Leadership

Are managers who know how to do the work their team is doing better managers?

Good managers know how to lead their staffs even if they can't do the grunt work.

There are a couple schools of thought out there regarding how much a manager should know about the intricacies of the actual work his or her team does. Management purists believe that if you have the best leadership skills, you don't need to understand the details of what your team does. Others think that if a manager doesn't get in there and dig ditches with the rest of the team, then he or she couldn't possibly understand how to represent that team to upper management.

I can see where the latter point of view might come from. I believe leadership skill is a talent by itself. I've known many people who were promoted from within teams who ended up not having what it took to guide that team.

Some people believe that managers should know how to do the grunt work so they can better judge bandwidth and better understand what tools a team needs to get the job done.

Of course, the ideal person would have both leadership skills and intimate knowledge of the team's duties. The best leaders understand what their teams do, without having to actually get in there and write code themselves. They also have a "world view" of what the company needs from its staff to grow.

What do you think?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

48 comments
Flyers70
Flyers70

A good manager should know how the work is done and respect the manner in which it is done. He/she needn't actually have done the work and sometimes, it's better when they haven't. Then, they come into the job without preconceived notions on how things "should" be. As I read these responses, I'm quite amazed at what people think Managers are supposed to do with their time. If part of your answer is "get down and dirty with the team", you view on this is very misguided.

Jaqui
Jaqui

someone doesn't like the idea that a manager have some sort of tech skill / knowledge. well I also happen to think it helps if the manager has some knowledge of the work. they don't need to be as skilled as the rest of the department, but if they don't have some understanding of the technology then they can't actually represent the best interests of both the company and the department.

SUZILA
SUZILA

In order for you to manage and walk the talk, managers should have basic knowledge about it. Maybe not up to do coding but at least know-how the program logic. When the team having problem, they can share and expect an options as well instead one way communication.

edwardtisdale
edwardtisdale

Someone without the skills of the team needs to be open to learn from the team, and not just simply think that because they are boss that they always know what is best. If someone with such experience applies for the job they better very well prove management skills if they want to get the job before the applicant who does have management skills but not the tech skills takes the job and it will be better for everyone. I fear the boss who was hired to the position because of seniority but came from an entirely different department then they were chosen to manage.

schmidtd
schmidtd

That is why they have that show undercover boss. If you ask the question in a binary manner, can a good Manager know nothing about how the work actually gets done, the answer is clearly and resoundingly NO. They won't know the teams problems and, don't forget, also won't know if they are getting a snow job. If instead you ask, is the best technical member therefore therefor the best manager, the answer to that one is almost always NO also. Being a good manager also requires skills that a line technician won't practice often. That is what causes the confusion, people who train management skills lose sight of the importance of how the work is done, and those who do the work lose sight of all the other stuff that needs to happen to make an organization work. Almost by definition the Manager is the person who ties those two important worlds together. Edit: For those who have seen a good "Manager" with only apparently one set of skills, the Management function *can* be housed in more than one person/position. Two persons with good communication skills and a high level of trust can effectively manage as a team. But where someone is effective you will always find both skills present and accessible to the "manager". Some might say that communication is a management skill, as opposed to a skill needed by all, I would reply that both members of such a team would require this skill so again you would have an individual with high technical and managerial skills. So if you see someone succeeded as a manager, you will always find both sets of skills if you look.

csarka
csarka

I can tell you that from my experience, the manager that knows the job and willing to dedicate the over and above they expect from their employees, is the best manager. Managers that I have had that know what the job actually consists of and can do it themselves, give great advice and challenge me to solve the problem on my own with their guidance and this allows me to resolve the problem myself correctly (because they can guide me), learn and never have that problem again because I don't forget it. AND I have more respect for them as a manager. Unfortunately the manager that can't help me and has no clue is the last person I go to for help. I definitely agree with jose's driver metaphor response.

