Does every co-founder need to know how to code?

November 2011

A friend, business partner and mentor asked me about my view on the current trend of encouraging every co-founder to learn how to code. One might think that because I'm a coder, I would be all for it. However, I look at this in a slightly different way. It's not about whether you - as a co-founder - are able to code and thus craft the app directly. It's about what personal skills and experiences you can put to good use to make everyone's life easier in the project that you're working on.

So instead of figuring out what programming language you need to learn, how to apply what you've learned to the system that's being built, consulting with the already established technical co-founder(s) and spending time tinkering and bug-fixing (trust me, it's tedious), why not figure out what else you can bring to the table. To paraphrase my friend's personal slogan: "how can you help?"

Obviously, if there's no techie on the team you're probably going to have a hard time - no way around that. What I'm talking about are situations where a team gets together and there is at least one technical co-founder. The question there is: should the rest of the team also acquire a degree of technical knowledge? Short answer: no. Don't undervalue skills like quickly finding links and resources online, getting in touch and following up on conversations, putting together a presentation, testing and giving constructive feedback. Given the right context, these are just as important as the ability to code.

It's about the synergy. If two of us get together to start a new project and only one of us is technically-minded, that's not a bad thing. Quite the opposite: I think that's an advantage. There's a lot to be said about the benefits of having multiple points of view. The differences in expertise, background and skills means that not only can each person offer something unique, but they can look at each other's work with unbiased (or at least less biased) eyes. The synergy coming out of such a mix has an emergent quality to it. This is the perspective that doesn't seem to be evangelised.

Now... The short answer is no. The long answer is it depends, because...

There are of course situations where a lack of additional technical knowledge becomes a disadvantage. For example, I spent most of last year working on a project that was roughly 85% built on my effort alone, even though I was working on it with an equal-share co-founder (who is a very good friend of mine). I programmed, he designed. I also brainstormed a lot, did more research and handled most of the legal and financial aspects related to the project (and the company built around it). It's of course down to experience, but we agreed toward the end of the year that we won't carry on this way. Effort and skills need to be distributed a lot more evenly among the co-founders, not only for more efficiency in the overall process but also for mutual satisfaction and respect.

Similarly, a level of understanding regarding a co-founder's job and what his tasks actually involve is a huge bonus. This applies just as much to technical co-founders as non-techies. What I mean by this is that even though you might not know how to create a login script in PHP and hook it up to the database, you know roughly what's involved: the server, the php script which gets data from a form, an html/css page, possibly some javascript and a database which may or may not be MySQL. It is such a plus when this sort of understanding - or even a smaller subset of it - is present among the team members with respect to each other's work. Fewer stupid questions are asked, fewer dangerous assumptions are made and more courtesy is shown.

So, although there's no clear-cut answer, my advice is: discuss and figure out how your co-founders can make life easier for each other. If it involves someone learning some HTML, CSS and maybe Javascript and that is clearly a valuable use of your time - so be it. If not, just make sure the effort from each member is more or less equal and keep asking: "how can I help?"