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25 Aug

What To Look For In A Technical Co-Founder

What To Look For In A Technical Co-Founder

This is the second part of a two part series of posts. The first post was entitled What To Look For In A Business Co-Founder. It seems that potential technical cofounders are approached by business cofounders a lot more than business cofounders are approached by technical cofounders. I thought about why that was after writing the post. In essence, I think it comes down to the fact that it’s a lot easier to identify the tangible skills of a technical cofounder from a high level perspective. Do they code? Yes. Okay, they could be a technical cofounder. At the end of the day “being able to code” is a small piece of the technical cofounder puzzle. Here are the qualities that make sense to look for in a technical co-founder.

A past record of building things

Potential technical cofounders should have a past record of building things. They may be very large projects with hundreds of people or they may just be very simple applications that never went anywhere. Learning how to code often happens best through practice exercises. The same can be said for building an entire company or large product as a technical cofounder. The more your potential technical cofounder has built things, the more pattern recognition they will have.

A past record of building things just for the fun of it

You have to love what you do, and the same should hold true for your technical cofounder. One good way to spot this is if their past record of building things includes products that were just built for the fun of it. It might be a dinky little app or some technology demo that does something completely new. Since startups are marathons, this is a key characteristic of technical cofounders as they will be more likely endure this marathon due to their love of the game.

An Understanding of The Intersection of Business and Technology Decisions

Some technical decisions are deeply rooted in business decisions. Need to switch the DB from MySQL to CouchDB? Need to add in more viral loops above other features to increase customer acquisition? Your potential technical cofounder should understand that their technical decisions will often have a strong impact on the overall health of the startup. My belief is that startups are cyborgs- half business decisions and half technical decisions. Your startup will die if you remove one part.

A strong expertise in a specific language

It seems most technical cofounders will dabble in different languages, especially if they have been around the block for quite some time. Your technical cofounder will set the foundation for the next few years on the language that is being used and the people that will be hired to work with that language. If they are experts in one specific language they are most likely well connected within the community and have access to more talent. They will also be able to deal with the most intricate solutions possible and optimize the hell out of the specific language being used. Facebook is now using many many different languages, but there is a very strong domain expertise in PHP. That strong domain expertise allowed them to build Hip Hop, which has significantly increased the speed of Facebook as a whole. The team behind this at Facebook may not have been co-founders, but finding individuals like the team behind Hip Hop would be ideal examples of those with domain expertise in a specific language.

Also, don’t try to force a language on them because you heard from someone that it was the “in thing” or “old shit”. Maybe they want to use PHP and maybe they want to use RoR, or maybe they want to use Python. You should trust in their decision and what they are comfortable with.

// The team there actually had to be experts in both PHP and C to make this happen, but for arguments sake I’m focusing on the PHP part here.

An expertise in solving problems relevant to the domain of your startup

Are you solving something in the payment space? Then fraud detection experience is key. Building another CRM? Then having past experience at a B2B/Enterprise startup makes a lot more sense than MySpace or Facebook. Non domain expertise does not make a person a bad technical cofounder, but it certainly makes them a better one. For example, Engine Yard was well served by having cofounders that had strong domain expertise in Ruby on Rails. Maybe a strong hacker without a strong domain expertise in RoR could have learned on the fly, but I would rather have had my cofounder possess the needed domain expertise.

An ability to meet deadlines

There are two points to this attribute. The first is the ability for your cofounder to be able to not flake out and keep to their actual deadline. This comes from having previously built things and understanding how longs it actually takes to finish something. It also comes from straight up work ethic and dedication. The second point is your cofounder’s ability to have a strict cutoff for features to implement and what to “refactor”. A good technical cofounder will be able to say no to many things and put a hard stop on adding features in order to meet a deadline. Even if a technical cofounder has the ability to finish on time, they may not be estimating what’s realistic due to their inability to say no + leave things be. Taking twice as long was not due to their lack of work ethic, but the fact that they added too many things causing it to take twice as long. Many of these ideas may have even been the business cofounder’s ideas. A great technical cofounder will have the ability to tell their business cofounder no for the sake of meeting a deadline.