Phil.Knuth@CommuniceerLLC.com
Phil.Knuth@CommuniceerLLC.com

I've seen and worked in both types of environements: If the technology team is primarilly made up of "techno-engineers", then the manager should know some details of their work; If the team includes business-saavy Lead and Architect-level personnel, then the management doesn't need to know the techno-knowledge. An additional consideration is the culture of the management team... do they meet and make technical decisions? I worked for an excellent manager (best I ever had) as part of a professional team and the manager's administrative skills were a great asset to the company, but when the manager was given an adjacent department (team of techno-engineers), the manager was "eaten alive" by the team's disrespect and expectations that their "boss" didn't even know how their CLI worked. The manager was "moved out" -- a HUGE loss.

yattwood
yattwood

was the gentleman I worked for at an aerospace company. It was 1989; I was a very rookie IMS DBA (all you RDBMS whippersnappers - there was a time when you had to know your Prefix Resolution from your Pointer Checker....and yes, I currently support Oracle and SQL Server) - one weekend, I was reorganizing one of the major IMS databases (tons of indexes), and I did something wrong, and completely hosed it. I called my boss in a panic, crying - he came in, sat down, and fixed it, with me watching him. After he was done, the next words I expected to hear were: "You're fired!". Instead, he quietly turned to me and said, "Did you learn anything? "Yes" - and he NEVER said another word about it again (and I NEVER made that mistake, again) - Now, THAT was a MANAGER (he'd been a DBA.....and when there were serious, complex production problems, he could actually sit down at a terminal and take care of business). The other thing about him was that you couldn't _snow_ him about work, because he _knew_ what the job entailed!

maggie_t
maggie_t

The best non-technical managers know enough that they don't get 'snowed' and recognize their limitations. The best technical managers know enough about people management and administrative requirements to be able to get things done for their team. It's almost impossible to combine these two; I've seen it done, but rarely... The worst managers I've had lately have been non-technical who acted like they wanted to play with the big-boys (technical staff) and learn how to use the big-boy toys... ignoring his administrative responsibilities, and technical manager who just can't keep butting in with conflicting instructions to technical staff (hello - there's a technical team lead for a reason) and the laissez-faire type who just wanted to keep everyone happy with the resulting long-term costs re-work because of a 'snow' job. (snow job meaning someone with a personal agenda convinced the manager to approve something based on incomplete or erroneous information)

willmington
willmington

This subject really hit a nerve! I think that a manager's attitude is important in three areas: 1. Dedication to company- The company issues the checks. Fulfill the mission to the best of the manager's and his team's abilities. This usually involves challenging his team to stretch their skills. 2. Dedication to team members- Have respect for them but be honest and forthright at the same time. Be willing to go to bat for your people (great way to build loyalty!). Again, the manager also challenges his team but is careful not to overwhelm. 3. Learning spirit- The manager doesn't need to know every aspect of IT, no one can. If he manages a server team, he should know what they do. At least the basics but be willing to learn more about what the team members do. This will allow him to set realistic goals.

rhostetter
rhostetter

Evaluate where you fit into all this. Are you a Manager or a Leader?

klaasvanbe
klaasvanbe

The experience, if any, managers is in most cases 'out of time'. For example a person supposed to manage a team of Oracle DBA's knowing a lot of version 11 is probably rare. Her or his other competence(s) and/or skills might make her or him a "good" or "bad" leader. Can they judge the performance of the "techies" like a random experienced colleague or a hired specialist? Don't think so.

