Over the weekend, I saved the cost of a plumber by snaking a shower drain at our house. Absurdly pleased with myself, I explained this triumph to my wife, making it sound as if I’d just single-handedly built a two-car garage. Distinctly unimpressed, she mocked my re-creation of the “snake incident,” as the event is now known.

Suddenly struck by a sense of déjà vu, I tried to remember a similar conversation I’d had recently. After a moment, it came to me. At a trade show last fall, an attendee came up to talk to me after my presentation and started telling me about a project he had managed. After he explained the parameters of the application, he leaned forward and said conspiratorially, “You know the best part? I even did a little bit of the code myself!”

Technical expertise: For most IT managers, it’s what got you where you are today. We’ve talked before about how many IT professionals resist going into management, in part because they fear losing their technical edge. In this column, we’re going to look at this problem again. This time, I’ll give you some questions to ask, in order to help you plan your career.
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Restating the problem
Let’s start by looking at the problem again. Suppose for a moment that you are an application development manager or team leader. Did you get your start in IT as a manager? Almost certainly you didn’t. Chances are, you started as a programmer. Perhaps you began writing VB or C++ applications, or maybe you began writing code for a specific enterprise application. The point is, you got your start by writing code.

Let’s assume it was VB. If you’ve been managing for more than a couple years, you’ve missed at least one and perhaps two revisions of the product. As Microsoft moves forward with its .NET programming initiative, how much of your VB background will still be relevant? And how much will be relevant a year from now? For that matter, what if your organization decides to move to Java-based application development? How relevant will your VB background be then? (More than you might think, but more about that below.)

As we’ve discussed before, for most technical managers, their hands-on skills begin to erode the minute they move into management. You can delay that erosion, but you can’t prevent it. Ironically, the more successful you are as an IT manager, the more quickly your skills will degrade. That’s because the more people you have to supervise, or the more projects you have to oversee, the less time you’ll have to keep your practical skills sharp.


Questions to ask yourself
At this point, you might be asking, well, what should I do? Should I just bow to the inevitable and not be concerned about my technical abilities? Not at all. By definition, an IT manager oversees the work of IT professionals. Therefore, technology is going to be at the heart of the projects you support. You have to decide how important your hands-on technical abilities are to you and plan your career accordingly.

To help you do just that, here are some questions that you should ask yourself on a regular basis. There are no “right” answers, since all of us will answer them differently. The key is to be proactive with your career: Decide what you want to do and then plan for it, instead of just idly accepting what the organization offers you.

  • Do I really want to be in management? This is the tough one. To answer it, you have to ask yourself why you went into management in the first place. At the end of the day, money can’t be the only reason. If you don’t get any satisfaction from the nontechnical aspects of your job—completing projects, training and mentoring employees, whatever—then the extra money you make as an IT manager simply won’t be worth it. Of course, most technical managers get a good deal of satisfaction from doing those nontechnical tasks, but if you don’t, then you should consider getting out of management altogether.
  • Are there certain management positions that permit me to do hands-on work? Depending on the organization, there may be management positions that allow a certain amount of technical work. For example, some development organizations have the lead programmer or team leader job title. While responsibilities vary from organization to organization, the idea is the same: These kind of jobs require a developer to assume a limited amount of management responsibility, while still spending the majority of his or her time programming. Again depending on the organization, you may find similar positions in help desk support or network administration.
  • Can I move from tactical technical competence to strategic technical excellence? As we said before, your technical skills aren’t irrelevant to your success as an IT manager, but you have to change your approach to technology. As a manager, for example, it’s less important that you know every detail of every XML schema than it is for you to understand the role of XML in document translation and updates. In other words, when it comes to technology, you need to stop thinking about your tactical abilities and start developing your strategic sense.

Remember, there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. They are designed to help you think about your career and decide what’s really important to you. The rest is up to you.
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