Jeremy Kahn's Dev Blog

There's always a method to my madness.

Of Engineers and Entrepreneurs

There’s a lot of people in the tech industry that I respect and use as role models for my own career. One thing I’ve noticed among all of them is that they tend to be engineers or entrepreneurs. For some time, I saw these two types of people as being completely detached from each other. To me, engineers were the creative people who built products and entrepreneurs were the socially savvy people who sold those products. I did not see the skill sets of these two groups to be complementary. However, after a few years of industry experience, I see successful entrepreneurs and engineers as being almost the same thing. In fact, their only distinguishing characteristics are the specific skills set that were acquired through focused training.

It’s all about solving problems

To be a strong contributor to any organization, you only have to do one thing: Provide value. How you do this entirely depends on your role within that organization — some people just need to be available to do a menial or repetitive task, while others provide more specialized services. In any case, it takes all kinds. Something that good engineers and entrepreneurs both do is solve problems. That’s actually all it takes. Engineers solve technical problems, whereas entrepreneurs solve people and global problems. I think pigeonholing entrepreneurs as business people and engineers as technicians is far too simplistic a way to look at things.

Another common trait of any good entrepreneur or engineer is proactiveness. A-players don’t wait for problems to fall into their lap. A good engineer is always seeking out a bug to fix or an algorithm to optimize. Likewise, a good entrepreneur is always looking for the next service or product to fulfill a market need, and a strategy to provide it. Good entrepreneurs and engineers are also effective leaders; they seek out deficiencies within an organization and solve them. Top performers are not reactive.

People first

The entrepreneurs I respect the most put people before profits. After all, it’s the people that define a company and make it tick; money is just what keeps the lights on and sustains the business. I feel that very few companies actually understand and operate by this concept.

The best engineers write code to be read by other engineers, and they do so in the pursuit of making a purposeful product. After all, what’s the point of writing code that doesn’t do something useful for another person, or isn’t maintainable? One of the biggest rookie mistakes that a programmer can make is to focus too much on code. Code is more superficial to engineering than you might think; it’s the means to an end for the higher purpose of making something that is useful to other people.

Empathy and pragmatism

Empathy are pragmatism are the most important traits of any good entrepreneur or engineer. Engineers need to do this on both a technical and human level. Being able to think like a computer is invaluable for solving bugs and writing efficient code, but being able to think like another person is necessary for building a system that can be maintained for years. In fact, an engineer’s empathy is a direct result of pragmatism; it’s impractical to write slow or unmaintainable code.

Entrepreneurs don’t have to worry about the technical side of things as much, but they have even more to consider on the human side of things. Simply put, you can only sell what people are willing to buy. To know what people are willing to buy, you need to understand what problems they have that you can solve. To do any of this in a sustainable manner, you need to play the long game — scale at a manageable pace, hire only the right people and focus only on the products and services that actually matter to the success of the business.

We’re not that different, you and I

I don’t consider myself an entrepreneur. I’m not business savvy, and I’m allergic to meetings. I’m an engineer, and I hope that I always will be. However, I’ve come to find that having an entrepreneurial spirit has benefited me tremendously as an engineer. Learning what makes respectable entrepreneurs tick and emulating that in the context of a development team has helped me focus on solving the right problems the right way. I’ve been fortunate to learn from some of the best engineers and entrepreneurs in the industry. No matter where you fit within an organization, you need to stand on the shoulders of giants in order to truly make an impact.