IT-b
IT-b

I've been in the business a long time, and have had most types of managers. It's always helpful if the manager knows enough about the grunt work to effectively communicate roadblocks to others, evaluate performance effectively and know where the team needs his/her help. I've had managers who used to be great technicians, who were also great managers. I've had managers who used to be great technicians, who earn a management salary, but still prefer to be down in the details instead of leading people. I've had managers with little or no technical experience who are fantastic leaders, because they seek to understand and are great at negotiating with the other departments to make sure life in IT stays sane and on track. And I've had about everything else in between. It's all case-by-case...it's hard to do it all, and some can definitely do it all. But lacking technical experience in the job doesn't necessarily rule someone out.

adamspivey
adamspivey

In my experience, companies who have managers who worked their way up through the ranks are run far more effectively. If you have never done the job of the person you are *directly* managing then you are not qualified to be their manager..period. I don't care how many degrees you have.

treyler
treyler

If a manager does not know how his team works, he cannot expect to have the respect of his team that he needs to be able to lead. If the manager cannot perform in the trenches, he or she will not be able to understand the issues that their team is bringing up. I had a captain that thought he was respected. The truth is, his RANK was respected. He was not. You earn respect from the people under you when you can and will do the job they have you in charge of.

douglas.gernat
douglas.gernat

I think the manager's actual management skills are most important, but the ability to at least have a general understanding, and more importantly, the ability to admit when he/ she is NOT the subject matter expert of technical details, is a close second.

GreenPirogue
GreenPirogue

Years ago, when I was first a manager, I got the job because of my leadership skills - I did not know how to do the work (my team processed travel vouchers). My team was made up of people who didn't have the highest education - and after the first couple of weeks, I could tell a few people had little respect for me. I did not really know how to do their job. Well, I got a bit of training, and learned how to do what they do. I could process travel vouchers and learned all of the rules. Afterwards, I got respect. I now work in a hospital system - everybody has advanced degrees, and knowing exactly what everyone does is less important. We all know what we do, and we have respect for those who do the work well and are professional. I really think it has to do with the level of the work force more than anything.

rpkohler
rpkohler

Managers who can do the work of their subordinates bring to the table 3 distinct advantages: 1. Provided that their title is an enablement and not an entitlement, they will build a better collaborative team by demonstrating that they will dive in and code if needed and that they will get into the thick of the situation with their team. 2. This type of manager can be another hands on resource when there are resource shortfalls or in times of crisis. 3. The manager can protect their own future by knowing that they have a skill to fall back on when upper management finally decides that this manager is expendable and they ultimately end up being laid off. My two cents.

chris76
chris76

A good manager knows how to delegate, spread the work and motivate people. Having in depth knowledge helps when the team is weak, this is when the manager needs to step in and bring the game up for his team thru training or knowledge sharing. It's a combination of skills that works, having used a 286 computer back in 1980 doesn't make you an IT pro, niether do knowing which quadrant your management style is.

Cartoon087
Cartoon087

I fully agree. I've been 'fortunate' to work with both 'types'. It's one thing to be able to manage but another to have the ability to be the last escalation point. A manager should be able to sit on his knees (get to his departments level) when needed. Another point. A manager cant agree to senior managements deadlines just because he feels he can make it happen. How does one install a complete server and configure DNS, DHCP etc in 1hour? So..knowing the detail is not a must but knowing at least the basics, in my books is essential. #MyOpinion ps: I have a manager with best of both worlds.

roelof.kannenberg
roelof.kannenberg

Managers should have a clear understanding, so that they could influence / assist with complex decisions. They needn't be absolute experts at everything their staff does, but they should be able to have detailed geeky / nerdy conversations with them about very technical work related stuff

tony
tony

The manager should know enough to understand the problems his team face, and not underestimate those problems, but not enough to do the job him/herself. A manager who can do the job completely may micro-manage and tell the people how to do the job instead of setting the objectives and letting the people do the job their own way. Thus the manager may well be a "Jack of all trades, master of none".

