Many software companies are founded by star developers, who often find to their chagrin that as the company grows, they can no longer find the time to write code themselves. At a well-attended SXSW presentation — The Case for the Coding CEO — last week, New Relic’s very own Lew Cirne offered some hard-earned tips to developer/CEOs looking for the creative freedom to build the next wave of innovation while still leading the business.
“Last year, I didn’t do a lot of traditional CEO stuff,” Lew said. Instead of going to a lot of meetings, he spent a lot of time in his Lake Tahoe cabin working on our latest software analytics product, code-named Project Rubicon. The goal? To be totally isolated from the day to day, to get to that “a-ha” moment when the idea clicks and you can’t think about anything else. To experience the “pure coding joy” of diving into the guts of building software.
“If you’re running a company, you can’t just go do that,” Lew acknowledged to the audience. “The company won’t just run itself.” CEOs who want to keep coding have to establish a new CEO role to make it feasible, which involves four key steps.
1. Surround yourself with amazing people. “I thought deeply about what I wanted to do and what roles others on my team should do,” Lew said. “The key is to find people who are great at what they do, and then trust them and empower them to do their jobs so you can do yours.” Some of the people Lew brought on board to run key areas of the business include New Relic COO Chris Cook, former executive of Wily, as well as Chief Revenue Officer Hilarie Koplow-McAdams, former president of global sales at Salesforce.com. “I invest a lot of time in recruiting the right people who will build New Relic in ways that I could not,” he said.
2. Carve out specific times for development work. Rather than try to squeeze in development work whenever he has a chance, Lew schedules two full weeks per quarter — that’s 8 weeks a year — to be isolated writing software. Outside of the coding period, he recommends that the coding CEO focus on their business role.
3. Focus on high-value projects. Lew spent last year’s coding break on developing Rubicon, which was introduced at our FutureStack conference last year. While he built the main concept, he wisely handed it off to other members of the New Relic team. “Now we have many engineers working on the project,” Lew said, “so I’m doing less hands-on work.” His next two-week coding break will be devoted to New Relic’s next big idea, which he hopes to bring out the following year.
4. Make it clear why a coding CEO is good for the company. “It’s obviously good for me that I get to do the fun coding stuff,” Lew said, “but how does the board feel?” The answer is that “we’re a product-first company, and that starts with the CEO.” Aside from the actual coding work that gets done, Lew said, “being a coding CEO helps me stay more connected on the latest technology trends, and return more energized and more sharp on the business discussions.”