An ability to keep things organized

Even with one person the technical architecture, staging/development environments, code itself, and specifications can get so unorganized that many mistakes happen. An almost OCD technical cofounder with a strong attention to organization will be great early on, but crucial later on when the technical team grows. A good technical cofounder should have the following things well organized from day one:

* Development, staging, and production servers.
* Subversion/Git setup
* Strict commenting and documentation that allows new hires to get started without too much confusion.
* A clear and organized product roadmap.

An ability to prioritize

You just launched and you are being slammed with paying customers. Great problem to have, right? Yes, as long as you dont f**k it up. With those paying customers are going to come problems, support requests, and feature requests. Now it’s up to your technical cofounder to balance everything. Which fixes are most crucial? Which fixes are most crucial and also easiest to get done?

An ability to balance taking the lead and also listening to feedback

A good technical cofounder will have the ability to interact with customers and listen to them, but also know how to take the lead. Most customers don’t know what they want, but at the core of their complaints lies the true essence of a problem. A good technical cofounder will listen, find that true essence, and then come up with something truly unique that solves this problem. The feedback may not even be direct feedback from customers themselves, but from metrics.

An ability to know their weaknesses

Some developers are great designers+front end coders, and vice versa. A good technical cofounder may have to bear the burden of doing everything technically from the beginning, but they will strive to have better technical hires take over their weaknesses. This advice can just as easily apply to business co-founders, but I feel it’s easier to distinguish technical weaknesses.

A formal CS degree is a nice to have

I have a CIS degree, which is sort of like a watered down CS degree. I was required to learn many of the fundamentals of programming, database design, etc. Any real technical skills have come from being involved in building things and working with other smart technical cofounders. I will say it is certainly nice to have the academic and formal foundation in basic programming concepts. A fair amount of great technical cofounders won’t have this, but it’s certainly a nice to have.

This is by no means a definitive list or even a fully correct list. In many ways finding the right technical co-founder is a chicken and egg problem. Can a business co-founder even understand how to properly identify these points? Yes, but they need to be fairly technical themselves. The best advice for finding a technical co-founder might be: “Be Semi-Technical Yourself”

  • ben bloch

    Excellent job distilling the important things to consider when looking for a technical co-founder. I'll add that a having a past record of building things and building things for fun indicates an entrepreneurial drive and and interest in what they're doing.

    As you noted, it's important to find someone who dabbles in a lot of different technology, but has a strong opinion about the right tool for the job and enough expertise to back it up. I'm also glad that you highlighted how important it is to *trust* the technical co-founder in their decisions and preferences for technology. There's nothing that'll make a developer more unhappy than being forced to use the tools he/she isn't comfortable with and doesn't advocate. A happy developer is a productive developer.

    On the ability to meet deadlines, I think the important thing here is that the technical co-founder can follow through and be dedicated. If you really need to impose a deadline, please consult the technical co-founder and make sure you're both on the same page about what has to happen by when. If you can avoid deadlines… avoid deadlines.

  • Cowboy Coder

    Gosh I've been receiving offers to create someone's product for equity for 30 some years now. 100% of them were jokers, even the ones with money.

  • Guest

    Great list. Comprehensive.

  • Jason L. Baptiste

    Thank you!

  • Jason L. Baptiste

    There needs to be a primer on how to approach technical cofounders as a business guy. Most just screw it up and ruin it for everyone else. Any suggestions?

  • Jason L. Baptiste

    Agreed. The deadlines should mostly be ones imposed by the technical cofounder. So it's meeting their own deadlines. Those deadlines should take into account business objectives.

  • D. Keith Casey, Jr.

    It needs to be better thought out than: “You build it, then I sell it!” That puts 100% of the risk on the development team and the other guy can walk away at any time with minimal loss.

