Does a tech manager need to be tech-savvy?

By Shawna McAlearney, CIO.com |  Career, IT manager

To work in IT you have to have a tech background, right? Nope. With the right set of management skills, even a nontechnical person can make it as a successful manager. Sure, it helps to understand the bits and bytes of each employee's area of expertise. If nothing else, it means the manager can appreciate what the staff does right and recognize weaknesses. But how can managers accurately evaluate team performance or assign tasks when they know little or nothing about what the individual does? According to some technical employees, the answer is communication.

Making the Case for Tech Skills

That's not to say you can be a bozo about the area you're responsible for. People sometimes assume that a good manager can manage anyone. However, a case can easily be made that tech managers should have at least a rudimentary idea of what their teams do. To manage effectively, the manager needs to understand enough to allocate resources and to schedule reasonable time frames for project completion.

"A manager that knows less than the managed loses the respect of the team, unless (s)he is a really good professional that knows what to ask for, how to delegate, and can be supportive," says a developer named Victor." See Dilbert."

That lack of respect frustrates employees, say tech staff members. It translates to miscommunication that negatively impacts productivity and the user experience across the business.

"The untechnical management I've had just wasn't as effective in getting things done," says Donna MacLeod, a systems analyst at a medical diagnostic company. "The lack of understanding for technical matters meant that a lot of projects which really, really needed funding never took off because there was no one both technical enough and business-savvy enough to sell it to the board. We were constantly lacking funding even though we were literally running ancient machines which were the backbone of the business and patching together those boxes with parts ordered off of eBay--and this was a nationwide business, not some mom-and-pop shop."

While technical competency in the department's area of expertise is an obvious asset, being tech-savvy doesn't mean a manager has to be able to do the actual work step by step. Rather, an overall understanding of the technologies being used to meet business needs and how that ties into projects and department responsibilities is key.

"A technical manager should know enough to understand what the technologies we use do, to be able to participate intelligently in meetings," says Jeanne Steinback, a software project manager for Redbox, a provider of automated DVD rental kiosks. She elaborates: "...where we are in the lifecycle of a technology, beta, new, used and ancient, just to be able to make sure we don't stray too far onto the bleeding edge or the technical graveyard."

Michael Roth, an IT manager with Complete Production Services, a provider of oil-field services, adds that a tech manager doesn't need to be capable of doing every job within the IT department; however, the person "should be savvy enough not to be snowed in any area."

Alex, a software quality-assurance analyst, adds, "A manager doesn't have to know how to write code as long as he understands the methodology, processes and terminology around it as that's sufficient for the manager to support it throughout the organization."

People Skills Trump Tech Know-How

Yes, technical skills are important, and to be a successful manager, you should have at least a clue what your department is about. But when looking at a manager's skill set, employees say basic people skills are much more important than being technically savvy.

"The principal role of a technical manager is to be able to manage people and the skill you need to do that is good communication," says Pete Nairn, a test manager at a large IT solutions company in Europe, in another post to the Software QA forum.

Tom Jorgenson, a software architect at Tom Jorgenson Consulting, which provides C# development and architecture services, adds that trusting the technical competence of those being managed is critical. One of his favorite managers managed a joint team of software architects and Oracle database analysts. "He knew little about what we software architects did, so he simply said, 'Go fix the problem/design/whatever. Make me look good. Don't tell me about it.' The team was very successful."

Specifically, the four top skills cited for good managers--not just tech managers--include:

-- Communication. Managers need listening skills and the ability to work successfully with other departments.
-- Trust/Respect. Specifically, tech managers must respect the skills that employees bring to the table and trust them to do assigned tasks.
-- Set and manage expectations. Help staffers prioritize projects and generally manage the competition for resources.
-- Support. Advocate for their team. Represent the team interests to upper management, schedule realistic deadlines and obtain necessary resources.

While these skills may seem pretty straightforward, the combination would be a godsend--and employees know it.

"I think I am looking for a superhero manager," says Bonnie, a software developer; "A good manager needs to understand the role of our software in the organization, understand the technical underpinnings in order to develop an overall vision of where we are going--and also needs to be able to communicate with the higher-ups. That is a pretty tall order."

It's All About Expectations

Tall order it may be, but let's push this notion a bit further. In a service industry like IT, demands on staff are high. A good boss must know how to juggle the load to get things done without killing the staff to do it.

Bob Murphy, a senior software engineer at ACCESS Systems Americas, adds that a tech manager needs to be:

-- Tech-savvy enough to know what's realistic and what's not, and powerful or gutsy enough to protect his staff from unrealistic demands.
-- People-savvy enough to know who needs close managing and who can be given an assignment and cut loose.
-- Able to help staff understand and meet the client's needs, and network with people who can help them get the job done, both within and outside the company.

Hell, Do We Need Managers?

In these days of hectic work schedules and increasingly more responsibility, it seems many employees feel that managers aren't there to manage them but rather to eliminate obstacles to getting the job done. A manager who can do that will be rewarded with grateful, productive employees.

"If my supervisor needs to manage me, then s/he needs to fire me," says Gary Brown, extreme programming coach for Carfax. "I depend on my manager to be politically savvy, to understand technical issues at the been-there-done-that level and to remove barriers to progress."

Frustration when dealing with other departments is often a point where a good manager can help smooth the way and eliminate problems.

Ken Boucher, a former Smalltalk developer for First Data Corporation, a provider of electronic commerce and payment processing services, writes in the Extreme Programming discussion list, "I'm confused. I thought my manager's job was to manage issues, not me. I need a manager when there's co-ordination with another department that requires intervention or when it's unproductive to have me do it."

"For example," he adds, "I need a manager to handle all that HR stuff or find out why the DB2 department can't run a simple table creation without six weeks advance notice. I need a manager who can explain to the Six Sigma folks what we do in their language and why it isn't what they seem to think we do. I don't need a manager to manage me. I need one to manage them."

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