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What entrepreneurial CEOs can learn from the software trenches

Steve Brodie CEO, Electric Cloud
The terms DevOps, agile, continuous integration, and continuous delivery are much more than best practice methodologies for keeping up with the pace of innovation by delivering better software, faster.

Tech startups are founded by people with great ideas—those with the fearlessness gene that says "yes" to jumping out of airplanes, running with the bulls, and starting a new company. Being the CEO of a tech startup can be an exhilarating rush, but this exciting journey will also come with its own scary and isolating experiences. Ultimately, it's these experiences that shape the future of any company (from each employee to every customer), and the underlying decisions made along the way determine how you've arrived at any given destination. It's your character and philosophy that will ultimately guide your company to success.

Tech entrepreneur Ben Horowitz once said, "In life, everybody faces choices between doing what's popular, easy, and wrong, versus doing what's lonely, difficult, and right. These decisions intensify when you run a company, because the consequences get magnified 1,000-fold." The reality is that there's no formal training for a CEO of an organization—one must work at it continuously by learning on the job, making the best decisions possible based on the information in front of you, and having the bravery to venture into unknown landscapes. Many entrepreneurial leaders often recognize that the toughest decisions will test their courage more than their intelligence.

Fortunately, there are more support options within the tech industry than in most others. There are incubators, mentor groups, and professionals willing to work on the cheap in the hopes of a huge payoff down the road. For those privileged to secure third-party funding, experienced investors with a vested interest in your company are available to help guide you through the trials and tribulations. The other benefit to being a tech entrepreneur is that there are many guiding principles right in front of you. The principles of agile and DevOps promote ideals that are priceless for startups looking to innovate faster than their competitors.

Looking at the disruption within the software development industry alone, I've developed the following tips drawn from some of these principles.

Be a grassroots activist

The '60s may have been a time of burnout and failed dreams, but the ideals of empowerment, freedom, and selflessness were powerful. Think about the early days of agile: that movement started with a group of smart, motivated people in the hills of Utah. They weren't thinking of ways to get rich. They were thinking of ways for people—first—and organizations—second—to prosper and achieve excellence.

Now, think of those who practice these methods today, such as Elon Musk of Tesla. Musk and his company develop some of the most technologically complex and advanced automotive machines in the world and then free that information to the world as open source, letting others build on what they created. Every startup can hold the same ideals when viewing customers, partners, and employees. Don't just think about what they can do for you—think about how can you inspire them, make their lives better, and collectively work for a better world.

Value people over tools

As it's stated in the Agile Manifesto: "Individuals and interactions over processes and tools." In the world of business, it often boils down to people, not tools. This is a hard and often counterintuitive approach, but the most important asset you have in your company is your people. This isn't a new concept, but it's an ideal deeply rooted in our world of technology. To repurpose the familiar quote, it's not the technology, stupid—it's your people. If you always put them first, your outcomes, not to mention your company culture, will thrive.

Be a good listener

Another simple concept—one intrinsic to so many technology and software approaches but often overlooked as a business practice—is the importance of listening. Companies must make listening a core value of their operations. Embed the following statement in your company culture: "Listen. We pay attention to our market, customers, and teammates. We become better when we understand and empathize."

For an example of why this is so important, look at the recent automobile recalls. Time and again, the problems could have been avoided if it hadn't been for a company culture of silence. Just as we have continuous this or that, and real-time feedback loops, every startup can accelerate growth and avoid costly pitfalls through plain-old good listening. And as with everything that leads a company, it starts from the top. Be a better listener than you are a talker.

The strategic value of listening also sheds light on another success factor: nurturing a company's ability to listen at scale. Being a data-driven organization can provide strong returns through constant monitoring of market conditions, customer feedback, and employee insights. Doing this at scale isn't easy, and it's critical for organizations to avoid doing too much, lest they fall victims to analysis paralysis. Organizations need to strike a balance between listening to all the noise taking place in an industry and analyzing the data most valuable to them.

Go for good, not perfect

The notion of "working software" stems from the need to get things done, create momentum, and learn what can be improved. Going for perfect can be exhausting, tedious, and counterproductive. Perfect was the goal of waterfall approaches. The benefits of more agile and lean-based approaches hinge on short iterations of working software. The subtext is that if it's good enough to work, it's time to move forward. This doesn't mean you should settle for an inferior product. However, grinding out people and time lines in search of perfection in the first release rarely works today.

Create a powerful narrative

Our greatest technical advancements have a high-level, altruistic narrative outlining a cause that aims to benefit the greater good of an industry or population. A strategic narrative is commonly defined as an organization's ability to create a vision of the future. Following in the path of megatrends and the narratives that helped drive the adoption of modern software delivery practices, you need to spend time to define the world in which you live and work. Reach higher than the company mission statement—to your aspirations for your industry and the role you and every employee will play in achieving them.

Even more powerful is cultivating a group of people striving toward the greater good of the world. Software, for example, is one—if not the—primary driver of innovation across nearly every vertical market. Practitioners and leaders in the software industry share a mission that is ultimately less about improving IT and software delivery and more about empowering people to deliver innovation for the betterment of the world. If entrepreneurial leaders can focus on this principle, recruit people who share this attitude, and develop a strong narrative that people can rally behind, the possibilities are truly endless.

Go forth and innovate

The virtues that form the fabric of the technology industry are brighter and more collaborative than the traditional, self-serving business objectives of the industries of the past. Being open-minded and keeping your eyes open affords a wealth of wisdom and guidance. The world of technology and the vibrancy of today's startup community is inspiring. Remember these things: work from the ground up, people always come first, good is usually good enough to move forward, and create a vision that looks beyond the walls of your company.

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