    I've had a number of roles in tech startups including a founder once or twice. Generally, I want to see a full Vision of the product and what the first version *might* look like. Then I want to see some analysis on who the potential customers are. Then I want to see that they've talked to some of the potential customers and get feedback. Then I google/linked in/etc the hell out of them. I see what they've done before (success or not), who of the people I respect also respect them, and what their background is in.

    If I see “bigger than Facebook/Ebay/Paypal/Craigslist/etc” even *once* in the first five minutes, I walk away immediately. I understand being grandiose but – just like in real life – that stage should be built towards, not step 1.

    My 0.02.

  • Rooperstar

    What about where to find these guys? Are there any on-line places where they congregate? I have had a hard time finding good tech people who are actively looking for an opportunity to engage with. Like life-partners, the good ones get picked up pretty quick and finding the wheat among the chaff is a job in itself. Any tips on locating and filtering the bad geeks out? From a Business Founder/ Technophobe.

    • Skaviani

      Hi, we organize local Meetups to make co-founder connections -and expanding the geographic reach of our online matching platform outside the DC metro area soon. Check out CoFoundersLab 

  • Randy Arrowood

    Great post. It's not all about being comfortable working by only the glow of a computer display while jacked up on mountain dew. I do believe it is important to make sure that a Technical Co-Founder is challenged in the fashion arena. I mean, come on… what kind of uber-jedi has enough time to care about matching their outfit or styling their coif?

  • Cowboy Coder

    Much longer than what to do is what not to do. I could write a 100 page long post with anecdotes of what not to do. It would probably make a better seminar than a post though. I think what not to do is important because most people fail from doing dumb things rather than fail because they didn't do the right things, whatever those are. Keith's response is good and addresses a couple common problems: “You assume risk, I take the profit!” and grandiose and unrealistic schemes of megalomania. There are thousands of more unworkable problems, hundreds of which are common to run into. I am really trying hard not to tell some stories from my experience here because it will go on for the rest of the day.

    Instead here's one case that almost worked out. A pair approaches me to become the third person in a startup with a product that has both a hardware and a software component. One guy is the designer and has made a prototype, but it is technically naive, the prototype won't scale and has to be completely reengineered, and there are severe problems with the cost of manufacture of the hardware component, which will involve work in physics and materials science to solve. They have realized this. The other guy has experience creating startups and has incorporated the company. They had a patent applied for, which was eventually granted. They don't know how to talk to companies that make physical stuff to figure out what they need to do to get it manufacturable. I was a perfect match since I had done it before and they offered me twice what I was making plus equity in order to sign on. They also covered my costs such as travel and lodging and offered to pay for relocation, which I didn't need since I knew I could solve their problems in a short time. I signed on, got paid, put together a plan where they could proceed, put them in contact with a hardware designer who had already designed what they needed but was unable to find a buyer, and then they negotiated with him for a buyout. His price was extremely reasonable but they wanted to make a deal and made him only insulting offers. I can't imagine the reason since buying him out would have cut a couple years at least off their development schedule and he was willing to sell 10 years of R&D to them for what would have been half the salary you'd pay normally to a recent grad. Well they still have their patent and their prototype and this was 10 years ago. The other guy continued to develop his device which he sells under his own company.

  • Brian Burridge

    Great post Jason. I plan on sharing this frequently. Let's just say for the sake of argument that a person meets all of these requirements so exactly, that its as if you wrote this about that specific person…any suggestions for how one goes about branding himself in this regard? This article was necessary because too many don't recognize the need for all those other attributes and just go with the cheapest hourly developer they can find. So my question is, how does one stand out from all of them and present themselves as a good fit for this for people such as Rooperstar who is having a hard time finding them?

  • Jason L. Baptiste

    I'd say just build great things that show off your skills and write really
    smart things as well. Have a specific product style and writing style.

    You Should Check Out <>

  • Jag

    It’s so enlightening. I would print this out and hang it on my bedroom wall.

  • Daman Bahner

    Great list Jason!

  • Aashika Reddy

    Great information. I live in Chennai, India and I am looking for a cofounder. Where can I find one?