Most engineers are inherently introverts. Software engineering is often on the list of “best careers” for introverts, with counselors supporting this recommendation with statements like, “Spending time alone with a computer could be a dream come true for any introverted techie.” And yet, these are the same people who become entrepreneurs and grow into leaders in their companies and their industries.
Of course, not every leader from our industry has had to overcome those personality traits. Most of us have been awed by the charisma of Steve Jobs and the persuasion of Jeff Bezos.
For the majority of the “left-brained” crowd with a technical background, one of the hardest parts of being a leader of a technology startup is moving away from the natural tendency to be introspective. Let me be upfront: No CEO has been successful without stepping out of his or her comfort zone.
As the founder, an entrepreneurial engineer will learn quickly that he or she is the chief sales executive. It’s up to him or her to sell and promote the company ceaselessly. That means meeting with, and selling to, potential investors, customers, employees, and partners. The company leader is expected to be the chief promoter eating, drinking, sleeping the messaging, positioning, and product story and delivering it to anyone who will listen 24/7.
The first “sales” test comes early for the entrepreneur when he or she raises money from venture capitalists. Those skills get honed quickly. Any entrepreneur who thinks this can be delegated is mistaken.
The challenge, then, is to learn to be outgoing, and it is something anyone can learn to do.
As a young engineer, I had a goal to move from engineering into marketing as a stepping-stone to management roles. I had a solid understanding of technology and knew I could learn the tenets of good marketing, but was concerned that I was a bit too reserved to be a good marketing manager. I was lucky enough to snag an interview with a legendary marketing executive, Bruce Bourbon. I shared with him my concern, and he said that I could learn to be more outgoing -- and I did.
On a much larger stage, we have witnessed the maturation of Mark Zuckerberg from an insecure engineer who handed out the infamous “I’m CEO, B****” business card to the respected leader of a publicly traded company.
Of course, this process takes time, as do many things, because the natural tendency is to stay within the comfort zone. Fortunately, as engineers, we are taught to unravel challenges, and this is yet another challenge.
The first step for a fledgling leader would be to become a better networker and to get more comfortable. Starting slowly is the best course of action. My advice is to set a small goal -- say, introduce yourself to five people you don’t know. Second, have a set of five questions or so to ask people you meet that can range from asking what they do to what keeps them up at night.
The final bit of advice is to appear confident and self-assured. Remember that, as the founder of a company, you have some bragging rights, and you can shine a new light on the challenges faced by your peer CEOs, even if they are a lot more experienced and running much larger companies.
Once the fear of networking has been overcome, it’s remarkable to note how informative industry events can be. All of a sudden, the new leader will be able to map where the company’s technology fits within the ecosystem. Other companies’ strengths and weakness could become apparent from discussions over drinks and canapés. In some cases, it may force a company to do a pivot and retool a product. Finding the product niche is important and will only happen by networking with potential customers and partners.
Whether we’re grooming ourselves to be a leader or not, an important point for each of us is to find our personal style, which means learning to play to our strengths. In some cases, the relaxed hoodie and jeans look fits like a mantle, while others of us follow a Wall Street appearance. All kinds can be successful. Choosing the style that’s true to who we are and sticking with it will help make people believe in us.
Michel Courtoy is a former design engineer and EDA executive who sits on the board of directors at Breker Verification Systems.