CXO

First Person: Climbing the IT career ladder

Can a LAN administrator successfully make the transition to IT manager? Here are some things to keep in mind as you plot your career strategy.


In the world of information technology, several career paths can lead to success. Some professionals choose to stay close to the technology, while others prefer to head down a management road. In this article, I’ll describe some of the challenges, differences, and potential pitfalls faced by technologists making the jump from guru to manager.

One IT manager, hold the ego
One of the biggest challenges that typical technology professionals face as they move up the IT food chain is keeping their egos in check. Many developers, database administrators, and network engineers pride themselves on their technical knowledge and ability. But sometimes that pride can get in the way of making good business decisions.

Most businesses need their IT managers to be instruments of change and to be able to make fast decisions. And they need those decisions to be right the first time. Having a big head and touting your technical expertise may help solve problems when you’re in the data center, but the CEO isn’t going to care that OS/2 is technically proficient if his e-business software doesn’t run on it.

The grass isn’t always greener
Many technologists think that the decisions the IT manager makes are easy or black-and-white. Their attitude can sometimes be quite cavalier: “So what if XYZ software doesn’t work? Let’s throw it out and pick something that does!” Unfortunately, there may be costs, staffing issues, and partner relationships that depend on XYZ software—and although throwing it out the window may solve your company’s immediate issue, doing so may create problems for everyone else involved.

IT managers must maintain a fine balance between the IT staff and the executive management. Often, there are politics, policies, and relationships that need attention and nurturing. While it’s nice to be in a position of responsibility and feel empowered to make decisions, there can also be a lot of pressure and influence from the company stakeholders.

Don’t lead the way—clear it
Many technical leads see themselves as a natural choice for IT management. However, they may not understand the differences between leading a technical team and being an IT manager. A technical lead usually challenges the team, makes technical decisions about system rules and design, and mentors other technical team members. An IT manager still helps in these areas, but additionally takes on the subtler role of influencing, rather than deciding the technical details. IT managers also deal more directly with personnel issues, budget issues, and strategy.

The IT manager has to learn to be more understanding of others’ abilities and find ways to help them grow. Rather than push the team through projects, a good IT manager will lead by example and help eliminate the obstacles before them. A good analogy is that the technical lead drives the tank, but the IT manager sends bombers ahead to eliminate the obstacles. As good as the technical leader is, he’s worthless if the tank can't get to the other side of the river.

You can’t please everybody all the time
Everyone knows that there is no way to make everybody happy. One of the keys to remember is that there are certain people you will need to please and others that you would just like to please. Because your priorities are always changing, keeping focused on those you need to keep happy will help you in the long run.

Sometimes, an IT manager tries to please the right people but doesn’t do it the right way. One challenge many managers face is determining when to defend their decisions and strategies. You need to remember that a certain amount of responsibility and power has been delegated to you for a reason. If you simply back down whenever the executive heat starts to burn, you probably won’t be helping the company.

Learning to let go
Another pitfall IT managers should watch out for is being too hands-on. Often, when technical issues arise, IT managers jump in headfirst to solve the problem. They spend their time handling the project and forget what their role is. This behavior is usually driven by their egos. They want to be the hero who saves the day. As I said before, it’s important to remember to keep your ego in check.

New managers sometimes miss the glory days of being a code jockey or network engineer. Once they realize that the manager’s grass isn’t as green as they thought, they start to miss their old familiar technology lawn. As an IT manager, however, it’s vital that you understand your responsibility and your role.

By solving the problem yourself, you are robbing your employees of a valuable learning experience. Most technologists learn by experience, and if you’re the one having the experience, they are simply not getting the best education. Remember that a leader walks in front and doesn’t push from behind.

Your staff won’t be happy when you steal their thunder and the executive management won’t be happy when you neglect their other 10 projects. You can’t please everyone, but you should try and please someone.

And finally, justletgo. This can be a tough step to take. However, once you let go and allow the technologists to solve the technical details, you’ll be free to focus on strategies, decisions, and management. These are the characteristics that make a good technology manager.

Brian Schaffner is the director of information technology for Directec Corporation. Before assuming his current role, his career had taken him from LAN administrator to senior developer to manager of Internet services.

If you’d like to comment on this article or share your own advice for advancing your IT career, please post a comment below or follow this link to write to Brian.

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