Building Great Tech Companies

Posted June 11, 2018 by  ‐ 5 min read

Companies where developers earn a living with purpose.

Our company is currently in search of a new CTO. In Lieu of this process, it has made me think about what is means to build a great tech company. In this article you’ll find my beliefs for doing just that and you won’t be surprised that they apply broadly. It’s the first thing to realize: building a great tech company is about building a great company overall by understanding the relationship you have with your workers.

It all starts with the lowest level, least paid person. It’s these people that are the building blocks of any company. You’re greatness is found in your least greatest person. For whatever short-comings you have at the leadership level will show up in big ways at bottom of your organization. It’s common sense, sure, but how many stop and think about that. This has nothing to do with playing to your strengths. That’s a different topic altogether. For now, let’s talk about the Jane the worker and what she means to you.

Jane the worker

At some point, in walks Jane. Jane is skilled, hardworking, and friendly. So you bring her onboard. Congrats, you’ve made a great new hire. Jane has a voice. She is ready to learn. After a few months you start to see signs that something is amiss. Jame isn’t smiling, she seems distracted, and you wonder why she isn’t quite happy with her work. What’s wrong? How did this great hire turn into a discouraging situation? To answer that question, let’s now zoom out and come to the heart of the matter by asking what makes a person happy, motivated, and skilled at their jobs.

What makes for a great tech company? I’m going to argue that the relationship between tech and business is the heart of the matter. To do that let’s look at the ingredients of that relationship. Jane has agreed to give you some things in exchange for the things you should give her.

What makes for a great job? — Dan Pink

Dan Pink suggests that we need three things to be happy in our jobs:

  1. Autonomy — the ability to be self-directed
  2. Mastery — the ability to be very good at your skill-craft
  3. Purpose — a reason to get up and fight the cares of your life and to bring something into existence

In Technical Terms

Let’s take these concepts and apply them to tech companies. Jane can give you at least three things:

  1. Skill — it’s the job she does. It’s the skill she is bringing to bear in your company. It’s her willingness to learn a new thing. To keep herself sharp. To take pride in her work. To know that she is a master craftsman.
  2. Teamwork — it’s the lubricant of all human endeavors: willingness to be wrong, taking suggestions from coworkers, willingness to speak up to make things better, ability to align with business values as a compass for the day-to-day.
  3. Delivery — this is the hours spent, the labor, the energy that could go elsewhere but is going to your company.

What does she ask for in return?

  1. Purpose — for Jane’s skill you’ll give her a reason to wield it. Why in the hell should she care about what you care about? I hope you have a good reason, a great, “why” we do what we do. Do not kid yourself by believing that the money you give even comes close to touching purpose. Your company must have a reason to exist. It’s the core identity of your company. Can you name it?
  2. Latitude — Jane needs your trust. She needs to be able to make mistakes and learn from them. She doesn’t need your micromanagement. What she does need is your belief that her skill-craft matters. When was the last time you activity got out of the way?
  3. Compensation — this is the amount you pay her, the time you give her to improve her skills and her life, it’s the overall support and gratitude you provide each day. Because make no mistake you are taking a portion of her energy and therefore her life. What could you be doing to share your appreciation knowing that each person will respond differently? Do you know your people?

The Culture Cure — Let me hear that sweet drum beat

This is your job. Your people are your job. When you look at your company you want to be able to say the following: my team is hell-a skilled, loves working together, is passionate, and is making shit happen! And for that, I work hard to give them a reason to get up in the morning, I give them the keys to the car knowing they will get in fender benders (and crashes occasionally.) I make sure they feel that they matter and what they do matters.

If you hear nothing else, hear this… you’ve got to be the cultural drum beat. You’ve got to wake up everyday singing that beautiful song: skill, teamwork, delivery, purpose, latitude, and compensation. This alignment of desires. This melody of purpose and reward.

Every. Single. Day. — Purpose. Purpose. Why. We. Do. This. Purpose. Gratitude. Teamwork. Mastery. Skill. Boss mode.

That sweet, sweet drum beat. Be the champion of culture. Talk about it all the damn time. You cannot say it enough. Write it down. Rehearse it. Sing it. Write your own song about it. Tell your friends about it. If you’re going to be annoying — be annoying with a damn purpose!

Conclusion — Details and Values

It’s easy to get lost in the details of the day-to-day. And guess what, you will. You will get lost. It’s okay. You’re only human. But let these values sink in until they are in your blood. Until they are as much a part of you and your breath. Then you will have a great tech company or at least the potential to make one.

You cannot build greatness without touching the heart and drive of people. The people at the bottom. Jane the worker needs you to be great. So be the drum beat for Jane. Go now, beat that drum you wild and inspiring person!