Managing the People or the Technology
This is my site Written by Alora on October 15, 2008 – 8:21 pm

In the world of IT Management there are typically two types of leaders: “IT Professionals who Manage” or “Managers who work in IT.”  A nonsensical distinction to some, I’m sure, but in the IT world, it is always a big source of debate.  How often do organizations promote their rock star developer or engineer to a management role, only to discover that those who do well do not always manage others very well at all?

Mature IT environments understand that there are two career tracks for technical professionals:

The Technical Path – Being a highly specialized (and often ridiculously well-paid) technical expert with a very demanding skill set who is best leveraged as an individual contributor to a technical team/organization.

The Management Path – Being a business person who understands how to walk the line between the business of the business and the technical folks who do critical and specialized work.

Most organizations suffer from a couple of challenges when it comes to understanding and managing this distinction: they either preoccupy themselves with looking for someone who is equal parts Manager and Technologist (and those people are very, very few and far between) or they assume that being technical is the more important skill set, so they promote technical people into management roles and then wonder why the team isn’t being managed.

Over the years, I have seen far more success in finding a manager who can function in an IT environment than I have finding technical people who can learn to manage well.  And really, if you think about it, that makes quite a bit of sense: technical work is very often solo work, and it tends to attract people who like to work alone (for the most part).  How many geeky, introverted stereotypes are there out there about technical people who speak in jargon and have lousy social skills?  And while I’m not one to promote stereotypes, the fact is, those tired old jokes have their roots in some common truths.  Given that, is it really reasonable to expect the quiet, fairly anti-social, introverted technical specialist to suddenly blossom into a dynamic and engaged leader who regularly interacts with and helps develop his team?  Not usually.

Now, of course not all developers, engineers, DBAs or other technical people are introverts who would rather play video games than interact with people face-to-face.  And quite honestly, those are often the most successful IT professionals out there.  But they are a pretty small minority.

What is typically the most common recipe for success, however, is a business person who loves and understands IT.  A person who understands that the business of the business is supported and enhanced by good IT, and that IT is here to provide a service to the business for the good of the organization.  Someone who understands IT enough to keep from being b.s.’ed by his/her team, but with a core business savvy that gives them the necessary credibility with non-IT Leadership to get the executive-level support needed to successfully run an IT organization.  Technology for technology’s sake is not good for the business.  Technology for the business’ sake is what IT needs to be about.  And managing, motivating, coaching and mentoring the technical people is a business skill, not a technical one.

And there is a flip side to that: a savvy manager needs to be good at the things managers need to be good at, and they are rarely the same things that technical people want to have to bother with.  Things like budgets, presentations, office politics and glad-handling clients are central functions of management.  How many hardcore technical people are happy to give up their chosen discipline to spend some time wallowing around in year-end budget reports and annual performance reviews?  What do most technical people find more fun: building a server/database/application or defending the department’s annual budget to an executive team that sees IT as a bottomless pit cost center?  (Hell, even as a business person, there isn’t much fun about that choice!)

Pop culture rarely shows us much of anything that has to do with the real business world, but the CBS television show CSI gives us a great example of this problem: the main character, Grisham, is a scientist first and foremost.  That is what he is and that is what he loves.  And because he is a scientist above all else, his unpolished skills as a manager — including what can sometimes be the most important management skill of all of all: navigating the treacherous waters of office politics — ultimately cost him the team he has spent years building.  But because his heart and soul are preoccupied with the science at the expense of the management, he doesn’t see the situation clearly enough to correct it until it is too late.

Sure, there are great managers out there who started their career as technologists.  But there aren’t enough of them to fill all of the management roles that need to be filled.  So when it’s time to fill an IT management role, the question comes up: is it more important to find someone who can manage the technology or to manage the people?

While most of us want bosses that we can look to for help and answers when we get stuck, the fact is that we really need bosses who help us figure out where to get answers on our own.  So in the end, we need managers who can manage the team, and let the team manage the technology.

But sometimes convincing technical people of that is a tough sell.