Do techies make good managers? Is it possible to train a techie to be a manager? These questions may seem a little rude, presumptuous even, after all are techies really that different to other workers in a business? The answer to that last question seems to be a resounding yes.
It seems the stereotype lives on, where technology types are better left in the server room where they don't have to talk to anyone. Soft skills like communication, listening, and the ability to work in teams generally seem to be lacking, so going by this definition, teaching a techie to be a manager is akin to teaching a fish to ride a bicycle. But that all depends how much attention we pay to stereotypes, and if we believed in stereotypes then we would think all used car salespeople are slimy and politicians are a pack of whinging idiots out of touch with the populace.
But regardless of profession, some people are cut out for management, and others, well, not as much. I think we can all point to a few people in the office who should never make it to management. Hell, I bet some of you are pointing at your own managers thinking "this guy knows nothing about technology, what is he doing managing the division?" But it takes more than an superb knowledge of all things IT to be a manager, and it does seem that of all the departments within a company, it is the IT department that people have the longest bridge to cross. It is the soft skills that are letting the side down.
Talking to Ian Wilkins, operations manager at News Interactive, he says you can be a total genius when it comes to routing networks but it doesn't mean you have the skills to manage people. Wilkins works for the online arm of News Ltd, running Web sites such as news.com.au, and he has six technical direct reports. He recently attended a leadership course run by Dimension Data Learning Solutions.
"Soft skills are I think one of the things IT people are seriously lacking in, they are a particular breed of people and you have to be careful how you manage them -- social and behavourial skills I don't think are necessarily attended to by IT managers," he says.
Wilkins is a strong believer in teaching soft skills, and he says he plans on sending his staff members on a range of soft skills courses run by DDLS, such as time management, leadership, communication, teams, and customers. "I am trying to create a common set of expectations on behaviour and boundaries in terms of communications," he explains.
Of course one soft skills course does not a manager make. Wilkins beliefs in this matter are that "I am not always certain you can teach a techie [to be a manager, it is a case of if they want to be a manager . . . it is a different breed of person, if a techie wants to become a manager they will be able to dumb down the IT problems to the person they are relaying the information to."
Making the transition
Steve Baty is one techie who has made the transition to management. Currently Senior Analyst at Red Square, a leading Australia full-service Internet agency, Baty moved from the role of interface developer at Red Square where his duties included building the front-end of Web sites and on to an Internet analyst position. "These days as the company grows and industry changes my role changes a bit as well. I work with clients on their Internet strategy and ensuring it is aligned with their needs. I identify needs and objectives from a business point of view -- there is still a fair bit of high-level technical work there but the real trick is in creating the alignment," he says.
Baty says the transition to management wasn't easy, and he says it was a gradual progression over 18 to 20 months.
"It is very hard to move to a management role. You go through that period of being independent and self reliant to being a team leader and suddenly you are faced with issues of motivating people, balancing team dynamics, keeping people focused on a set of objectives that they may not really care about," he explains. "To make that transition from technical skills and a focus on tasks to more of a focus on outcomes and interpersonal skills is very hard."
And he adds that it is very hard for engineers, scientists, and other specialists, not just IT people. Like Wilkins, he also believes some people are management material and others will never be.
"Some are just bad at it and will continue to be. There is the guy you throw the hard technical problems at but you never want to put them in charge of other people. They have poor personal skills but are technically extremely competent," says Baty.
He also says that sometimes the more proficient someone is technically, the harder it will be for them to transition to manager, because it becomes an issue of control. Part of being a manager, says Baty, is letting other people do the work. When you know you can do it better and faster, it is hard to let go, and "they want to see that level of technical excellence in everyone".
How do you become a manager?
Becoming a manager isn't a simple as starting to wear a suit to work, or doing a short course in communication. Judith Nimmo, head of the career management division at recruitment firm Drake, makes the distinction between a manager and a leader.
"If you look at a group of managers you will find their experience and skills are similar, especially in technology, so how do you find the top 10 to be different from the other 90? -- it is a factor of emotional intelligence," she says. "Great leaders in history have been aware of their emotional intelligence and have been good managers and great leaders."
The theory behind emotional intelligence, says Nimmo, is being intelligent about emotions and acting with emotional maturity. "A lot of it comes back to the basics on how to listen to people. If you can listen to the customers needs as well as their technical needs then you can respond to the whole person."
