Startup Prerequisite: Tech Know How 101

Recently it seems the pendulum is swinging back on “everyone needs to learn to code” mantra that’s been so prevalent. I’ve seen several articles in the vein of, “why learning to code is probably a waste of your time”. Now if you actually read the articles, most articulated that while knowing to code is probably unnecessary, understanding from a high level how a modern application works is not. Hopefully, the link-baity titles won’t convince those looking to get into startups that technical know-how is optional. That would be a mistake — knowing basic technical skills is super important for anyone interested in getting involved with startups.

Technology is the engine that is powering the recent startup explosion, so If you want to work in startups today than you need at least a basic understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes. This is true regardless of the industry you want to work in; fundamentally all B2B, B2C, SaaS, eCommerce, Hardware, Marketplaces etc. companies today are technology companies. Now I’m not talking about possessing enough knowledge to be a junior developer or even remotely close to that much. But you should be able to write basic HTML/CSS, have played around with an OOP (object oriented-programming) language like Ruby or Python, have some knowledge of how databases work and possesses a basic understanding of how all those pieces come together to form a full-stack application. In my opinion, these should be considered table stakes for any startup job applicant, but it’s particularly important if you’re looking to join an earlier stage company.

When you work at a startup you’re going to be interacting and discussing product enhancements and improvements with your development team on a regular basis and the more you’re able to speak their language the more seriously they will take you. Nothing will piss your engineers off more than if you tell them you have a minor request when you have no idea what constitutes something minor or major. That’s not to say you should get to the level of technical expertise where you can properly asses the timeline and effort of development projects, but you need to understand, at a basic level, all that is involved with changing a feature. The better you’re able to spec out feature requests, the better your working relationship with you engineers will be.

If you’re interested in a marketing role, it’s important that you not only have technical aptitude but also technical chops. Being able to write basic HTML/CSS, create landing pages, email templates and having the technical aptitude to use common marketing tools are skills that will make you a far more useful employee. Bonus points for SQL knowledge and the ability to make basic commits to your repo (just make sure to get your thumbs!). Developers time is one of, if not the most, precious resources a startup has — don’t waste it. Not to mention, they’re going to be slammed working on features for the core product, which will likely take priority over your marketing request, so being able to do some minor technical tasks yourself will allow you to move much more quickly.

If you’re looking to work in sales or business development you can get by with less hands-on knowledge, but it would certainly still be helpful. However, it’s still important you have a basic understanding of programming and certainly for how your application works. Another case where this is important is when you’re talking to potential partners or clients. You want to be able to answer their basic technical questions and be able to properly explain, at least at a high level, how integrating or using your product works. Certain questions will likely be out of your depth, but the more you’re able to shield your developers from external questions, the happier they will be and happy developers = productive developers.

I don’t want to list out the different resources and courses available to learn these technical skills, as there are numerous guides which I’m sure do a far better job than I would, so just Google it. And who knows, you might just realize that a more technical path is for you — it’s never been more in demand and there are more resources than ever to make it a reality.