The Technical Executive Gap

by | Enterprise

Maybe it’s self evident to most of us, but there’s a reason why top level Generals and Admirals in our various branches of the military, don’t get promoted from anywhere except within their own specific military branch.

They start out either as the lowest ranking officer of their respective branch, or in many cases, even from the enlisted ranks.

You won’t even find top brass level officers get promoted from any other branch of the military except the one they started with. For example, a Navy admiral would never have gotten plucked out of the ranks of the Marine Corps or the Air Force.

But why? They’re all part of our overall military force, so what’s the difference? A soldier is a soldier, right?

I’m sure every member of every separate branch of our military would beg to differ. The requirements for being a successful soldier in the Army can be very different from the requirements to be a successful sailor in the Navy versus a successful airman in the Air Force.

Yes, they are all soldiers in the general sense of the world, but each branch of our military serves and protects our nation in very different ways. Our land is protected by the Army, our oceans and rivers protected by the Navy and the skies above us, the Air Force.

Each unique branch of our military is completely aware of their own unique requirements to succeed in their specific branch.

Furthermore, you would never, EVER see a general or admiral get promoted by someone completely outside of the military, say a civilian.

But you might argue that the civilian might have valuable leadership skills acquired through previous employers. And isn’t leadership one of the core requirements for a top level officer?


But it’s not the ONLY skill. Obviously, leadership is important, but it’s only one half of the equation.

An officer must also know how to be a SOLDIER. To know combat skills, strategy, and everything else that goes along with being a successful soldier. Any person aspiring to be a top-level officer in the military but doesn’t possess both required leadership AND military skills is living a delusion if they think possessing both attributes doesn’t matter.

Yet strangely enough, in many high tech private sector companies and organizations, the technical executive gap is real and seems to be getting worse.

What exactly is the technical executive gap?

Let’s suppose you have a company which has developed an in-house, custom core software application that, when sold to customers, earns the company their primary revenue as a business.

The custom, in-house software application is not some simple, quick and dirty application. It’s grown very large and complex over time, due to the natural progression of how software evolves. It has continued to grow in scope, size and complexity due to changing and new business requirements, as does all other professional software.

Significant money and manpower has been poured into its creation and to its maintenance, to keep it smoothly running and up to date with the latest and greatest features and enhancements that customers continually demand from it.

Now imagine you were a member of the board of directors of this publicly traded company and you were part of the voting process to decide what kind of Chief Executive Officer or Chief Technology Officer should run the company.

What kind of person would you want in power, running a technology company?

You certainly want someone who knows the BUSINESS aspect of that company, inside and out. How the product or service gets sold and marketed. Who the business competition is and how they differentiate their product/service with yours. The latest sales and marketing trends. And someone who knows how to cultivate existing and new business relationships … it might be a cliche, but many new business deals and opportunities truly do happen on the golf course between golfing buddies. The person you want in charge is someone who knows how to FIND new business opportunities.

Business skills are absolutely crucial to a company’s success. The more business a company can attract, the more revenue it builds.

But in many cases, you see CEOs and top executives possess only one half of the equation of skills you need to successfully run a high technology company.

They don’t have a technical bone in their body. They have no idea how their core technical product or service works. The underlying architecture and technical stack that it was built with. Or the database architecture. Or how all the underlying, interdependent microservices or web services interact with each other. Or how the presentation layer (if one exists in the product) was built … does it use HTML? AngularJS? ReactJS? Or some mobile UI like Android or iOS?

Or what about how the core product is hosted? Is it internally hosted or does the company use hosted solutions like Amazon’s AWS storage or Microsoft’s Azure services? What about the networking architecture? How much latency and throughput exists between the major back-end networked nodes of the entire system?

Speaking of the technical stack, is it a centralized stack? Is it all Java-based? Or .NET? Or some open source stack like MEAN? Or a combination of all three? Where does all the enterprise data live? In a relational database system like Microsoft’s SQL Server or Oracle’s enterprise database? Or some document based, NoSQL system like Couch or Mongo?

