Why You Don’t Have to be an Engineer to be an Entrepreneur

Editor’s note: Craig Walker is a serial tech entrepreneur and an Upstart backer. He is currently the founder and CEO of Firespotter Labs, which won the 2012 TechCrunch Disrupt  NYC Award. Google acquired Craig’s previous company, GrandCentral Communications. His first company, Dialpad Communications, was acquired by Yahoo!

I get asked a lot of times from potential investors and others that I meet whether I am an engineer or not.  It’s a natural question as it seems most every startup in the valley seems to be founded by one or more engineers and people naturally assume you might be one as well.  Being an engineer starting a business has some serious natural advantages, namely, you can write your own code and get a product or application started or even completed all by yourself.  But while that is an advantage, it certainly doesn’t mean you have to be an engineer to start a business, even a tech startup.

So, for a quick background, I was an attorney working in Palo Alto representing startups, VCs and tech companies at a big firm.  I had a social studies degree from Berkeley, an MBA from Georgetown and a JD from Berkeley.  The most technical course I took in any of those years was Physics 10 at Cal, which was casually referred to as “Physics without Math”.  So by no means did I have any deep technical insights.  But, in the end, this actually worked to my advantage.

I think there are times when too much emphasis is placed on “how” something is built or “how” something is engineered and too little emphasis on “what” is built. I know lots of great engineers who write perfectly elegant code, but ultimately develop a product that doesn’t resonate with users.

The nice thing about not being an engineer is that I don’t need to get bogged down in the details of “how”, and get to focus all of my energies on “what”.  And for me personally, the “what” is the way more interesting part of the business.  Obviously I need to have a skilled team of engineers to work very closely with me to build the “what”, but “how” they do it is up to them.  I have no interest.  My only concern is “what” gets built.  This also is very liberating in that I’m somewhat oblivious to the engineering problems or reasons why something can’t be done.  It gives me a sense that everything can be done, somehow, and that with enough effort and trying, we’ll figure it out.

Obviously, lots of great companies are started by engineers. I’m just saying you don’t have to be an engineer to be a good entrepreneur.  The early team at every tech startup definitely needs product vision, great design and good engineering.  If all these can be found in one person…amazing, but rare to say the least.  Being the Product guy in that group doesn’t require an engineering degree and I’d argue you might be better off not having one.  That way you can spend all your time focusing on what you want to get built and very little time worrying about how to build it.

Posted by Craig Walker, CEO of Firespotter Labs and an Upstart backer