Unfortunately she believes if IT managers and CIOs have come up the ranks through the technical side of the business, then they probably won't understand the importance of developing emotional intelligence.
"Our trainers could only think of one company that is doing a little bit of EQ training for their people, everyone else is spending their budget on technical training," she says.
Wilkins agrees: "IT is such a young industry, it hasn't matured yet and the people haven't matured yet -- I am not saying they are kids, but they don't understand why they need to have soft skills."
Whether the staff member wants to be on the course or not, Baty believes it is very hard to send someone off to a course and say for the next two days you will learn interpersonal skills, however he says: "There is a whole range of things that can help you -- look at your two-day interpersonal skills course, it can help open peoples minds to other ways of thinking."
This is what emotional intelligence training did for one would-be manager. Nimmo cites an example of one man who was well regarded by his colleagues and managers, and he wanted to move to the next level unfortunately he didn't have the emotional skills to take him there. Emotional intelligence training taught him how to listen.
"He have never thought or learnt about what his listening skills were like, we took him through a three-week program of listening and it had a huge impact on the home front as well as the work front," says Nimmo.
Baty also believes emotional intelligence plays a large part in being a successful managers. "We have all seen 50- and 60-year-old people throw a tantrum -- it is a childish attitude. Immaturity exists throughout some peoples lives, and maturity sometimes comes when people are quite young."
He says one of the key points is to be able to take a balanced view. "To be able to engage in a debate and not feel like it was worthless unless they won -- they are people who have the maturity to lead other people. Sometimes it take a bit of a kick in the pants to say ‘pay attention to yourself'".
Back to business
Of course it is one thing to be mature and capable of communication with people, but it is another to actually start thinking in business terms. Being able to extricate from the technical side and start viewing the work as a whole, and seeing where it fits in the company strategy, is the other part to being a successful manager.
This was a challenge for Baty and after receiving advice from a mentor and conducting his own research he decided to do a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management.
"Definitely when I started I had a very definite focus on the technology itself, I was doing things with technology for its own sake, and the purpose behind that was very much someone else's concern. Over time, and particular the MBA study broadens your thinking in that respect, I learnt to take into account a whole lot of other perspectives," says Baty. "In going through that process my thinking changed to be a lot more about the purpose of what we were doing, rather than its own sake. What value does it deliver? What role does it play in furthering the objectives of the business and Red Square? Basically, to take a more abstract role in technology."
Referring back to someone being management material, he likes to think he had a disposition to be able to take this on, however he says the MBA certainly helped. He accredits the MBA with teaching him the right language to use when dealing with different department heads and clients.
"I now feel comfortable talking about marketing strategy, logistics, and supply chain in a language in context to the person I am talking to -- previously I would not have had the language."
Mentors make better managers
Baty says he was lucky because the management at Red Square gave him a lot of support, and he was able to draw on advice from mentors outside of the company. "The mentoring aspect of it is very important. I did have a mentor and I also had a peer group at university and to my mind that is one of the great benefits of an MBA program. I continue to draw upon for advice and support," he says.
Even at Red Square the company has informal mentoring in place where senior staff have someone they can talk to. He says senior developers and senior staff are encouraged to play a mentoring role to the junior staff, seeing it as important to the development of junior staff.
News Ltd's Wilkins has an interesting take on mentoring. He says some talented technical people who don't aspire, or aren't suited, to management can make excellent mentors. "They don't have the skills to manage people but they can mentor people," he says. "But turning to those people to become staff member, such as asking them to come in on a Saturday, or turn up tomorrow at 8.30am. It is those sort of management type things they don't want to do."
"I think the role a mentor or coach plays in an organisation is not recognised. But in a lot of cases it is much more informal and being informal can be hard to take advantage of sometimes," says Baty.
Regardless of the type of training you do, and whether it takes three weeks or three years, the transition from techie to manager won't be easy. If you are lucky you will receive support from your company helping you cross over. Baty had the support of Red Square, the disposition for management, as well as an MBA and he says it was still a big shift.
Speaking on the difference of technical skills and management skills he says: "One set of skills is very implementation focused and the other is a lot more ambiguous, it requires a great deal more interpretation. Conceptually you are dealing with very different ideas and frameworks for thinking."
This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine, a ZDNet Australia publication.