The beginning of the year is traditionally a good time to plan for the future. In most organizations, things slow down a little for the holidays, giving you a bit of breathing room to contemplate the future.

Many IT managers are looking ahead and asking themselves, “What skills do I need to acquire to get ahead? Is there a new programming language I need to master or a new network operating system I need to study? Perhaps I should focus on a particular enterprise application technology, such as CRM? On the other hand, maybe I should consider picking up an MBA and improving my business skills.”
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While it’s true that knowledge is good (as they say at Farber College), not all knowledge is equally useful in the career of a rising IT manager. In this column, I’m going to explain why I believe the most important skill for the IT manager of the future will be his or her ability to motivate people and not his or her ability to dominate a particular technology.

Our survey says…
Let me say at the outset that what follows is aimed at IT managers and those who would like to move into technical management. If you enjoy being a network administrator or help desk technician, for example, and you don’t particularly want to move into management, then by all means continue to focus on mastering the hot new technologies as a strategy for continued success.

What do technical managers want?

For the rest of you, take a look at the pie chart above. Earlier this month, we asked IT managers what they enjoyed most about their jobs: working with people or working with technology. We gave respondents three choices. The most popular response was the middle ground, with over half saying that they enjoyed working with both technology and people equally.

Now let’s look at the other responses. As you can see, almost three times as many technical managers preferred “working with technology” to “motivating people” and said that it was what they liked most about their jobs.

Since the survey was informal, it’s not scientifically accurate, but it does confirm my experience that many IT managers spend more time polishing their technical skills than their people skills.

After all, consider most of the IT managers you know. The vast majority of these folks came up the ranks from within the IT organization itself or were hired from some other firm’s technical organization. They got their shot at management by demonstrating their technical acumen or (perhaps) their project management skills. In that environment, it’s no wonder most technical managers look at technology as the key to their future success.

You can’t go home again
Given that, why do I believe that the ability to direct and motivate your staff is going to be more critical to your success than your ability to master new technology? Actually, I’ve got two sets of reasons. The first group is true today, and the second will be increasingly true in the future.

Even now, while technology wizardry is often your ticket into management, it won’t be the most important factor in helping you move up within the organization. If you doubt that, consider this:

  • Your skills will atrophy: I think everyone will concede the point that when you move into management, you generally have less time to work in your field of technical expertise.
  • Your skills will become obsolete: Consider the paradigm shift that occurred when programmers moved from DOS to Windows apps. While those kinds of dramatic shifts don’t happen every day, odds are that a good deal of your technical expertise won’t age well.
  • You can no longer specialize: Remember back when you first broke into IT. Chances are you specialized in one particular technology area. Perhaps you were a programmer, or maybe you were a networking guru. Whatever your field, you eventually focused on one main area, drilled down, and got the necessary expertise. As you move up in management, on the other hand, you need to be able to generalize—you can’t spend all your time mastering a single technical discipline.
  • You’re getting older: Granted, you might not be a living fossil, but the years take a toll on everyone. To a certain extent, technical mastery is a young person’s game. Think back to how much time you spent learning about the latest operating system when you were young. Remember how easy it was to stay up all night, pulling cable runs and troubleshooting Ethernet bottlenecks, then go home, grab a couple of hours of sleep, and start all over again? Can you really see yourself doing that when you’re 45? How about when you’re 55 (now that the NASDAQ meltdown is forcing everyone to rethink their plans for retiring at 40)?

As I said, these factors exist even now. In the future, you’re going to encounter even more challenges to a strategy of relying on technical excellence for future success as a technical manager. Here are some of the biggest:

  • The IT labor shortage won’t last forever: The laws of supply and demand will eventually work their will on the IT labor market, just like every other part of the economy. Whether it’s the continuing flood of paper MCSEs coming from training centers or the sustained excellence of programmers in Bangalore, the high salaries of IT professionals will eventually attract enough applicants to meet the demand.
  • Outsourcing will increase: While outsourcing and the ASP model won’t work for every company and every application, both approaches will keep rolling through IT organizations. What good will it do you to specialize in a technology that you end up outsourcing to another firm?
  • The technology will get easier to use: While the PC is still too complicated for many end users, the truth is that technology will continue to get more powerful and easier to use over time. Further, when something breaks, you’ll be more likely to replace it than to troubleshoot it and repair it. This will be as true for networks and servers as it is now for desktops.
  • You’re just not that good: I mean no disrespect—I’m sure your technical skills are excellent. But if even Bill Gates worries about being overtaken by some kids working out of their garage (and he does worry about that), what chance have you and I got? After all, you’re not just competing with the people in your hometown but in a worldwide market for IT goods and services.
  • You might not even be sharpest knife in your own drawer: Look at the new talent in your organization. I don’t know about you, but I’m impressed with the technical expertise of many of the new hires I meet today. They seem farther ahead of the game than I was at that age. Granted, they aren’t as properly reverential about my stories of making XMODEM work with a 14.4 modem as they should be, but nobody’s perfect.

What I’m NOT saying
Please understand, I’m not saying that technology will become irrelevant to the success of the average IT manager. Clearly, technical competence will continue to be important.

What I am saying is that the future will be a world where technology will be more powerful but also more ubiquitous and user-friendly. The future will also see a workforce that is much more technically proficient than we see today.

Therefore, the old model of just working as hard as you can to master all the details of a technology isn’t going to work.

Let me put it this way: If you want to move forward in the future, spend less time worrying how to get more out of a particular desktop computer and more time figuring out how to motivate and direct the programmer that uses that desktop. How do you do that? Well, that’s another column…
Are people skills or technology skills most important? Please post your comment to this article.