Until 2009, my level of tech savvy was that I was pretty proud that I figured how to summarize cells in excel. I was a theatre student, well versed in local stages and old screenwriters, and I have been quoted saying “I hate computers”.
The summer 2009 I went with the Norwegian Entrepreneurship program to Silicon Valley – and I had no idea what this Silicon Valley thing was about. To be honest, I didn’t even fully realize it was a thing, but lucky me, I was soon to find out. The program placed us doing internships in startups and I found myself in a small SaaS company. I had no idea what SaaS was. I looked it up, read the description, and it still wasn’t clear to me.
Fast forward a few years and I’ve worked with serious technology projects ranging from regular software to race cars to thermal dynamics to solar cells to nanotech and graphene – and these days I am building an Artificial Intelligence. I am obviously not the Chief Technical person in these projects, however being the CEO/Founder/Communications person requires quite a bit of understanding of what we’re actually doing.
I’ve picked up a few tricks on the way. Here’s my take on it.
1. There’s no better way to learn than by doing
Put yourself in places and projects where you need to face and understand the technology used.
2. Technology isn’t that scary
For the longest time, I though it was. It felt like some kind of black magic. But more so than with people, technology follows fairly straightforward rules, wether they are the laws of physics or the limitations of a programming language.
3. Find people who love what they do
People who love their field of science love talking about it. Ask questions and get them started – and just listen and enjoy. Remember, you don’t have to understand everything. Just let your brain soak it in and over time you’ll start connecting some dots.
Early on in my race car project I had a lengthy conversation with one of the managers about the strategic advantages of a steel frame versus a carbon fibre monocoque. Granted, the conversations was fairly one sided. No, I didn’t understand much. But over a few weeks of the same conversations I started getting a grasp of the most important technical concepts. I still would not be able to design neither a steel frame nor a monocoque – there’s a reason why engineers do five year degrees – but at least I could confidently talk about our design process with the judges of the competition and why we in the end chose the steel frame.
4. Don’t be afraid of asking stupid questions
Don’t pretend you know more than you do. Ask questions and listen to the answers. I find it helpful to try to explain things myself and then ask someone who knows more
5. Know when to ask the stupid questions
Not every meeting or discussion can be a Technology 101 class. Asking stupid questions over lunch is one thing, but in a situation where things need to move forward, stopping every third sentence to ask basic questions will annoy people. Accept that you don’t understand everything and trust that you will over time.
6. Embrace being a rookie
Learning new things are fun! But it can also be uncomfortable and intimidating to be at point zero. Embrace it as a chance to practice humility and patience – and above all, be grateful you have room to grow. Learning stimulates your brain. [does it keep you younger?]
7. Get your facts checked
I can make a technology slide for a presentation, no worries. However, I always run it by my CTO before using it to talk to anyone. There’s always the chance I misunderstood something or am using odd terminology.
8. Hire the right people (d’uh)
Obviously. If you don’t yet have a CTO in your startup, find someone you trust who are not looking for work, that has the tech skills you need, and ask them to help you interview people. It’s hard to asses tech skills when you don’t have them yourself.
9. Enjoy the results
The coolest thing about being a serious tech entrepreneur with a degree in theatre – besides my obvious geeky love for technology, and getting to work with it every day? It raises eyebrows. You stand out and people notice.
10. Rinse and repeat