Forget coding. Startup founders should focus on Product & Design.

Last year (2011) learning coding was hot, may be it still is. Sites like Code for America came up; startups like Codecademy, Learnstreet, Udacity, etc came up that were focusing on building products that enabled others to learn coding in an interactive way. Then it looked like a kind of movement, a revolution in making.

Being a startup founder some of those effects trickled down to India – that made me seriously consider coding. And there were some other reasons as well. We started¬†Wishberg by outsourcing product development to another company. As deadlines were missed repeatedly, this whole ‘founders should be coders’ effect started growing on me.

During this phase I did two things a.) started hiring our own engineering team b.) learn coding inspired by this noise. I started learning very enthusiastically to an extent that my bio read that I was learning to code. Going through multiple forums, registering on these websites, taking lessons on LAMP stack and so on. A bit of background, being a engineering student (though Mechanical) – I had some basic coding background. Few years back, I even built some basic websites, did a bit of javascripts, etc.

As we started hiring engineering talent I asked myself two questions –

  • Will I ever come up to the level of proficiency that matches our engineering team?
    No. I was no where close to them.. while I was doing ABC of coding, our team was super involved in deploying code, implementing Redis / Node.js, building scalable architecture, mobile infrastructure and so on. I didn’t want my team to tell me I suck on programming (which I knew I did anyway). More importantly, I wanted the team to focus on building our product and not spend timing teaching me code or correcting my code.
  • Will I ever hire anyone who has learned programming through online sites?

I also checked with few technical founders who raised investments; few agreed that being a tech founder was probably a added advantage while raising money. But many of them also mentioned that post investment they spent more time finding product-market fit, doing business, improving their product, user experience, managing investors (many a times!) and eventually spending lesser and lesser time on coding themselves.

Eventually all startup founders end up focusing only on consumption side of product (front end user experience, improving funnels and conversion metrics) than the one under the hood. This is when I gave up my decision to learn coding and started focusing on learning design (user design and user experience) which is as core to product as technology is. I started spending more time understanding design tools, design patterns and implementing them on Wishberg. I am no where saying underlying technology, architecture, speed, and scalabilty are not important.

For online businesses, there is no doubt scarcity of good engineering talent; but there is more scarcity of product designers and even much more scarcity of product managers. Startup founders knowingly / or unknowingly start getting into product management role.

I have been a product guy for about 7 years and now feel that I should have learned design long back. Our team not just gets product documentation from me, but also product designs including all scenarios and exceptions. There is a certain clarity of thought which engineers appreciate and exactly know what is to be built – which save lot of time while shipping code / features. Every month, we look at data, un-design by removing clutter, remove additional clicks and aim to improve conversions on every step.

Geek Example – The 2012 Formula 1 Season had 12 teams of which 4 had the winning Renault RS27-2012 engine on their cars. Yet there was only one winner – The Red Bull Racing team. The original Renault team (now Lotus Renault GP) which manufactured and supplied the RS27-2012 engine to Red Bull team stood fourth in overall 2012 championship. In fact Red Bull won the championship for last 3 seasons with the Renault engine. What really mattered – the product RB8 chassis. More importantly the people driving the product, its team – drivers Sebastian Vettel & Mark Webber, Team Principal and Chief Technical Officer.

Concluding Notes:
What engine you have under the hood (technology) matters. What car / chasis the engine drives (the product) matters more. But what matters most is who is driving / leading it. Don’t get over obsessed with technology, focus on product & design.

So all those who complimented us on Wishberg‘s product design & usability… need a hint on who was the person behind it? Yours truly.

  • shalombook

    “understanding design tools, design patterns” can you pls share more details & resources. Would be a good starting pt for us who are interested in learning this.

    • Pravin J

      design patters for modules. standardizing product flows like – registration, sharing, my account, checkout, commenting, etc.

  • Ayush Jain

    Yet another amazing and informative article !!!

    • Pravin J

      Thanks Ayush

  • Bilal Budhani

    “Will I ever hire anyone who has learned programming through online sites?
    No” this point is not clear to me apart from that I liked the article.

    • Pravin J

      Someone who has learned coding through sites like Codecademy, etc.

  • anubhav tyagi

    this is a post I had been waiting for a long time! I too have studied mechanical engineering and instead of becoming a mediocre developer i have focued to be the product manager and am looking after usability and design. I would love to read more about your way of managing the team as I think the coders are more driven to code efficiently and aren’t always as passionate about the core problem of the startup’s customers.

    • Pravin J

      Thanks Anubhav

  • Abhinav S

    Good article. Agree with most part.!

    • Pravin J


  • Vibin

    “Will I ever hire anyone who has learned programming through online sites?

    Care to elaborate why?

    • Pravin J

      The kind of expertise required to solve challenges, real-life situations, building own framework, choosing which method / logic / tech / algo will give faster/better results is not taught on these sites. it only comes with experience.

      • Vibin

        Well of course, these sites won’t teach that. But they are there to help you kick start programming and once you’re done learning, you are the one who should apply it and build stuff.

        If everything is taught, then what’s left for the learner?

        I’m pretty sure there are many good developers who use the web to ‘learn’.

        I can especially talk about web design here, say Javascript and HTML5 – if you’re trying to learn these two, the web is the biggest resource for you. Be it MDN or blogs like NetTuts or Stackoverflow, the list is just too big. You can also make use of the programming books you get on the web.

        As far as ‘real-life situations, solve challenges’ is concerned – you’ll aquire that kind of expertise when you actually start tinkering with code.

        PS: I actually use Codecademy and many other sites (and books) for learning programming. My University lecturers suck at it (same with most of Indian universities) and all that is left with me is, the web.

        • Pravin J

          Thats exactly the point Vibin. These sites teach only basics. I wouldn’t hire anyone with basic knowledge and give him a time for a year to learn on a startup product. Startups have to execute fast. Startups can experiment with ideas, but not with people. They need to hire the best.

  • Himanshu Geed

    Fortunately, I read this blog post just in time when I was in dilemma to pick up coding or not. Being a non-techie cofounder, no single day passes by when I don’t ask myself this question. Your post is very useful in resolving the issue for me.

    Could you shed some light on the resources you might have used to learn front-end user experience (UI/UX) skills?

    • Pravin J

      Thanks. Start exploring many products, study design & user experience standards for critical flows like – registration, sharing, user on-boarding, search, etc. It depends on the product you are building.

  • exploringme

    A more detailed method is always appreciated. Im so thankful on these lessons.

  • wizardofid

    Not sure how I landed here, but a nice observation. As someone with a history and education in engineering and art school (product design), I’m happy to see that many tech start-up founders get the ‘design thinking’ approach i.e. slick user-friendliness, etc, very easily. This was the undoing of many ventures not to long ago.

  • Alok Kejriwal

    All I see is someone who wants to be hailed as a force in Tech but is lazy enough to not be able to learn how to code.

  • Amit K

    Nice post. Agree with things said here.

  • saurabh sharma

    Hi Pravin…As am sure you already are aware , your insights & the ability to express them are great.Kudos to that …. I m into my own startup as well ( IoT & Mobile Apps) & of similar background as yours both in exp & qual., so to cut the long story short, truly agree with the article above on Product design. You mentioned that you learned Product Design .. Could you help guide from where ?,, Specifically 2 categories a) Apps & b) Product – h/w design (outer body design for an electronic product)…Would be great if you could suggest some online tools or resources that you are aware of that helped you understand this space better. ..Thanks