During the course of my IT career, I’ve worked with a lot of different managers. Some I’ve worked well with, others not so much. That’s probably as much me and my own personality quirks and is it the manager’s.
We all have different personality types and some personality types work well together and others do not. That’s just human nature.
But I think there’s two key ingredients a SUCCESSFUL Information Technology manager possesses.
I say “Information Technology” because I do live in that world, and I think I’ve gained enough experience and perspective working in that world, to see what happens when a manager DOESN’T have those two key ingredients.
I’ll also delve a little into why it’s also so DIFFICULT to find managers who possess both ingredients.
If you want to be a SUCCESSFUL manager of technical staff, you need to be TECHNICAL.
I really don’t see how you can get around this, yet I see plenty of managers who DON’T possess this skill.
Here’s another way of looking at it.
I’m not really a huge sports fan (sorry sports fans), but take football. Are there any pro football coaches out there who DIDN’T start out playing football as a career?
How would a football coach be successful, without first knowing the ins and outs of the game firsthand? Would the players gain any trust in their coach, if they knew he had little to no firsthand experience playing the game?
Actually football is just one example. Really would any professional sports player in ANY field, basketball, baseball, hockey, etc, trust a coach who didn’t rise up from the player ranks?
I don’t see how a technical manager is any different. Yet I see managers who somehow rise up through the managerial ranks, without possessing any significant technical experience.
I’m a software developer, by trade, but it really doesn’t matter what technical field I’m referring to…database administrators, network administrators, quality assurance testers, dev ops administrators, system administrators … any of these technical professions require managers, and I’m betting there’s plenty of managers in those professions without the core technical experience those professions require.
Software development, by its very nature, is HIGHLY technical and complex. It requires YEARS, maybe even DECADES to truly have master level proficiency.
A non-technical manager, who asks their software engineers, to whip something up, without any regard to the complexity and nature of the task, is the NUMBER ONE REASON engineers look for “fresher job pastures”.
I’ve had lengthy discussions with fellow technical developers, and trust me when I say this irritates developers to no end.
The manager who HAS come up from the technical ranks, tends to appreciate the complexity of software development. Production quality business enterprise quality software can’t just get “whipped up” like it’s a five minute omelet.
But I’ve worked with managers without any technical background, who think software can be “whipped up” because it just requires “typing on the keyboard”!
Now, am I saying there’s no leeway or wiggle room here? Can a non-technical manager learn and gain technical experience on the job?
Ideally, no. In the same way I doubt a pro NFL football team is willing to allow someone off the streets to coach a multimillion dollar sports team, the better approach is to find someone with the necessary technical background, to lead a technical team.
That being said, there’s the “ideal” and then there’s “reality”. A manager, who strives to learn more about the technical aspects and needs of their technical team, is far better than nothing.
It shows to the employees the manager is willing to get a better perspective and appreciation of the complexities of software development and completion estimation.
The manager who knows how complex accomplishing a particular technical task, will be less likely to throw their employee under the bus, if the employee explains any technical obstacles that could affect the proposed deadline of the task.
So that covers the first ingredient. The second ingredient?
I’ve covered this in previous articles, but “soft skills” are basically any other non-technical skills that a successful manager needs to possess.
In the same way a patient in the hospital relates better with a doctor with great “bedside manner”, a manager with great “soft skills” will be appreciated by people with technical or non-technical backgrounds.
The manager that possesses empathy, passion and the ability to relate to people is as important, if not MORE, than the manager without soft skills.
You might think we techies could care less about managers with soft skills, right?
I can’t speak for others, but for myself, I CAN’T work for a manager who doesn’t possess soft skills. I guarantee you I don’t work well with non empathetic robots.
Software development isn’t just hunkering down in front of a keyboard. We don’t work in a vacuum. We have to work with lots of other departments and lots of business role types. Sales departments. Marketing departments. Executive staff. Product owners. Project managers.
The successful IT manager needs to be able to work well with all these people. To be able to COMMUNICATE well with them. To handle CONFLICTS.
It’s not only external employees outside the team. The successful manager needs to be adept at conflict resolution with her direct reports. To handle problem employees that are causing conflicts with other team members. Or deal with personal problems the employees are going through…maybe a death or sickness in the family, health related problems, a whole number of “life problems” that can affect any of us.
Here’s the crux of the problem.
Finding a manager who possesses both the technical AND soft skills, is EXTREMELY HARD TO FIND.
In my experience, managers possess ONE or the OTHER but not BOTH.
I’ve got a few theories about why this is.
Firstly, I think many software developers gravitate towards technical professions for the very nature of the work. It’s technical. To actually do the work, you need to hunker down in front of a keyboard and CODE, distraction and interruption free from other people.
The last thing hardcore developers want to deal with are “people issues”…the things that require good “soft skills”, to handle.
Secondly, I think making the transition from developer to manager, is a truly momentous type decision.
In my observations, it’s an all or nothing jump. The developers who tell me they still thought it was possible to maintain their technical skills, when they jumped to managerial positions, have all told me it’s a fool’s dream.
The job of manager is a full time profession that requires full time dedication application of those “soft skills”.
That can be a scary jump! It’s one of those major crossroad decisions that can affect the rest of your professional career, and I’m betting many developers aren’t willing to make that jump from the technical to managerial track, just for that very reason.
The people in possession of both the hard and soft skills required in IT, are truly rare finds, in my experience. I don’t think there’s any easy solution here.
Recognizing and keeping an eye out for those ambidextrous folks with both “ingredients” is probably a good first step.