Startup Growth Mode: The Importance of Turning Young Developers Into Managers

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

I’ve worked in four rapid growth startups. If you don’t start developing managers, you won’t make it.

We all know how fierce the competition is for software engineering talent. It’s cutthroat with large tech companies recruiting CS students very early in their educational experience. We have a major computer science and game development program in an area university (Rochester Institute of Technology, RIT) that routinely hosts people from the big companies: Apple, Facebook, Google, etc. It is dazzling for a young techie to be wooed by these legendary tech leaders. And it is very challenging for the local tech growth companies I’ve worked with to compete with this brain-drain. I’ve observed a trend that I think can help with this while making rapid growth possible.

Growth will break you if you aren’t ready for it

Startups go through multiple stages. The idea stage (no product, no revenue), the first customers stage (semi-broken product, early adopter customers), and growth stage (stable product, emerging product/market fit). Once you’ve survived the initial growth stage you are no longer a startup, you’re an established business. Given the importance of getting a product into marketable shape, hiring developers and engineers is an understandable priority early on. But, as you gain traction, simply adding developer talent is not enough. You need people who can become managers.

The nerd concept of a developer with no social skills is behind us

For some of us, who have been around this world for a while, the cliche about developers as anti-social creatures who just want to code is not dying, it’s dead. Yet, I’ve seen young, brilliant founders hire highly educated talent and then relegate them to iolated coding and testing tasks. After all, they’re beginners, right? Of course but you’re doing no favors in relegating them to tasks that don’t give them a larger context. I’d argue that the principal tasks founders should to do manage and create growth mindsets is to groom coders for manager roles, roles in which they have to understand their work in a greater strategic context. Let’s look at a famous, wildly successful example with a horrible outcome.

How the Germans in the 1930s built a massive army with severely constricted resources

In his groundbreaking history of the Nazi movement in Germany between the two world wars, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer tells how Hitler and the Prussian generals in Germany worked around severe restrictions placed on them after the disastrous First World War. The allies were shocked and shaken by a war that had destroyed a generation and shown the world the terrible potential of modern warfare. Their reaction was to punish Germany to the extent that they could never build and deploy a massive war machine. Factories were destroyed, the economy ravaged by inflation, the military was reduced to handful of soldiers; just a few thousand needed for security.

This policy backfired spectacularly and allowed Hitler to rise to power on the anger and frustration of a hobbled German people. It is a fascinating cautionary tale and I highly recommend the book. But it is the story of how the German army rebuilt itself that applies to my story of navigating rapid growth.

If you can only have a few thousand soldiers, train them all to be officers

The Prussian Military establishment left in Germany after defeat was incensed at the ally’s insulting restrictions. This cadre of career Generals and Field Marshalls saw themselves as the elite of German society and the premier military minds on the planet, despite defeat. And they were determined to rise again. Their solution was brilliant and terrifyingly effective.

To sum up, they rebuilt their tiny army as the senior officer corps of a much larger war machine. They recruited officer-grade people and their training consisted of exercises where they played war games with massive non-existent armies. They oversaw the rebuilding of factories as modern facilities for building peacetime products, however those factories were specifically designed to quickly convert to wartime weapons manufacture. And they were completely modernized. Everything was in place for the rise of a political leader who would leverage this strategy and help them build it out.

If you have ten people, and eight are principally technical contributors, you won’t be able to handle explosive growth

Growth happens like Hemingway’s character responds when asked how he went bankrupt:

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”

From The Sun Also Rises

You get that first reference customer, a business whose endorsement of your product tells other similar prospective customers that due diligence has been done and your product is worth considering. Finding that reference customer can be serendipitous and often mysterious in how you get there. But when you do it can lead to that ‘suddenly’ moment. If you haven’t trained your officers you may miss your moment.

Start bringing younger talent into business decisions that aren’t in their sphere

It is unfortunately the case that many technical and engineering schools do not provide business training or offer basic courses that are either not required or too simplistic. When you’re creating job descriptions for new technical hires set aside time for them to be exposed to business aspects, even if they can’t contribute immediately. Work on basics like managing people, understanding P&L, and learning to communicate. Have them lurk on customer calls and meetings. Give them continuing education opportunities, even if they are at community colleges, which excell at these business basics courses.

Let them make mistakes, then help them analyze them

Give them experiential training by assigned tasks they are not used to. Make sure they know that failure is an option, as long as they understand what happened and can learn from it. The goal is to instill a culture of responsiveness and to build multi-disciplinary teams. If you get lucky and hit that ‘suddenly’ moment, you’ll have your leadership team ready to hire some soldiers.

Former software marketer. Former musician. Writer, nine non-fiction books, two novels, Buddhist, train lover. Amateur cook, lover of life most of the time!

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