rengek
rengek

I have worked with managers across all spectrum, those good at the work, the bad and the ugly and combo with management abilities as well. The useless managers are hopeless in every way. From an IT perspective, the good manager with little to no IT skills can still be a good boss to work for. The one's with little IT skills but want you to believe they can be programmers are the ultimate nightmare. They dictate directions that makes no sense and don't want to hear it. In my 20 years of experience the 2 best bosses that I worked with have strong IT skills. They don't try to avalanche us with work because they assume it's easy. They know the work involved and they know its not easy. The second set of best boss are the ones who understands when I tell them its not easy because blah blah blah. At the bottom, I've had 2 bosses with one being technical but his management skills were in the toilet. He just couldn't get the job done. The other one is an apple fanboy who insist on spending 50% of our development time to make things work on safari even though our apple customer base is something less than 10%. He thinks he's a programmer but when we talk about difficult tech topics, he tunes out and makes stupid decisions (which is always). I remind him often that being able to write something in fox pro is not so relevant anymore. He doesn't like me much. But too bad for him I save his behind often.

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

Obviously it depends on the type of work being done. That being said there are certain universal management duties that require a little understanding: 1. Time management Managers who do not understand the work will often set unrealistic deadlines and have unreasonable expectations. 2. Promotions It helps to be able to see who is actually doing a good job vs. the brown noser who appears to be doing better and is actually riding the coattails of the people who deserve raises. 3. Advice When there are problems the management is looked to for direction. It's hard to settle disputes or give any sort of advice if you don't have a clue what it is you are managing. In conclusion, management skill is of course #1. Now that you have the job, do your homework. Take some time to really get a good idea of what your subordinates do on a daily basis. It's okay if the material is over your head but crack a book. If you can't understand the subject matter at all it should give you a better respect for your team.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

crap at coding, and good at managing, than the reverse. Leadership, that's a different skillset altogether. Most management disasters are the result of the fallacy that leadership = management.

Charvell
Charvell

in my experience it helps immensely when you have at least some first hand experience. It is always best practice for a Foreman in an autoshop to be an experienced mechanic. Most Foreman don't do much actual wrench work, but it helps for them to know what to expect from the mechanics. Same holds true for any other kind of work, be it IT, Accounting, Sales, etc.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

A mechanic to drive a car A chicken farmer to get eggs Of course if the car breaks down and there isn't a garage, or the store ran out of eggs it might help to have detail knowledge and resources. Thus the question is - How good is the corporate support structure towards said leader(s)? If it isn't very friendly it might help to be self sufficient, at least until you get stabbed in the back because of your ability to get things done.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

who think that skill set is transferable to a management role. To be fair corporates have been encouraging that particular fallacy for a long time now.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Straw man. I neither want nor need a manager who can code as well or better than I. In fact any manager who sells them selves like that is simply going to end up doing both roles badly. The two real management skills, are picking good people providing an environment they can be good in. That fact that they know what a closure is, is completely irrelevant.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

You start articulating the problem, and realise you made a daft assumption or missed a step... Better still because they aren't au fait, you can back off before they realise you've been a pratt. :( Technical mentor, especially when you are starting out is very valuable, doesn't have to be your boss though, quite often it won't be.

KMacNeil
KMacNeil

"Unfortunately the manager that can't help me and has no clue is the last person I go to for help" My manager is never the one I would go to for technical help. On the other hand, a technical colleague is not the one I would go to if I had a problem with getting through a political roadblock, or an HR problem, or a personnel problem with another colleague, or needed to take a day off because my kid is sick, or ... There are plenty of non-technical things that a manager needs to know in order to be a good manager. This is just the tip of the iceberg. While I completely agree that a good manager should understand the technical stuff to the degree that they can guide you and challenge you and help you grow, they don't need be able to do the technical stuff themselves. There are not enough hours in the day to do everything they need to do in their own job, let alone trying to stay current with the ever-changing technology.

klaasvanbe
klaasvanbe

I made about the same change: From ancient network/hierarchic (IDS) database with Cobol as host to contemporary RDBMS on various platforms. Both need from time to time real support "hands on" and/or moral support, supervision. The not so technical manager can do less than the one with skills, but being there, giving just moral support helps a lot too. When they don't a specialized volunteering colleague is in this case more valuable.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

about, or as important realising they don't, can't see why an Oracle 8 bod couldn't manage an Oracle 11 department. In fact possibly heretical, may be a sql server 6 bod. :D

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

When did manager automatically mean leader? I have no problem with giving a manager's coding skiils the respect they deserve, I'd rather respect them for their management skills though. Every boss I've ever had who thought they could do my job, was wrong, more than a few of got respect for what they were good at though.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

So basically a manager who can code is good idea if they manage the job so poorly they don't have enough coders. And the personal bonus ball, is when they are proven to be crap at management they can go back to coding because they've kept their hand in... Expendable, more like surplus to requirements. Management is a full time role.

rfolden
rfolden

"having used a 286 computer back in 1980 doesn't make you an IT pro, niether do knowing which quadrant your management style is." QOTD!

fhrivers
fhrivers

People always assume in IT that you can either have a manager with either good technical skills or good management skills. Why not both? Why does IT seem to have lower standards than other fields. Back to the hospital analogy, a nurse manager gets appointed not because she's a good nurse or a good manager, but because she's good at both.

fhrivers
fhrivers

Someone who is the liason between the management team and their staff needs to have at least a working knowledge of what his department does. How many times have you seen a bean counter appointed to Nurse Manager at a hospital? It doesn't make sense. Would a vanilla manager make a good construction Foreman? This has been the situation in IT where bean counters with great management skills have been made into IT Managers. Yet we have people who know jack and squat about technology making decisions on it and setting unrealistic time tables based on dollars and cents instead of what's practical and realistic. The manager should also be able to get down and dirty with the rest of his team at crunch time and finish projects.

insenserTECH
insenserTECH

Using the car driver metaphor, the best (racing) drivers are exceptionally good at communicating with their mechanics, for the to do their magic tuning the car. They FULLY understand the car, even if they don't know the intricacies of chassis, suspension and tire setup or engine electronics programming...

yattwood
yattwood

Ah, your mention of Oracle 8......when you have users who lack the 'dead presidents' and/or the will to upgrade systems, you have IT departments containing anything from Oracle 8.1.7.4/SQL Server 2000/Windows NT4 (don't ask) through Oracle 9i, Oracle 10g, and I have been privileged to install one of the first Oracle 11g Release 1 (I wanted to do 11gR2, but the vendor wouldn't let me: "we don't certify our application on that release of Oracle, yadda, yadda, yadda") at my location) .We finally have been allowed to install SQL Server 2008 on Windows Server 2008 the DBA's have been _begging_ to install SQL Server 2008 for months (even I, who prefers Larry's Database on Real Operating Systems (Oracle on UNIX) - I like SQL Server 2008 (but my heart still belongs to Larry.....)

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

the reality of making said decision was as logical and objective as you assert. My past experience with this dance tends towards the petty, illogical, comfortable and downright absurd in making those hiring decisions.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Never realised we had any input into the selection process. :p It would be nice, but a person who knows the domain, was good in it, and is a good manager and a good leader, and recognised by their boss, and not feared by them, bit thin on the ground.... A good manager sets up an environment their people can be effective in, I'll settle for that.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

A Good manager will be a good manager whether he has a full understanding of the tech's job or not. As a good manager, he will listen to and respect the input of the techs. That will be a win-win!

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

Or why does a title brand one as damaged goods for the job at hand?

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

SQL 2000, 2005 and 2008, quite possibly 2011 before we can get 2000 dropped as well, which will mean a code branch instead of lowest common denominator approach. My manager is far from aware of all the differences between these versions (come to think of it neither am I :p ), he understands can't do this because it isn't in the earlier version, or will have to do it twice. The other foolish assumption is that knowing 11 in detail means you know 8 to the same level....

Riddickkk
Riddickkk

In a previous position. We were tasked with selecting the final 2 of which one would become our manager.

Editor's Picks