Developer Turned CEO — How to Become a Great Leader that People Want to Work With
CEOs are not born; they are created. However, when you look at the CEO for an ordinary company (like a non-software developer company), especially with a large organization and decades of history on the market, the CEO is the one that takes the initiative and has the ambition to be the leader, wants to be the leader.
In my experience, software development companies have a different type of CEO — the CEO who either stood up for the challenge that no one from the founder team wanted. Or the one that just decided to take the worst part of the company to support the founding team.
This post is to praise such CEOs and help them understand that as much as they dislike being one, it can be learned, and you can become the exact business CEO your company needs.
It is no exaggeration that every software development company starts almost the same way. A few developer friends get together and, after doing some successful work, form a company.
They start doing either custom software development or outsourced development. Either as an augmented team or as a project with a definite beginning and an end.
That’s the most risk-averse start and probably the most reasonable. Some deny it, some embrace it. If you don’t feel you belong to any of these groups, keep reading, you might still find it helpful.
As a company keeps growing, the mundane daily tasks of salary, taxes, hiring, firing, contracts, project management, customer conflict resolution become a big part of someone’s job.
Usually, this “someone” ends up becoming the CEO. Not because they wanted it, or fought for it. Simply no one else really wanted to do it.
They willingly gave up their personal development careers to help keep the group together as a company. If you still do not believe me, I know of plenty of companies where the people running the business try to NOT HAVE the title of the CEO. I have seen companies that have no CEO on the webpage or in the introductions. Co-founder, yes, CEO, no.
The crucial point is to acknowledge this situation and realize when you reach the pivot point and turn your ship to new and unknown waters. As the CEO, you are the top manager and the leader. At times, an impostor you might feel, distanced from all you loved passionately, which is the coding, the building, the doing. The gratification of finding a bug, finishing a project.
All of a sudden, you realize that different priorities need your attention, and the gratification vanishes. You finish off your day without the true accomplishment that you were used to.
The good news is that software developer CEOs are a bit of an extreme, but you are not alone. Many CEOs didn’t want this job but have learned to do it right. This post is about how you can tackle this and how you can enjoy the journey.
Let’s start with the most painful transition of your life. I am not making this up to impress you; most of our friends described this exactly as an essential sacrifice in their careers. Something necessary, but not really something that made them happy (at first).
Manager vs. Developer
Eventually, someone from the founding team will take over the managerial responsibilities, whether they like it or not. Anyone who is used to creating more tangible value each and every day will find that role less exciting.
A fundamental problem with managerial roles is that you don’t have any distinct point where you can celebrate success. Operational issues just keep piling up. There is always another problem requiring a solution. And as no one raises their hand voluntarily, they just tend to land on your table. Adding to your list of endless shit shoveling.
As a developer, you mostly know when you finished a task. You know if the solution works or not. There is always a reason to celebrate, even if your to-do list is as long as my arm. There is always a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day.
Either you figured out a new approach to a lingering bug, or you just finished and closed an issue. But you will accomplish something each day. You see the lines of codes slowly turning into something useful. You also receive customer feedback on how much they like your solution or how useful it is for their everyday work. And that brings a smile to your face.
Not so much the duties of a manager. There is no such hard sense of success, and often no regular external validation of your work is available. There is no objective measure to trigger a feeling of content.
One of the first steps in the transition is to define and live success differently. The early-stage metrics in your transition period from developer to manager should be set up by yourself individually, but some typical excuses for validating celebration:
- Getting a referral from a client
- Doing the taxes on time
- Your coworkers consider your company a great place to be and bring in new developers, become hiring advocates.
- One of your developers becomes a superstar engineer at a massive company like Amazon or Google.
Working in the company or on the company?
The pivot point is when you realize that growth comes by changing the vantage point. Your vantage point. If you keep working in the company, like solving daily problems and trying to be part of the instant happiness job of a developer, you will eventually burn out or get stuck at a certain point. That is around 20–30 developers. Which is great, sustainable, and might give you the right balance of being a developer and doing the necessary evil of being a part-time manager. When we discuss this with our clients and prospective clients, the honest answer is that they stopped being real developers when they reached the “12 person threshold”.
To grow further, you have to be ready for two things
- Consciously develop reflection points for your duties as a leader and manager.
- Change from working IN the company (as a developer and as a manager) and start working ON the company.
Most leadership blog posts only talk about the second AND in the aspect of personal growth. I believe these two are equally important and not only from the growth mantra, which probably not even everyone is interested in. It’s important to save your sanity, to keep your fire burning, and not to get to the phase of burn-out and total negligence.
Let’s group the two together and see what would change in your life by adopting these.
When you start working ON the company, you gradually shift your focus from the now to the future.
How can we become ____ (fill in the blank)? How can we become a better group of developers? How can we become a desired workplace? How can we become the best software development partner? How can we keep our best developers? The questions can be endless, but picking a few for your next, let’s say six-month period, will help you fill your future with substance — something to be worth waking up for as a manager and leader.
The goal of these is to help you give a sense of fulfillment, a sense of “having a worthy life”. And to change your perspective as a leader, you can have a more significant role and a bigger impact on everyone’s life. On the culture and values of the company and therefore even on the personal lives of your colleagues. By providing a safe space, a special place to be.
By showing that it is possible (whatever you set as a goal).
The next thing is to have some KPIs, maybe even just for yourself. Leadership is a tricky bag of tricks. It is tough to see the progress, as in most cases, it happens every day in tiny increments, like the anecdotal 0.1% each day. If you keep pounding, it will eventually add up to a substantial change. If you look at it after a week, it’s still invisible. For a year with 200 working days, that will be 22% better performance. So imagine how minuscule the daily or weekly change is. That’s why you need to set quarterly KPIs, yearly KPIs, and celebrations. Celebrate when you see something done differently.
Celebrate when your colleagues do something differently, be aware of the change.
Imagine pouring water into a large bucket every day, just a little bit. Eventually, the bucket will be filled to the brim, and the water will start flowing everywhere, and others will realize it as well. Think of the monumental buildings in any culture. They took 10–20–200 years, but eventually, they were finished.
Working on the company helps to grow it into a more sustainable, more resilient company; a company that can endure any backlash like Covid, the departure of key personnel, key developers. Because working on the company will eventually result in the company being bigger than the summary of the building blocks. It will become an entity of its own, maybe even independent of the founders. Even if you don’t realize it, your clients will. They will work with your company and not with individual developers. They will trust the company first and not the people (as individuals) first.
That’s when you have a company. That’s where another story begins. The growth story, the global story.
This requires that you work on yourself as well. You don’t get to this point by just making a decision. Just like how you learned to code in years, this development requires the same commitment to learning and honing your skills. It can be done, others have done it before you and there will be others walking the same path after you finish your career.
How to grow your skills as a leader and manager?
Most trainings either look too far ahead or they are too practical. They fail to give the right mix of the two. With practice-focused training, your foundations are assumed to be solid, which is usually not the case. And most of these trainings fail to address this lack of knowledge. They either tell you what to read in advance or share knowledge as a part of the training itself.
The too theoretical trainings get to dimensions that most of us managers do not need and miss out on the practical insights. What will I do precisely if I get back to my team?
My experience is that these “canned” trainings fail to address how you got here and do not help with the gradual implementation of the new set of skills.
How do you grow as a manager and leader?
Here are my top recommendations on how you should start. These are the same set of books and training that we internally share with anyone wanting to grow as a manager.
- The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You
Practical advice, effective teamwork, timetables. Situations every manager has to face, or will. Top 10 Lessons from Julie Zhuo’s The Making of a Manager
- Leadership Is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say and What You Don’t
To me, it is the ultimate playbook on how to apply the essential books and insights of the last decade: candor communication, growth mindset, lean startup, and even more. It’s extremely practical. Conversations, questions, techniques, words to use, and to avoid, why to avoid specific phrases. (LinkedIn)
- The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable
The author basically made a Maslow pyramid five-step model, highlighting the critical problem sources in a team. It offers a nice handle to show whether or not a team is functioning correctly. A must-read for agile teams. Review: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
Our genes influence our intelligence and talents, but these qualities are not fixed at birth. People with a fixed mindset think intelligence is static. You’re smart, or you aren’t. People with a growth mindset believe intelligence can be developed. This book helps you understand the two perspectives, why you want to have a growth mindset, and gives you tools to avoid the fixed mindset. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
- Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity
Innovation requires being open to feedback — fast, direct feedback, even in the most stressful situations. Radical candor demonstrates how to do that and how it can help with creating the right feedback culture. Books for Innovators
Let’s start your journey to becoming the CEO you can be! And contact us if we can be part of your journey!