with more efficiency, less mundane, repetitive and busy work. Deep business insight on how to streamline work is the key to achieving true digital transformations and avoiding the all-too-common problem of simply changing manual junk -in processes to digital garbage-out processes.”

Aspiring and current leaders “must be savvy about how they guide their companies through this era of intense digital transformation,” says Shahknovich. “Breakthrough software solutions, data and analytics, AI – these are all tools managers should utilize to expand their company’s business potential.”

Still, along with being tech-savvy, those who want to lead need to be “very collaborative and interested in feedback,” says Shahknovich. This is a role that can be taken on by business people, or by technology professionals who are ready to help lead their business 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 should also be interested in hearing from a range of voices – employees, managers, colleagues, board members, customers – and in establishing a culture where success comes from strategies based on the feedback and perspectives of a range of people.”

People who aspire to leadership roles, regardless of background, “have to be ready,” Andreessen pointed out in his McKinsey interview. “I have sessions all the time with big companies where I go through my whole game [about crypto and blockchain and Web3]. I see everyone around the conference room with their increasingly skeptical eyes. They all try to calibrate each other. Are they going to feel like a fool if they’re the one to express excitement when everyone else thinks it’s stupid? I assumed that now more big companies would be more open to these new ideas. But there is something in their culture, something in the structure of how these companies are made up.”

The key is to maintain “a learner’s mindset, even when you’re winning,” says Grosse. “It’s not easy and successful companies have to fight against the complacency that often comes with success. There is no time to rest on your laurels as they will quickly be copied and improved upon by competitors. Learn to be a constructive and authentic change leader in your own team and across your group and company.”

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