woman holding a 'like a boss' mug
What qualities does it take to be an effective and successful leader in the tech industry? PHOTO: Brooke Lark

Recent research from Hired identified what were generally believed to be the best places to work in 2017.

Based on a survey of 2,349 tech workers, Hired's 2017 Global Brand Health Report found that the best companies knock down walls (literally) and remove office doors in favor of open floor plans that encourage collaboration and transparency.

The findings, of course, are subjective and depend on what users felt were the most important elements of the “best” workplaces. The top motivators were, in this order: compensation, opportunities to learn new skills, company culture, location and commute, and team.

What is equally interesting is the list of undesirable factors that lead people to give companies low ratings. The top five are not interested in product or industry, poor reputation, not interested in mission, don’t know enough about the company and not enough career growth potential.

What it Takes to Lead a Successful Tech Company

Tech companies that are seen as great places to work are driven by well-thought-out strategies put in place by C-suite executives led by CEOs. But what is it that drives the CEOs of successful tech companies? And what do they see as the most important challenges?

To find out, we asked a number of excutives what the role of tech leaders is and, specifically, what skills leaders need to navigate a continuously shifting tech landscape. In this first part of a two-part piece, we look at the strategic role of the tech leader.

Continuous Innovation

Steve Smith is CEO of Finicity, a Murray, Utah-based company that offers a suite of APIs for financial management, payment and credit decision solutions and works with companies like Experian, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase to digitize financial processes.

He said that the biggest challenge of running a tech company is finding ways to continually innovate.

“Disruption is constant, and it’s easy to fall behind,” Smith said. “Worrying about keeping up with the pack used to keep me up at night, but I realized that this was unproductive. While it is important to learn from competitors, execs will do better by focusing on developing their own products and partnerships.”

Smith acknowledged that it took him a while to realize that. But now, he said, “I don’t lose sleep about what others are doing, and I focus on my own products.”

To enable workers, he said, Finicity spends a lot of time looking for ways to give people more access to and control over their data, whether it’s through relationships with more financial institutions or by expanding the functionalities of its API/aggregation tools.

Long-term View

At Seattle-based storage company Qumulo, CEO Bill Richter has perspectives from both the financial and product-building sides of the enterprise.

Prior to joining Qumulo in November 2016, he was a venture partner at Madrona Venture Group (a Qumulo investor) and now, even as CEO, he holds a limited role as a venture partner at Madrona.

“I’ve learned that it’s most important to build a business for the long term,” he said. “Key to this is developing a product that fixes an important problem in a very large market. And building for the long term means you’re going to do dozens of quarters over the years or maybe even decades.”

He added that it’s important for leaders of tech companies to understand that “you’ll have good quarters, but also bad quarters, but regardless of what happens you have to stick to your plan.”

'Soft' Skills

It is probably not surprising that for many tech companies, “soft” skills are just as important as technology skills. This is especially true as companies become increasingly more global and teams may be working with people who are thousands of miles away. This heightens the need for team members to be exceptionally flexible and adept at resolving conflicts.

Jeff Weber, senior vice president of people and places at Instructure, a tech learning company in Salt Lake City, said he sees communication as a key skill.

“Tech companies need leaders who can set expectations with teams and communicate well with others,” he said. “Potential leaders should develop soft skills alongside technical expertise.”

“At Instructure, when an employee shows leadership promise, we give them opportunities to mentor others or become a team lead, expanding their leadership responsibilities from there,” he added.

Ajay Kaul is managing partner at Folsom, Calif.-based AgreeYa Solutions, a provider of technology-enabled systems and services for clients around the world. In that role, he is responsible for expanding AgreeYa’s global footprint.

He points out that technology without communication, or technology for its own sake, is not enough.

“With instant communication and easier collaboration among colleagues — across different teams and from different regions of the world — employees can find more importance and value in their work,” he said. “This type of communication also breaks down silos and encourages information-sharing and innovation.”

As Kaul sees it, “unintuitive technology and disorganized virtual workspaces can cause employees to become stressed, thereby triggering disengagement.” That kind of situation “is a powerful distraction with enormous workplace costs,” he said, adding that intelligent virtual workspaces, enable employees to “easily see the tasks that need their attention and take the necessary actions when applicable.”

Driving Vision

David Friend is a serial tech entrepreneur who may be best known as the co-founder and CEO of Carbonite, one of the largest Nasdaq-listed cloud backup companies. He is currently CEO and co-founder of Boston-based Wasabi, a storage company that is looking to take on Amazon S3.

While acknowledging the importance of innovation, communication and the wise use of technology, Friend said having a vision for his or her product or company is what makes an entrepreneur a leader. 

A tech leader, he said, must have a clear vision of the future, how the product or service fits into the world, and how it will change the way things are done. He points out that just because other people don’t share that vision doesn’t mean you’re wrong.

“In fact, if everybody said, 'Wow that’s obvious right!’ somebody else will probably already be doing it,” he said. “So you have to expect to struggle. If you’re raising money, VCs will tell you you’re wrong. If you’re recruiting a management team, candidates will tell you you’re wrong.”

Sometimes, he said, it will feel like you’re the only one who believes, but even then, “the only person that counts is the customer.” At those times, he said, “what keeps you going is that conviction that your vision will come to pass, and it’s just going to take time to see it through. You just have to knock down the obstacles one at a time.”

An Outside Perspective: Empathy Trumps All

For an outside perspective, we turned to Rebecca Oatley, managing director of London-based Cherish PR, an agency that has worked with tech brands like Wix.com, Indiegogo and Kobo.

Asked what skills tech leaders should display, Oatley said, “They may have the responsibility of a global corporation on their shoulders, but listening and valuing the intelligence and expertise of those around them separates the great from the short-lived. Being able to decipher the counsel of others and apply the best insight to their business is a true skill.”

She added that the most important skill “has to be empathy. It underpins everything, she noted, adding that empathy is essential to understanding your customers, listening to and respecting the opinions of others and “having the confidence to go out and gather employees and publics to your goal.”

“The best CEOs have this in spades,” she said.

Like others, Oatley emphasized the importance of communication and vision: “As a tech leader, you need to work to make your strategy and vision as transparent as possible. Communication is key. Every employee needs to understand what is expected of them today and moving forward. Followup is also essential to make sure operations are running smoothly and everyone is comfortable with their tasks.”

Tomorrow we will look at specific skills tech leaders need to run an IT company.