CXO

Good IT managers - are they born or bred?

Overpromoting a senior engineer into a management role can end up wrecking perceptions of IT in the organisation. Yet the alternatives may prove equally unpalatable.

Often the new IT manager, who has risen through the ranks, doesn't get communication and coordination - and so ignores them altogether. Photo: Shutterstock

Any parents among you will be very familiar with the nature or nurture argument. You try to bring up your children in the same way, yet the differences between siblings is a constant source of amazement. How does one child develop artistic talents, while another is scientific and logical?

Of course, it's a little different in the professional world. Self-determination and career choice tend to dictate that individuals find themselves in an IT role. And if they show ability, then they will climb a career ladder to a position of seniority in their chosen field.

Then they reach a point where their proven technical skills, by themselves, aren't enough. They can't rise to the challenges of management, which include communication, human resources, account management, administration, responsibility, advocacy, patience, and - perhaps the biggest challenge of all for a technical supremo - ambiguity.

Then one of several things can happen, which can have a serious impact on an organisation. A senior engineer acquires line management responsibility, and soon realises that the world of team management is not the same as controlling a virtual-machine estate, a SQL cluster or international MPLS network.

He or she may have some ability at dealing with people rather than petabytes, but finds it just doesn't provide the same level of satisfaction or sense of achievement. Seeing the lights stay on when testing a datacentre failover process gives a bigger buzz than resolving a dispute between warring engineers.

Another scenario: a critical service fails and everyone looks to the senior engineer, now department manager, for updates, information and reassurance about that critical service. What the new department manager is aching to do is investigate the problem, troubleshoot, and fix it. It is, after all, what he or she's being doing for years, and is very good at it. But there's no time for that.

Sorting out IT manager priorities

The number one priority is communicating with the organisation, some members of which will be very senior, and require clear and timely updates not just on what the problem is, but also why it happened and when it will be fixed. Also, having been promoted, there will be other senior engineers whose responsibility it is to fix the problem.

If the manager wades in, pushing them to one side, how will that affect team morale in the future? Trust in the manager by his or her staff will be reduced, leading to a team management problem as well as a technical one.

In the meantime, senior management are back on the phone asking for updates, and why it isn't fixed yet.

So the new manager is being pulled in several directions at the same time. Fix the problem quickly, as he or she is used to doing but then damage the team. Or step back from the operational side and deal with the leadership tasks of communication, coordination, and that crucial and under-appreciated job, of department PR.

It is events such as this scenario, and how they are perceived by the organisation, that determine the reputation and profile of the IT department, for months and years to come.

Is this easy for someone who's worked in the highly-controlled environment of systems and networks to do? Not in my experience.

What often results from these stress situations is frustration. Obviously the business and its users will be frustrated at not being able to work, but the IT manager will feel immense frustration at having to having to deal with the irrational - irate users, and peeved senior management - and the uncontrollable - engineers trying to deal with a fault they could probably fix more quickly by themselves.

Management frustrations for techies

This frustration is, in my opinion, what leads to those put in this position to quit IT management, and move back into the more familiar world of technical consultancy or engineering.

But there is a worse outcome, which is that the new IT manager, who has come up through the ranks, doesn't quite get the communication and coordination role, and so ignores it altogether.

Users and managers are left to work it out for themselves, and he or she maintains that this state of affairs is perfectly acceptable. So the organisation is then stuck with a key member of the management team who, first, is now looked down on by other senior members of staff. The whole of the IT operation suffers lack of respect and integration as a result.

Secondly, and this happens probably more often than we'd care to admit, that organisation is held to ransom by one ineffectual manager who just happens to hold the keys to the operational crown jewels, who mustn't be upset due to the perceived power held.

These situations happen due to a belief that good engineers - which every organisational discipline has - make good managers of engineers. Unless you're very lucky, in my experience, the opposite is actually true.

Finding an experienced member of the IT team who has the attributes to become a good manager, and who also wants to be a manager, is very difficult. And even if these two criteria are met, a lot of effort - and some cash - needs to be invested in mentoring and training, to make that transition successful.

Recruiting managers from outside IT

There is an alternative, although I've yet to see or hear about one actually working. This approach is to recruit the IT manager from a non-IT discipline, such as finance, facilities or - take a deep breath - marketing.

The rationale is partly to solve the problem described, but more likely, as a way to turn IT from being just operational, to being more business-aligned - being part of the corporate conversation and helping shape it, and adding measurable benefit as a result.

Of course, it should be possible to achieve this aim of business-alignment through the traditional route. But that will depend on a number of factors. The size of your talent pool, for a start. Smaller organisations will generally not have much of a choice.

Next, the amount of investment in time and money senior management are willing to commit to turning your senior engineer into a leader of men, communicator, entrepreneur, who eats frustration for breakfast.

And that's a difficult cocktail to shake. It needs vision on behalf of the board, time, resource, and a little bit of luck. Get it right, though, and it could make the world of difference to the smooth and successful running of your business.

About

Gavin Whatrup is group IT director at marketing services company Creston. He previously held the posts of IT director at advertising agency Delaney Lund Knox Warren, and IT manager at Vizeum and the Radio Advertising Bureau.

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