IT Employment

Technical development managers are the exception, not the rule

In a recent poll, we asked members to rate their manager's technical skills. A surprising number of respondents don't seem to be very high on their higher-ups' technical skills.

The not-so-friendly stereotype of a development manager goes something like this: a tie-wearing “suit” holding court behind a mahogany desk decorated with stacks of books whose titles end in for Dummies and in  21 Days, with a healthy dose of trade magazines sprinkled in for good measure. The worst examples of this creature exercise a peculiar administrative style best characterized as “management by buzzword.” He or she routinely makes management decisions on the basis of a recently published (yet only partially read and understood) article—or even a colorful advertisement—in a trade magazine and can’t understand why the team always resists each new decision with such fervor.

As I said, it’s not exactly a friendly picture, but how accurate is it? According to a recent Builder.com member poll, it’s truer than you might like to think. When asked, “Does your manager have strong technical skills?” 51 percent answered “No,” with an additional 23 percent responding “Somewhat.” Simple math, or Figure A if you’re mathematically challenged today, will tell you the rest: The technical development manager is a rarity.

Figure A
Technically skilled managers appear to be rare.


Why is the case? In my book, part of the blame might lie with the fact that developers, by and large, don’t want to manage. Programming essentially deals with concrete, eminently controllable problems—problems that usually have solutions. Managers, on the other hand, deal with abstract problems that sometimes have no clear-cut solutions. The difference between the two theatres of operation can be jarring.

Making the leap?
Thinking of switching from coder to manager? Check out these Builder.com resources to make the transition a bit smoother:

Is it even a problem?
All nasty stereotypes aside, is technical acumen a necessary prerequisite for being a good development manager? As a friend of mine once put it, those who can, code; those who cannot, manage. It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone when I say that being an excellent manager of bits and bytes doesn’t necessarily equate to being an excellent manager of people. So should a development manager necessarily be technical? Does working for a nontechnical individual pose problems for you in your everyday work? Let us know by posting your comments to our discussion or, if you’d like a little privacy, sending the editors an e-mail.

Making the best of it
Working for a nontechnical manager does bring some challenges. Check out these Builder.com articles for some tips on coping with such a situation: