Leadership

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.

7 comments
macmanjim
macmanjim

While I have seen what the author describes, more often than not I see the situation where management sees a person, and it doesn't have to be tech, as good at whatever they were hired for and nothing else. This dead end approach is not only a career killer if one stays in such a place, but a soul crusher as well.

Audiblenod
Audiblenod

"Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand." -Putt's Law. I believe that people managers and those closest to the techs performing the work need to have some sort of 'hands-on' experience in order to facilitate the work load across all team members and to distill the information they get from the techs to give to the higher-ups. Without this understanding managers are at the mercy of the technicians and cannot properly access the situation on their own. Understanding the bottom-line and IT's role in an overall business strategy is important but for those first few lower level and middle managers, having more than a grasp of terminology is critical. I believe it's management's responsibility to relay the importance of business concepts and business goals to IT. A mentoring program with spheres outside a person's own group would foster a greater understanding for all employees and a company can then select individuals for management and supervisory positions.

sissy sue
sissy sue

I agree that a non-IT manager in IT is a disaster in the making, just as a marketing person in operations management within a manufacturing facility is. These people do not have the perspective or empathy to understand what they are expected to manage. I believe that some IT people can be effective managers, if they have the wherewithal or interest, but most IT people are probably better off and much happier remaining professionals. I think that business and society in general do a great disservice by presenting management as the ultimate attainment one can achieve in one's career. Why not reward and respect that great professional who gets knee-deep into the details of project operations and actually gets things done?

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Working in IT, doesn't mean you don't need it. I've had good managers, I've had bad ones, whether they knew anything about IT has been irrelevant. I'd rather have a manager who was good at managing, than a manager who WAS good at IT. A good manager pays attention to the process and or people they are managing, all else is self serving drivel I'd take a good manager as my manager, than someone who thinks they were / are a good developer any day.

waltersokyrko
waltersokyrko

I once believed the myth that non-IT people were better managers. After I became a manager and I worked with non-IT managers on joint projects, I realized that there are just as many incompetent non-IT mangers as IT managers. Here are some gems from non-IT managers: You want to see the project plan for my part of the project? Will this slide do? You want me to commit to a deliverable? I cannot do that; someone may hold me to the commitment. TCO? What's that? What can non-IT managers do well? They can create really great looking PowerPoint presentations. There may not be any information in the presentation but it looks great.

RMSx32767
RMSx32767

"And if they show ability, then they will climb a career ladder to a position of seniority in their chosen field." Only if those above choose to promote that person. If that person is viewed negatively for any reason including jealousy there will be no promotion. Good IT managers are born with the ability which is developed and improved through coaching, education and practice. If the IT genius proves an ineffective manager who remains in that position his/her name = Peter Principle. Sadly in the corporate world more money is tied to promotion into management. More money should be tied to strong job performance regardless of your title or position on the hierarchy chart.

blarman
blarman

Without exception, all of the non-IT managers I have had as my bosses in 15+ years have been an unmitigated disaster. In most cases, it is the finance types. The problem is that these individuals have no background in the subject matter. It doesn't matter how nice, intelligent, or great you are, if you don't understand the subject material of your department, you are not going to be able to effectively manage it! They may be able to communicate better to the business side, but they are clueless when it comes to the IT side! All you've done is substituted ineffective communication from one side of the equation to the other! What's even worse, is that now you have a manager who - by virtue of their complete lack of understanding of their employees' jobs - becomes completely unable to provide feedback to these employees and help them develop - creating stagnation, dissatisfaction and even antipathy towards the manager, and underperformance. Been there, done that. The only way to get good IT managers is to grow them. They have to understand the way your company uses IT - from technologies and platforms to business processes. They will undoubtedly need help from business managers to understand these items, so those business managers are going to have to dedicate time - weekly, probably - to mentoring these individuals.