Technical vs. non-technical: being on the other side of the fence

Almost exactly two years ago in February of 2012, I attended a Startup Weekend event in NYC. It was my first introduction into the startup/tech world and it was a great way to dip my toes into entrepreneurship. I remember the pitches–there were so many!–and every single one of the presenters concluded with variations on the same sentence: “I’m looking for developers to join my team.”

At the time, I didn’t pitch an idea but ended up working on a team of two (myself included) with no developers. We struggled to put up a landing page. We didn’t know anything about Google Analytics. The teams around me seemed to be juggernauts of technical expertise, spitting out mockups and multiple versions of websites to increase conversion rates. I could barely navigate my way through buying a URL (I didn’t know they were called domain names).

I remember talking to the developers there. They were patient and explained things that must have seemed idiotic to them. I left the event with a vague impression that technical people ruled the world. Team leaders poached technical people from other teams. Developers were the hot chicks in the room, designers their slightly less hot sister. I started feeling ashamed of my nametag that read “non-technical.”

This weekend, Alex and I just returned from our second Startup Weekend event, this time in San Diego. We went for two reasons: 1) to talk to potential users for BaseRails and 2) to assemble a team of business people to help us with customer research for people who want to create web apps.

The venue was smaller, there were 1/4 the number of people as last time. On my team of 7, there were only 2 coders, Alex and myself. We didn’t mind and even felt relieved that the hustling, survey-creating, getting out of the building, and slide-making could be accomplished by others. It was a complete role-reversal from two years ago in which we were the project managers, marketers, sales people, and researchers. Now, we’re the coders and we’re the ones building out the product.

Every few hours or so, we’d check in with the team and show them the progress we were making. They asked questions, offered feedback, and gave encouragement. But I started to recognize a familiar look on their faces–the same one I had worn on mine two years ago. It was a combination of awe, excitement,┬ácuriosity, and humility. They could give us their comments, but ultimately couldn’t influence how the actual product turned out. It’s a humbling feeling indeed. I would know.

By the end of the event, as everyone was saying goodbye, one of our team members came up and asked how he could learn to code. There was a determined look on his face. We gave him a coupon code and he promised to sign up for our course immediately. On our drive back home, another team member emailed Alex and in his own words, “I’m like super motivated to learn coding now.” He also wanted to enroll.

We went there to recruit users for BaseRails by giving out coupons and business cards. In the end, our conversions came from people who worked with us, watched us write code, and saw the immediate results of our efforts. They were inspired by what we could build–and they wanted to learn it for themselves.

I remember all the developers I’ve known over the years. When I would express interest in learning to code, they told me to just dive in. They told me it wasn’t that hard. They told me learning to program was the best decision they ever made. They told me that I could do it.

So that’s what I told my team members. And maybe in two years, they’ll be at another Startup Weekend, and feel what it’s like to be on the other side of the fence. Hopefully, they’ll remember what inspired them, and continue to pass on the message.

- Susie

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