People & Culture

From programs to people: How engineers can make the jump to founder

Moving from engineer to founder to leader isn't easy and I tried to cover some of the pitfalls and my tips for survival in this new piece I wrote for UK Tech News. Basically what software engineers need to know to make the leap to leading a (hopefully) growing company. Some of the things I wish I'd known when I started.

I was 11 years old when I started coding on the Sinclair ZX81 computer.

It had 1k of memory, but if you saved up enough pocket money, you could buy a 16k memory pack that wobbled in its socket and crashed so you would lose hours of work. To put into context what 16k of memory is, an average email today is 75k. Yet, somehow, we would write games, utilities, all sorts in 16k. You do what you can with what you have.

I coded all through my teens and university. Afterwards, when BT unexpectedly gave me a job in project management, I continued coding anyway – building test tools, websites and databases to make the work smoother.

But by the time I founded Reward Gateway, my coding skills were obsolete. Ten years at the business end of life meant that I never became a PHP/MYSQL coder, so there was no chance of me building our platform hands-on. You never forget the principles – once an engineer, always an engineer – but there were younger, better and, to be honest, lower cost people to build our software by then.

Programming is intense, satisfying, frustrating, exciting and highly creative. There are infinite ways to build something, so many ways to interpret a need, and when you’ve been up all night thriving on coffee and cigarettes (hey, it was the ’90s), you can’t beat the satisfaction of producing some really elegant code that you’re satisfied with. That drive to be creative and solve problems helped me a lot when I founded Reward Gateway, the HR tech business that I led for 11 years as CEO, growing it to 400 people and $1bn revenue.

But my product and engineering skills were only one part of the overall story. What no-one tells you at Founder School is that building and growing a business is much more about people than it is about programming.

Of course, product is key – if you don’t end up quickly selling something that works and that people actually want to buy, you won’t be in business for long. But it’s understanding and caring about your customers that will ensure your business thrives – not the lines of code that you write.

So, with that in mind, here are my top tips for software engineers making the move to founder…

  • Get to know your customer.
    To have a product vision, you need to see something that is broken or needs to be radically improved – but, more importantly, you need to see the buyer who will want to pay to have that problem solved. You need to really get to know that person, learn to think like them, respect them and really embrace their world – after all, you’re going to be obsessing about them for the next ten to 15 years..
  • Be an all-rounder.
    I’ve seen dozens of businesses fail or plateau, despite very good products, because the founders never got to understand how sales should work, how marketing should happen or how clients could cost-effectively be serviced. You might think you can buy in these skills as you grow, but the most successful founders I know have their arms wrapped around all parts of the business. Being the smartest nerd in the room doesn’t mean squat if you can’t drive sales and scale service to handle it.
  • Get good at grovelling and sincere apologies.
    Your software is going to suck at times, and it will let people down. That’s where your relationship skills and diplomacy will be needed as you navigate the years ahead.
  • Focus on teamwork.
    You’re used to building software, but now, you’re going to need to get good at building teams. Teams, not code, hold companies together – so put the programming books down and immerse yourself in books about people, leadership and company culture.
  • Make sure you leave the party at the right time.
    The best accolade a founder can get is to build something that is sustainable without it needing them – so, look forward to the day when this happens to you. For me, it happened 11 years in – last summer, when I knew there were better CEOs than me at running a company of our size. I still work for the company full-time, but in a non-executive role, with no power or authority – and it’s wonderful to be able to support the team from the sidelines.

Don’t be daunted. You’re already a huge step ahead by understanding technology in a tech-centric world. You know what is possible, how long things should take and you can get your engineers unstuck when they need help. Those skills are priceless.

An earlier version of this was published in UK Tech News on 14th August 2018. The super talented Rebecca Hastings helped me make this version just a little bit better.


Glenn Elliott is a technology entrepreneur, investor and advisor, MBA drop-out and recovering CEO with 20 years of experience. His bestselling book Build it: The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement is published by Wiley. He writes about people, culture, leadership and the future of work weekly at 

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