If the product is a software as a service or platform as a service, how does the company expose their services to the open internet? Does it use REST-based services? SOAP/XML? What kind of security framework does it use? OAuth? Javascript based tokens? Federated security?

Enterprise systems and applications are incredibly complex. Especially if they have existed and grown over time.

I can personally attest to the fact that every enterprise system on the planet suffers from some degree of technical debt and legacy code and systems.

The longer an enterprise has been around, the more technical debt and cruft has accumulated over the years. And much like the barnacles that get stuck on the bottom of every ship, unless you expend effort getting rid of technical debt, the more unwieldy and difficult it is to work within the system and find and access the data and systems you’re looking for.

I find it amazing that there are many top C-level executives at many companies who don’t have a CLUE about any of these technical details of their enterprise systems and applications.

So how are they able to do their jobs, lacking the technical knowledge necessary to make informed business decisions about their technology?

As common with many C-Level executives, they rely on the advice and knowledge of their technical staff.

If the CEO of a technical company lacks the knowledge necessary to understand how their core product or service works, they will rely heavily on the Chief Information Officer (CIO) or Chief Technical Officer (CTO) to give them the technical advice and answers they need.

Amazingly enough, there are CIOs and CTOs, who also lack the deep and intrinsic knowledge about their products as well!

So they rely on the advice and recommendations of their senior technical architects and engineers to help them answer the technical questions they need.

As hard as it may be to believe, there are many companies out there with technical leadership who don’t have the technical “chops” to understand how their products and services really work.

Some of you may balk that it may not matter…after all, if you’re a top-level executive of a technical company, and you have plenty of senior technical staff to give you advice and recommendations, why does it matter if you possess that same technical knowledge yourself?

Well, if you’re relying on the blind faith and trust of the technical staff reporting under you, they may be giving you advice and recommendations that may or may not be flawed, biased or just plain wrong. But you, the non-technical executive, will have no way of assessing the validity of their recommendations if you don’t have a firm grounding and technical knowledge of your core product or service, will you?

This is especially dangerous when the sales and marketing staff of the company have more influence and say over the company’s product strategy than the engineering staff. They can often “promise the moon” in terms of new features and functionality, without any regard to the realistic time and effort requirements required to implement those new features.

Non-technical executives will often favor the advice and recommendations of the sales and marketing people over the engineering staff, which can lead to disastrous results for the company. Features and functionality that are promised to new clients, can end up being unfulfilled or delayed, and cause the company to lose face and the perception they can be relied on in the future.

Of course, not all CEOs are non-technical. There are examples of CEOs with solid engineering and technical backgrounds. Take Bill Gates, co-founder and CEO of Microsoft and Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook.

Bill Gates had a direct hand in the earliest software and operating systems they developed in the early history of Microsoft. He was actively programming software. He clearly possessed a firm technical background needed to create a successful and thriving technology company whose primary mission statement was to build commercial software for the masses.

Mark Zuckerberg wrote the original version of Facebook. He designed the original technical architecture of the product and proceeded to write the software behind the version 1.0 of Facebook.

It might not have been the prettiest or most elegant code in the world. Heck, it might have looked downright cringeworthy … I don’t know what the original Facebook source code looked like. But you can’t deny the fact that Zuckerberg WROTE IT.

So any CIO/CTO or engineering staff who tries to “flimflam” Zuckerberg into moving into a new technical direction for the company, is going to be in for a rude awakening if they think they can pull the wool over Zuckerberg’s eyes, for lack of technical knowledge about the core technology behind Facebook.

Make no mistake, top-level executives need expert level business and salesmanship skills to drive new revenue and business for their company. But technical companies also require technical leadership as well. Board of directors would be wise to begin evaluating top-level executives based on BOTH business and technical knowledge acumen.

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