CXO

Talking Shop: Is a career in IT management right for you?

Make the best career decision before accepting a management position


By Joe Santana

Though many IT professionals are feeling a strong push to enter the world of IT management, some aren't sure whether they really want to fill that management role. They may see becoming a manager as a way to advance their pay and careers or of better securing their jobs during the tough economy. However, if management isn't the right role for you, such a career change could instead lead to personal disappointment and failure for you and your company.

Don't let this happen to you
How does someone who is a high performer as an individual contributor become one of these ineffective managers? Wouldn’t someone who is a strong team player simply carry all that great work ethic into his or her new management role? It would seem so; however, often your ability to perform well by feeling energized and connected to what you do varies greatly depending on what you are doing. You probably know people who are totally dedicated wizards in one area and completely ineffective and disengaged in others.

I met one such person a few years ago whom I will refer to as Fred. Fred was a dynamic and confident technical professional. He was valued by the company, praised by his boss, and admired by his teammates. When I first spoke to Fred, I could see that he was truly passionate about his work and that he was an extremely competent and skilled individual.

Shortly after we met, Fred was promoted to a management role. About seven months later, I met with Fred again, then into his sixth month as a manager. The once confident and happy engineer had become a tentative, fearful, and clearly unhappy manager. He complained about his team (former peers), whom he felt challenged his authority. He confided in me that he feared his boss regretted the promotion and was actually thinking of hiring another manager above him, which would bring even more negative consequences, according to Fred, because the team didn't need two managers.

He went on to talk about the long hours he was putting in trying to adjust to his new role and how, despite his efforts, he didn't feel that he was making any progress. He felt the team was falling apart—one of his best team members had quit, and another was not-so-secretly job hunting. He also told me that he didn't have the energy to keep up anymore. He admitted that he felt he was less than productive most of the time. As I left, Fred asked me if I knew of any job opportunities with some of my other clients—he was giving up.

IT management is not for every IT professional
People who are productive and happy as IT professionals often become ineffective and miserable when promoted to IT management roles. After all, being a manager is a totally different job from being an IT professional performing a technical job.

When you become a manager, many of the technical skills that you were really good at using and that you may have found fun become the context that allows you to understand the work your team is performing. Your new job requires you to learn and use a host of nontechnical capabilities, specifically the skills that enable you to direct and support the performance of your people. Priscilla Tate, founder and executive director of the Technology Managers Forum, based in New York, highlights the difference in the two roles like this, “Technology professionals are similar to baseball players, whereas IT managers need to be coaches.” And not all great baseball players have the skill and desire to be great baseball coaches.

How do you know if management is right for you?
So how can you avoid having your attempt to climb the career ladder turn into a short trip? How can you determine if IT management is the right career choice for you before you start lobbying for the position? These five tips can help you find the answer to these questions and more:
  • Read books on IT management. Find out what IT management is all about by reading books on how others have succeeded. Find out what makes a good manager. Ask yourself, “Am I like these people?”
  • Talk to successful IT managers. The quickest way to get the inside story on a profession is to speak to someone performing the work. Ideally, you should look for a disinterested third party, someone who has nothing to gain or lose by your decision. If you ask around, your friends and contacts can help you to identify IT managers who can give you the inside scoop. Request a 30-minute meeting and ask the person to give you an overview of a day in the life of an IT manager.
  • Do a historical career inventory. Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. At the top of one column place the heading “Things I liked about my past jobs” and in the other column, “Things I disliked about my past jobs.” Look at each job on your resume and complete each list. Then review what you wrote. Look for patterns. Do you like working with people (a management plus)? Or do you enjoy just being left to do your job on your own (a management minus)? Be honest with yourself. Remember, there is no good or right way to feel about these tasks.
  • Take online personal assessment tests. You can take a number of popular assessment tests, such as the Myers-Briggs or Keirsey personality tests, online for free or a very low fee. Such tests can give you an objective insight into your potential work preferences.
  • Test-drive the manager role. Before jumping into management with both feet, accept short-term assignments in which you are the coordinator or team leader for a project, such as a small relocation or software installation, to try out the role. Be aware of how you feel in this type of role. In fact, I recommend that you write your impressions in a journal. Start by writing what you expect to get out of the role. Follow up with day-by-day summaries of your experiences and complete the process with an overall assessment of your experience.

Once you decide management is right, now what?
If you then decide that the role of IT manager appeals to you, prepare to learn a completely new job. Commit to spending at least the first six to 12 months of your career learning the basics of your new role. But if you determine that IT management is not for you, start looking for other options that resonate with your individual talent, passion, and drives.

For Fred, finding his way back to a place where he felt he was contributing and vital came with a new job as a senior engineer. This in turn led to a position as a network engineer and on to a system design role. I recently ran into him and asked him how he would advise others considering IT management. He said, “Make sure you really want to be a manager and if you don’t…look for other ladders to climb.”

Joe Santana is coauthor of the book Manage I.T. He has over twenty-one years of IT experience and has held numerous executive-level positions with enterprise and outsourcing companies. Visit this site for more information on the Manage I.T. book.

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