As disruptive and deeptech technologies become increasingly central to our daily lives, today’s founders need a whole new skill set in order to successfully adapt and pivot their business.
“The question now is no longer ‘I have a strategic plan, what technologies will I need to meet my goals?’, but rather, ‘I have key technological knowledge, how do I protect it, what strategies can I develop and in how many sectors can I exploit this knowledge?’,” says Xavier Ferràs, associate professor of operations, innovation and data sciences at Spanish business school Esade.
I have key technological knowledge, how do I protect it, what strategies can I develop and in how many sectors can I exploit this knowledge?
And as pressure mounts to adopt emerging technologies like AI, VR and more to stay competitive, today’s leader needs to decide: how much should you become an expert yourself, and how much should you rely on hiring a team of experts who know even more?
Sifted asked founders and experts in deeptech and beyond about the tech and management skills that are most important to future proofing leadership.
1. Know your own technology
It may seem obvious, but before taking on new tech skills, founders should have a deep awareness of their own tech in order to best understand their company’s roadblocks.
“As any leader, you need to be able to understand and have reasonable intuition on the main challenges your company will be facing,” Théau Peronnin, CEO and cofounder of quantum computer startup Alice & Bob, told Sifted.
But this doesn’t mean the leadership team should take on all the dev work; Peronnin says founders should hire experts to do the heavy lifting so they can keep an eye on the bigger picture, which having an understanding of the backend tech helps inform.
As any leader, you need to be able to understand and have reasonable intuition on the main challenges your company will be facing.
“You don’t need to dive too deep into the technology itself,” he says. “To keep some long-range vision on what’s possible, what’s out there and the strategy.”
Nikos Christopoulos, founder of deeptech ClearDrop Technology, agrees — and says researching competitors’ tech is just as important to maintain a competitive edge.
“You need the inventor of the technology, or someone else on the team, to be fully aware of competing or substitute technologies worldwide,” he says. “If not the best, be the most knowledgeable in your field of expertise. Read all published papers with attention.”
2. Actually understand AI
According to professor Ferràs, “we are aware of how important it is to develop solid mathematical and analytical skills to be able to use technology to drive innovations in the context of today’s rapid business changes. Esade Business School is ready to respond to the significant demand today and in the future, for professionals capable of overcoming the combined technical and business challenges the digital economy poses”.
According to Ferràs, artificial intelligence will continue to disrupt, and is likely to “influence, reshape or transform all industries.”
Even if their product or service isn’t AI-based, it’s important leaders are aware of its role in their sector, Ferràs says.
“It will not be necessary for managers to gain in-depth technical knowledge of AI (at the level of a computer scientist or an engineer), but they’ll need to develop a clear notion of its potential use in their specific field of operation,” he says. “AI will be, above all, a great support element for decision-making, but managers must understand the nature of AI, its logics and limitations.”
Being a leader today is about being able to adeptly hire and manage people who know more than you. Anthony Rose, founder of legal startup Seedlegals and the man behind BBC iPlayer, says when it comes to AI, it’s not so much about knowing its intricacies but hiring those that do.
It will not be necessary for managers to gain in-depth technical knowledge of AI (at the level of a computer scientist or an engineer).
“The reality is very few people actually understand any AI,” says Rose. “What they want to do is not know the technology, but know the mindset to be able to attract those who know the technology to come and work for them.”
3. Learn a few lines of code
Rose adds that knowing some code can help founders speak the same language as the experts they hire.
“It’s hugely valuable that founders have some knowledge of software development and how software development is run, not that they should or will ever code,” Rose says. “But one of the problems is you first need to explain to your dev team what you want in a way that they can build it.”
“You need to be able to write or at least read a couple of lines of code, otherwise you can’t really discuss with your team. It’s hard to challenge them if you do not speak the same language,” Peronnin says — and adds Python is a good language to get to grips with, as it’s “becoming the default in any field.”
Basic technical knowledge is especially important while hiring, says Matthieu Finiasz, CTO of cybersecurity startup Olvid.
“If you want to have a successful tech company, you need to hire some tech experts. The only way to hire them is if you understand not 100% of what they do, but at least understand a sense of what they’re doing with the technology,” Finiasz says.
Although it sounds boring, if you’ve got some IT skills, you can rapidly become self-sufficient.
4. Don’t forget ‘boring’ admin and IT skills
While there’s no technical skill that startups have in common generally, Christopoulos says there are a lot of common soft skills that all startup founders should have — and a surprising number of leaders don’t.
He cites presentation skills, enough financial skills to make a sound business plan and admin skills “to navigate and survive all admin hassle and pollution related to creating and managing a business.”
Rose says it’s important to be able to find your way around Slack, Zoom and other basic, commonly used tech, and also to know basic computer maintenance and triage skills.
"Although it sounds boring, if you’ve got some IT skills, you can rapidly become self-sufficient,” he says. “You can set up all the tools to get your company up and running without relying on others.”