I get this question on a regular basis, and it’s true. It’s rare to find developers that are on the same page on everything with their founder. Communication in a relationship is hardly easy, but this interdisciplinary work relation proves to be particularly challenging. Today we’re asking “why?”. Why does it feel like you’re speaking different languages?

Breaking it down with empathy maps

To better understand the situation, we need to better understand its participants. You may already be familiarized with an “empathy map.” It’s generally used to summarize your customer’s needs, wants, worries, what they’re exposed to, what occupies their thoughts, etc.

Let’s use this tool to better characterize the two protagonists in the startup’s purest form: the founder and the developer.

The non-technical founder

Take a good, hard look.

It’s a lot of information, but it’s exactly what we need to get into the founder’s headspace in this interaction, and ultimately identify where communication goes south.

Founders know they need a developer, but they make no distinction between types of developers, types of technologies, or even between developers and UX (user experience) designers. There is an obvious technical knowledge, but it’s also fueled by a lack of interest in the developer’s work.

You could say founders don’t want to know how the sausage is made, they just want to put a price tag on development and get it over with. They are eager to move on to their vision.

The developer

As we can see, developers are a completely different story. They are all about making the sausage. Okay, that doesn’t sound great, but you know what I mean. Developers are a 100% focused on getting from A to B with their code. Sometimes to a fault.

Looking at their target too closely tends to be a problem for developers. The computer will never talk back to the developer saying, “I know developers that could have done that in 20 lines instead of 1,000.” It just doesn’t happen. The lack of external input while programming, the extended hours looking at the same bits of code without any human interaction—this interferes when trying to understand things from a new perspective, for instance, from the founder’s point of view.

Bridging the gap

In every multidisciplinary work relationship, there needs to be common ground in order to communicate effectively with each other. The issues come because the non-technical startup founder and the developer rarely have overlapping skills, interests, or even ways of interpreting the world.

So try to find those areas where you can bond over, and you should both get a sense of how each other processes information. Use this as a founder to make clear technical specifications since they’re going to be your best friend. The technical specifications will help translate the founder’s vision into practical guidelines a developer can understand and adhere to. You can check out my other articles on why you should write them yourself and what they should contain to learn more.

Ask the developer to paraphrase your requests back to you to ensure you’re being understood. You should both couple any suggestions or criticism with education and empathy, so provide a basic idea why you have that opinion and try to look at the situation from the other’s perspective. As the founder, you are the expert in your industry, your market and your customer, so it’s your job to describe the customer’s experience clearly and your developer should know exactly what you expect.


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