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How to Bridge the Gap Between Your Business and Engineering Teams

Words by 3p Contributor
Leadership & Transparency

Editor's note: This post originally appeared on Unreasonable.is

By Ara Howard

Engineers are always supposed to be right. Historically, that has made sense. When you build a bridge, you get that shit right. When you launch a rocket to the moon, you get that shit right. When you build a house, your job is to make sure it doesn’t fall down. Software is different. It fails. We don’t know all of the infinite possibilities of getting things wrong. However, people still look at it as being a traditional engineering discipline, where failure is unacceptable. This is driving business and tech culture apart.

Think about all of the companies that have been successful with technology. Almost all of them were led by great engineers who later became great businessmen. Think Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. In almost all tech companies today, problems start from an initial separation within the organization. Due to a shortage of tech talent, especially in emerging markets, most companies don’t have the luxury of having someone who speaks both languages. Each group operates differently, which creates a situation of fundamental misunderstanding.

Here at DOJO4 in Boulder, Colorado, our mission is to build software to amplify the work of the world’s most impactful organizations through technology and design. We also embrace failure and treat engineers like humans. Below I share with you three realizations that might help an entrepreneur bridge the gap.

1. Tech and business teams have very different cultures

Programming languages are as different from each other as Nigerian culture and Alaskan culture. They have completely different fundamental concepts. Is it ok to fail? Should you fail fast or be security conscious? Do you value doing things transparently and failing publicly? Or would rather put something out there only if it’s perfect? A lot of entrepreneurs pick a tech team that is highly capable, but not necessarily a cultural fit.

Consequently, this translates into misaligned communication—the root of all problems. This seems obvious, but a lot of entrepreneurs don’t actually realize that by definition, engineers are often introverts. While the CEO might play golf, they go rock climbing. While the CEO networks at a conference, they use the time alone on their laptops to finish “that idea” they had last night. They often work, go home, eat, and work again with less face time than other people in their company.

They speak languages that are fundamentally different than English—turning ambiguous, contextual ideas into software that is completely unambiguous and non-contextual. It’s really important to have people on both sides to bridge this gap in thought process—you need business people that understand the pressure of technical execution, a tech founder that loves karaoke, and engineers who speak human.

2. It’s important to align tech and business cultures

The process of software development is still very siloed and top-down. For years, engineers have built things they have been handed, and have not been required to speak human because they have been excluded from the most important part of designing solutions: understanding people. Now more than ever, this is a crisis because software is really powerful. The world doesn’t function without software anymore. Developers have forgotten this. Because programming is so powerful, developers have the responsibility to do it right—especially in the impact space.

In order to better engage developers, a more holistic approach is needed on the business side. CEOs don’t like to think about failure, but the reality is that software fails. Every piece of software has millions of features that require decisions. As an entrepreneur, you can’t manage all of those decisions. Not only will your tech team make decisions on your behalf, they will link directly to the happiness of your end users. This is a big deal, and it becomes a problem if engineers obsess over something the end user doesn’t care about, if they are afraid of failing early and often, or if they are solving the wrong problems. Then, there’s no room for iteration.

3. It’s the role of the executive team to align those cultures

Many entrepreneurs don’t realize that one of their big jobs is creating culture. Take Twitter execs in Boulder. They talk a lot about sharing code in front of everybody. Sounds simple, except that engineers are typically very closed, afraid of criticism, and concerned with getting things right. After all, they distill human things into robots and make them perfect. It’s risky to reveal mistakes, let alone solicit feedback. Engineers at Twitter explicitly talk about code presentations using the language ‘being vulnerable’. To tell an engineer that it’s ok to be wrong is something that does not happen. It’s a much-needed new school way of thinking.

Then, there’s the approach of Thor Muller, serial entrepreneur and CIO of Off Grid Electric. In February, he posted a job on Medium for a Director of Software Engineering. This wasn’t a normal job posting for any coder. Instead, it was a story of adventure in Africa and changing the world. He traversed the organizational silos, and outlined his company culture in order to allure someone right for the job. Someone who speaks human and gives a shit about what they build.

A tech business hinges on the fact that the tech team has to translate a bunch of crazy ideas into hard reality. It costs a lot of money, and people are going to screw up. It’s an iterative process of co-creation and co-failure, and that’s fine. We have to tear down silos within our organizations, or we all sink.

Image credit: Unsplash

Ara Howard is Chief Technology Officer and Founding Partner of DOJO4, a creative software design, development and media house. His background includes designing large-scale 24x7 satellite processing systems, studying greenhouse gas emissions, analyzing poverty and population growth from space, building lean technology stressing startups, and contributing countless solutions to budding developers.

3p Contributor

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