Should CEOs code?

Key Takeaways

  • Employees in the tech industry, including C-level decision-makers, are increasingly encouraged to acquire computer science skills
  • A personal understanding of the fundamentals of coding helps business leaders to improve their grasp on their products and to manage their technical teams
  • Yet a successful technology company is not just about coding, and technical considerations shouldn’t take away focus from actual leadership

In an increasingly technology-driven world, technical skills such as data analysis and coding are evolving into key business competencies. That’s especially true in the technology industry, where even non-IT, non-technical managers are expected to demonstrate some degree of familiarity with coding languages and techniques. Should CEOs be among them and know how to code?

Knowing how to code certainly increases managers’ and leaders’ ability to drive professional coders and to understand their products. Still, this is raising a number of questions.

Isn’t this clashing with the basic principles of the division of labor? Does every role now require development skills? Would a business solely made up of IT experts make sense?

In particular, can C-level decision-makers like CEOs retain the ability to formulate a high-level vision and make complex business decisions while taking a close interest in lines of code?

Code-Savvy CEOs Are Better Armed to Compete in the Technology Space

One may argue that the rationale behind this new focus on coding skills is clear and compelling and that CxOs in the technology industry stand to benefit from knowing how to code.

We all know about the success stories of these famous tech-savvy leaders who single-handedly gave birth to world-leading companies through brilliant code (hello, Bill Gates). Even without being a coding genius or a computer science major, it’s arguably much easier to lead a tech organization with first-hand experience and knowledge of what’s under the hood.

We’re not talking about becoming a consummate expert of the most advanced machine languages, but at least gaining a basic understanding of the logic behind coding frameworks and activities — if only to be able to get a grasp of the product you’re selling and to figure out what are the actual limits of coding. Having personal experience with development can also be viewed as a strategic asset when it comes to making hiring and management decisions: it’s much easier to handpick and lead top engineers and developers when you know what you’re talking about. Finally, technical business leaders are more likely to ingrain a data-oriented culture into the organization.

However… There’s More to Tech Leadership Than Coding

Coding is indisputably a useful and valuable skill these days, especially when you’re working in tech. But it’s not everything. Without leaders demonstrating a proper understanding of market dynamics, financial acumen, marketing savvy, and what we could call “business instincts”, a company is unlikely to thrive.

It can also be said that you don’t need to know how to code in order to understand technology and software — especially with the advent of low-code and no-code platforms that are empowering anyone in a company to develop apps.

What’s more, obsessing on code might divert leader focus from higher-order considerations. A CEO who is dedicating most of their energy on technical issues might not be making the best use of their time. Any other great developer can track bugs. But who other than the CEO can forge a unique vision and bring it to life? Who else can invent new business models and formulate brilliant strategies? Who else can represent the company, who else can inspire and engage people around a business project?

We mentioned Bill Gates. Now consider Steve Jobs. He was not an engineer. He didn’t write code. Did that lack of programming savvy impair his ability to create a strong technology vision?

Executive tech jobs arguably involve and require much more than coding. Having a deep and true interest in technology, its dynamics, and its applications can be viewed as much more important than mastering Ruby.

Should Everyone Learn to Code?

Let’s now take a step back and embrace the bigger picture. We often hear about the benefits of coding in the classroom. Non-tech companies are actually teaching coding to their workforce. Granted, teaching the fundamentals in public schools worldwide would be a driver of empowerment and a force for equal opportunities. Granted, knowing at least a bit of programming can improve employees’ ability to interact with engineers and drive improved alignment within the business.
But do we really want a world of coders? We increasingly rely on technology. But, for tech to solve real-life problems, it can be argued that we also need people with diverse backgrounds, diverse perspectives, and softer skills that are usually not associated with computer science.

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Valerie Zeller

Valerie is Sciforma Chief Marketing Officer. Main interests: digital transformation, change management, strategy execution. Send your thoughts @valeriezeller