Someone once said, “Being a pundit means never having to say you’re sorry.” In other words, if you’re paid just to express your opinions, then you don’t have to deal with the consequences if your opinion turns out to have been wrong.

I’m not sure I buy that (who’s going to listen to the views of someone who is always wrong?), but I think it’s important for people who write a column like I do to occasionally look back at what they have written and see if it stands the test of time.

Today, I’m going to reexamine one of the most contentious issues for IT managers: Is it more important to be great at managing technology or at managing people? (Granted, in the best of all worlds, you’d be equally excellent at both, but what if you had to choose one over the other?) I’ll look at a column I wrote about this topic a couple of years ago and see what’s changed since then.

Before the tech boom went bust
I wrote “Finding the key to your future IT management success” in December of 2000. If you remember, that was after the Internet bubble had burst but before people realized that the entire technology sector was going to decline. The recession hadn’t started, and there was still brisk demand for many technical positions.

At that time, I was asking the question, what skills do IT managers need to get ahead? Nowadays, I’d probably rephrase the question: What skills do IT managers need to stay employed?

Either way, I don’t think I would change a word of this section:
While it’s true that knowledge is good, 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.

I still believe this to be true—in fact, I think it’s even more true than when I wrote it back at the end of 2000. IT managers who lose sight of this are likely to pay a price in the future. (That’s where the title of this column comes in. Just as James Carville and Paul Begala put up signs saying “It’s the economy, stupid!” in every Clinton/Gore campaign office to keep people focused on the central issue in the presidential election of 1992, I believe IT managers have to stay focused on the issue of people management or their careers will suffer.)

At the time, I made some predictions about the future that would make technological excellence less important than general management excellence. Let’s take another look at those predictions, and see how they’ve held up:

  • 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.
    Yes, Virginia, there used to be an IT labor shortage. Hard as it is to believe, once upon a time Java programmers and Microsoft Exchange administrators were hot commodities. They asked for (and received) great salaries and perks. Do you remember when technology companies would resort to buying billboards across the parking lot from their competitors, enticing their employees to jump ship? Alas, those days are gone, unlikely to return anytime soon.
  • 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 for you to specialize in a technology that you end up outsourcing to another firm?
    This was another no-brainer. While I’m not as gloomy as some, I think the future will see more outsourcing, much of that going overseas. Companies will always try to keep proprietary technology work done in-house, but routine infrastructure and support work will likely get outsourced.
  • 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.
    OK, I don’t blame you for laughing at this one. I do believe that as a general rule as technology becomes more ubiquitous it will become easier to use. However, it’s hard to argue that technology has become more user-friendly in the last couple of years.
  • 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.
    I still think this applies. When TechRepublic first published this article, I got some e-mail from IT managers who were angry that I was criticizing their technical ability. As I tried to make clear here, that wasn’t my intention. Instead, I was arguing a modern variation of the saying “he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” Just like in the Old West, there will be someone who’s faster on the draw. Perhaps I should have said instead that technical competence was necessary, but not sufficient. To be successful as a technical manager, your ability to motivate your people will be more important than your ability to master the latest technology.
  • You might not even be the 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.
    I think the jury is still out on this one. While there are some immensely talented young men and women entering the workforce now, it’s also true that the technology boom enticed a lot of poorly qualified candidates into the labor pool. I hear lots of stories about companies hiring people with fully up-to-date certifications who can’t do the simplest networking tasks, such as user permissions and domain administration. That will end in time, but it’s frustrating to deal with now.

By my count, that makes me 3-1-1 on my predictions. Much more importantly, I think the overall thesis is still valid. As I said recently in my column “Prepare now to be the IT manager of the future,” IT managers in the future are likely to manage an ever-changing mix of onsite and offshore contractors, outsourcing firms, and a small team of permanent employees. Success in that kind of environment will require men and women with extraordinary focus and motivational skills.

One thing I didn’t answer in either of those columns was whether you’re interested in being an IT manager in that kind of future. Personally, I’m much more interested in people management than constantly mastering new technologies. However, a lot of IT managers feel differently. If that’s the case, perhaps you should reexamine your career path.

From the IT Leadership Web log

I often point out articles on the future of IT on TechRepublic’s blog for technical managers and their bosses. It’s called IT Leadership—check it out today. It’s free, and I post to it almost every business day.