If Your CEO Doesn’t Understand Technology, You Need A New CEO

If software is eating the world, should it also “eat” your CEO?

Given how integral technology has become to modern enterprises, it’s hard to imagine an executive charting a safe course for any company without a fundamental appreciation for and understanding of technology. While she needn’t be an engineer, she needs to at least know one. 

Or, better yet, be able to write a few lines of Java.

Parachuting In Engineers

Marc Andreessen rightly argues that “we are in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swathes of the economy.” Yet most companies still treat technology as an afterthought.

See also: How The Web Is Reshaping Business In Its Own Image

In today’s world, that seems pretty stupid.

Taxi companies didn’t need to understand technology until Uber came along. Advertisers were safe until Google cropped up. Hotels slept soundly until Airbnb launched. The list goes on.

One obvious example of a failure to appreciate technology is Healthcare.gov. While ultimately rescued by a crack team of Silicon Valley über-geeks, Healthcare.gov points to all that is wrong with how governments—and companies—deal with technology.

Commenting on a Time magazine story on the saving of Healthcare.gov, Tim O’Reilly warns, “Bringing in Silicon Valley’s best and brightest is a powerful part of the solution, but it can blind us to the harder work still to be done.” 

Governments have been getting better at recruiting technical talent to help build systems. But that’s not enough, O’Reilly argues:

[B]ringing more top quality technical people into the Federal government is only part of the solution. It won’t work if those people are just put to work building systems that they have no role in designing. The heart of the problem is the design of government programs that don’t take into account the mechanisms by which they will actually be implemented. The UK’s Tom Steinberg put it perfectly: the elites study politics, philosophy, economics, and law while failing to recognize that you can no longer run a country without a fundamental understanding of technology. 

If true of countries, surely this is also true of companies?

Chief Engineering Officer

Think about it. While I’ve argued that every tech company needs an English major, I’m not confused by what makes the Valley tick: technology. Those who can code, rule. 

Tim O’Reilly continues:

In Silicon Valley, the engineers are on top; if you do something, create something that people actually use, you rule the roost. Everyone else is essentially a paper pusher. In DC, though, if you write code, you’re generally about 30 layers away from the people making important decisions.

Not just in Washington, D.C., unfortunately. While you can generally find a CIO listed on most big companies’ leadership pages, they’re one of many execs, mashed in with CMOs, CFOs and sales heads. For example, Coca-Cola has a CIO, but buries him on its webpage among (literally) over three dozen other leaders, most of which are ranked higher.

Regardless, the CIO is the last to know what’s happening down in the code, as Billy Marshall once quipped. And technology vision isn’t something that can be offloaded to a third party.

The CEO needs to grok technology.

Get That CEO A Command Line

The question is, how deeply? I don’t expect every company to go out and hire a GitHub hero to run their companies. (Given some of the “brogrammer” scandals roiling the Valley these past few months, that might not be such a great idea.) 

Nor should would-be CEOs skip the MBA to study engineering, though in some cases this arguably wouldn’t be such a bad idea. 

But it seems reasonable to expect existing or prospective CEOs to spend time learning about the technology that undergirds their companies. And maybe all CEOs should learn a little programming. This isn’t as hard as it sounds for, as the Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Mims points out, “Computer programming … has become a trade. Like nursing or welding, it’s something in which a person can develop at least a basic proficiency within weeks or months.”

In other words, enterprises need executives that understand technology, and there are quality resources available to help.

So, if you or someone you know is in a CEO role but doesn’t understand technology and needs immediate help, please get them started at Codecademy or otherwise train them to at least a basic level of technical proficiency. They’ll thank you later. So will their shareholders.

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock

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