How an Engineer can succeed as a Startup CEO

TOPICS: Start-up , Engineering Services

by Gladys Kong

If you’d ever told me my love for basketball would eventually help guide my path to becoming a CEO, I’d have laughed. My background is in technology, which means I ask questions — a lot of them. But running a company requires not just information gathering but also clearly communicating expectations to the team on how to proceed with what you discover. Healthy alliances feed on open dialogues on the basketball court and in the office: A coach can’t guide a team to winning without first matching each player with the position most suited to their strengths and then ensuring everyone understands their collective and collaborative role in advancing to victory.

Tech startups need a captain, or CEO, and a CTO co-captain. My horizons broadened tremendously when I transitioned to the lead position because I had to expand my scope of expertise to become more outward facing on the business side in order to most effectively interact with customers and partners. The new role served to give me a fresh viewpoint on the business that ultimately influences how I lead my team. In the past I may have assumed our crowning achievements as a group were the successful launch of a product featuring groundbreaking specs. Now, though, I’m most proud when what we produce is not only innovative by our standards but our customers show us they agree by giving us repeat business. Shifting focus from just the product to include what drives the most positive customer experience results in more profound triumphs.

Transitioning from the tech side to the executive suite requires laser focus and no shortage of nuance.

1. Know your stuff

Having a convincing understanding of the technology is not just helpful but essential for a tech company CEO. However, while it’s critical for the person on top of any company to have deep knowledge of the core business, it’s imperative, too, that a tech company CEO constantly pushes innovation, works to stay ahead of the competition and grows the company. The CEO is the company’s primary spokesperson, responsible for advocating for the products and clearly articulating the key ways in which they stand apart from competitors. 

2. Internalize your company’s story

Storytelling is not a skill I was born with; whatever I know about it now was learned on the job and I continually work on honing my delivery. My focus has always been on numbers, but as CEO I need to inspire our clients and investors with my vision and emotional investment in the company or product. Having a CEO fluent in how to impart facts and figures with passion and sincerity can be the difference between success and failure.

3. Build a diverse team

There’s such thing as too many cooks in the kitchen as well as in startups. Finding people whose skills don’t necessarily mirror yours but certainly complement them goes a long way towards building a sturdier team equipped with broader views and a wider range of perspectives. Diversity in backgrounds and strengths leaves you in a better position to ensure your work is more thorough and your execution more precise.

4. Manage the company’s money as if the well has run dry

Market conditions can change on a dime, leaving you with less than that amount in the company’s coffers. It’s critical to know how to manage your business’s cash in order to stretch it out through unpredictable and tough times. Establishing and reaching major financial milestones puts the company on track to becoming profitable or being in a position to raise additional funding.

5. Find your first mate

While it’s not necessary to have a technology background when starting a company, if you don’t then it’s key that a tech partner you trust runs the company alongside you. During the early stages of building the business, the CEO will be out raising funds and assembling a team, which means having a strong tech partner focusing on building the prototype or product with you is essential to moving forward.

6. Remain focused on the big picture

Resource constraints are a given — and a constant — in startup environments. Each completed task is likely to generate five new ones. Yet while the work never ends, sometimes the means can be scarce, which is why knowing how to communicate priorities to your team is an invaluable tool and essential talent.

When transitioning from CTO to CEO, having the technical insight to generate a product or service is a large part of the battle, which you’ve already conquered. Use the confidence in your already honed and specialized skills to help paint the larger picture into a masterpiece.

About the Author

Gladys Kong serves as CEO of UberMedia, Inc. Previously, she served as Vice President of Engineering of Snap Technologies Inc. (Formerly, operated by Perfect Market Technologies, Inc. She co-founded Inc. in 2007. Most recently, She served as vice president of research and development for Idealab, where she oversaw the creation of numerous companies (including Evolution Robotics, Picasa, Insider Pages, Omnilux and X1).  Ms. Kong holds a B.S. degree in Engineering and Applied Science from the California Institute of Technology and an M.S degree in Computer Science from UCLA.