You can throw out the standard management textbooks when it comes to managing highly technical disciplines in IT. This is a province where the best people skills among staff aren’t very impressive if you don’t have the technical acumen yourself to stay with them in technical discussions and decision-making.
People who have made their careers with their technical prowess are doers. They probably dislike meetings and collaboration, and may even consider them a waste of time. They tend to be introspective, and may be perfectly comfortable residing within the silos of their expertise. They also aren’t always open to new ideas if the ideas challenge their vast bastions of experience.
The plot thickens when you look at the managers of these highly specialized areas. Many come from technical ranks, which makes sense, since the focus of their workgroups is highly technical. Often, these work leaders are appointed to manage, but they aren’t comfortable with the role. They prefer doing the technical work themselves, and it can be sheer torture for them to have observe and direct the work, and not do it. They also tend to resent the “administrivia” that goes with management, like conducting performance reviews and interfacing with HR and other managers.
If you are an accomplished technical performer and you are suddenly thrust into a management role, here are some survival skills you can take with you.
Continue to support your staff’s “do, don’t talk” culture
At first blush, this recommendation seems to run against what most people learn in management classes, but it is very effective to sit down with a group or an individual on the technical staff to discuss a particular project or problem and talk technical about it–and not have meetings. Technical specialists tend to regard meetings as idle “chit chat” that keeps them away from their work. This is not to say that meetings should be eliminated–but they should only be held when they are highly purposeful and necessary. Managing by walking around, and visiting with folks about technical issues so you can identify tools or resources that can help, is a sound day-to-day approach.
Expect resistance to new technologies and tools
Systems programmers and database administrators in large shops earn six-figure incomes. They earned these incomes by polishing their skills in a particular technical specialty, and by mastering tools that have proven their worth over time and that they trust. Their career calling cards are their expertise and their ability to use these tools to solve difficult problems, so they are not always open to new tools and technologies that challenge the tools and approaches that they cut their teeth on. If you are considering a new approach or vendor toolset, it is really important to obtain staff buy-in before moving forward. If you can’t get buy-in, and you and the company have determined that it’s absolutely necessary to move forward, you should be prepared to lose people.
Be prepared to speak at budget and other high-level meetings
Some of the most difficult chores for technical experts who are thrust into management positions are written and verbal communications, presentation skills and negotiation. However, when managers have to attend budget meetings to get approvals for new technology, or when they have to explain a critical IT infrastructure need to the CIO, they must be able express their positions clearly, in plain English. Additionally, requests should be explained within the context of how the investment is important to the business. The isn’t always easy to do, especially if you are recommending an IT infrastructure investment. For instance, how will the ability to provision more operating systems help the company? A technical manager needs to spell this business proposition out if they hope to secure funds.
Managing a technical discipline is a delicate balance between “knowing your stuff” technically so you have your staff’s respect and being able to shift into a managerial role to sell the projects that you want the company to commit to. The key is finding a comfortable pivot point that fits your own management style and personality so you can maintain involvement with your staff, and still do the non-technical jobs that your company expects.
How to mediate disputes during an IT project
11 tips for achieving project portfolio management success
4 lessons IT management can learn from a home improvement project
Three ways to make performance reviews less dreadful