What is an IT manager? Everything you need to know, from IT manager salaries to how the job is changing

IT managers keep everything working, day-in day-out. But there's more to the job than just that.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

What is an IT manager?

An IT manager is responsible for organisation-wide systems and information. The role involves maintaining the day-to-day operational stability and security of IT software and hardware.

What does an IT manager do?

That very much depends on the size and scale of the organisation, but the IT manager's job could involve everything from monitoring networks, auditing systems, updating software, managing project timelines, allocating human and financial resources, implementing policy, developing staff, and interacting with senior executives. Closely related job titles include IS manager or network manager. IT managers are the people that keep everything up and running, day in day out. 

How does an IT manager differ from an IT director or CIO?

On the face of it, many of the roles and responsibilities of the IT manager are similar to those of senior tech chiefs, such as the IT director or chief information officer (CIO), who are also charged with running enterprise IT.

The differences in role and responsibility are related to business size, explains Paul Yates, a director at recruiter Harvey Nash. "In today's world, the title IT manager can mean many different things for different organisations," he says.  

"For SMEs, it is often the person who leads the IT function and is effectively the most senior person within the IT team. In larger organisations, the title IT manager often implies that the person is in charge of the traditional elements of IT, such as the networks, telephony, service desk, servers and end-user computing, including laptops, mobiles and desktops."

In these larger organisations, says Yates, an IT manager might report into a CIO or IT director, who is the most senior person within the technology function of the organisation.

Why does an organisation need an IT manager and a CIO?

Modern CIOs are expected to spend less of their time in the data centre and more time engaging with peers and partners. While the CIO is out and about, someone needs to make sure IT systems and services are operating as expected.

That's where IT managers often find an important niche. As senior tech chiefs focus on external matters, such as engaging with line-of-business functions on their service demands and sourcing tech solutions from external suppliers, an IT manager might concentrate on day-to-day operational concerns.

SEE: Guide to Becoming a Digital Transformation Champion (TechRepublic Premium)

However, it's important to note that "engagement" is the watchword for all senior IT leaders. Just as seasoned CIOs are expected to be the external face of the tech department, so IT managers are also increasingly expected to take on outward-facing responsibilities, especially when it comes to understanding the demands of internal users.

How does an IT manager work alongside other tech executives?

Whereas an IT manager might once have been the most senior tech employee in the organisation, there are now other competing positions. The role of technology in supporting everything that the business does means there are a range of related roles that aim to help the business make the most of its IT systems, digital services and data assets.

IT managers have to hold their own against a range of other tech-flavoured executives, including chief digital officers and chief data officers. The increased use of the cloud means IT management has expanded beyond the internal data centre, with an increased emphasis on governance and reliability. For Sharm Manwani, executive professor of IT and digital leadership at Henley Business School, there's a split between IT and digital management.

"IT really represents operational efficiency – the robustness, the reliability, the security. Digital represents going out and being more pervasive – talking to the customers and consumers, and engaging with people and the product," he says.

Manwani says the shift to remote working during the coronavirus pandemic has helped to underline the importance of IT. Non-IT executives have been reminded of the importance of robust, reliable and secure platforms. Those features will continue to be crucial, says Manwani, who says CIOs need to make sure they've got a multi-skilled, multi-faceted organisation.

"If I was a CIO now, I'd have someone called the IT manager – but I would make them responsible for operational efficiency and robustness and I would recognise the seniority of the role," he says.

What does a good IT manager look like?

While roles will vary according to organisation type and size, good IT managers are likely to have a number of core characteristics. Their technical expertise means IT managers are likely to have a strong grip on operational matters, but they're also now expecting to spend more of their time creating technology solutions to end-users' varying demands, says Mark Gannon, director of business change and information solutions at Sheffield City Council.

"I think a good IT manager is somebody that understands the pains of their internal customers – I think that's never changed and it never will change. But the bit we need to do more in our organisation is to tell people what we're good at, but also understand what other people are good at and bring that learning back," he says.

Rather than simply outsourcing IT to a big-name provider, organisations in all sectors are now drawing on a wide ecosystem of technology companies, from traditional suppliers to cloud specialists and onto startups. Gannon says IT managers must have a good eye for innovative answers to business challenges.

"I think good IT managers go and see what's out there and bring it to the table. They've got to consider what other people are trying to achieve – they've got to go beyond working on boxes and wires. I think IT managers are going to have to build techniques and tools for doing business analysis," he says.

How do I get to be an IT manager?

There are many routes into becoming an IT manager. Some IT managers might start off as developers or business analysts or working in IT support. Project management skills are key as well, so experience as a project manager will help too. Generally an IT manager will be expected to have a bachelor's degree, plus experience of managing an array of IT systems from networks through to desktop software, plus budgeting and and team-management skills. Depending on the size of the organisation, they might also be required to provide broader IT strategy and vision – at which point some kind of further qualification like an MBA might come in handy, especially if the IT manager role is a stepping stone towards CIO.

Moving into IT management might seem like a step out of the comfort zone for a technology professional who's started on the development side, but it's unlikely to be a step into the unknown. Most IT professionals will dabble with management before stepping into the top seat. This gradual step up might involve leading a team or taking responsibility for a significant project.

IT professionals who get a taste for management can put themselves forward for other tasks that involve responsibility. Assuming these management tasks will get you used to the idea of running projects and guiding people. Leading people isn't to everyone's taste – it's important to learn how to motivate staff and to delegate tasks, so you have time in the working day to look upwards and outwards. You can look to bolster your management skills through internal and third-party training programmes. 

What's the demand like for IT managers?

The ONS says more than one million people work in IT and telecoms in the UK, including 89,000 IT managers. Recent figures from the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC) suggest that the number of companies looking to hire tech workers is increasing again following an initial slump after the coronavirus outbreak.

The REC says the increase in demand is due to companies trying to adapt to a fast-changing market. Harvey Nash's Yates recognises this trend and suggests that the move to remote working has helped increase demand for tech-savvy professionals who can help non-IT workers work remotely with confidence.

"Demand for IT managers has risen during the pandemic as companies accept the new paradigm that a significant proportion of their workforce will need to continue working from home. As a result, we have seen an uptick in vacancies in this space with roles that were initially advertised in early March going live again – now that companies have stabilised and are looking to ensure their staff are technology-enabled to work wherever they want," he says.

Whether the demand for IT professionals will continue in the longer term is dependent on how long the new normal becomes the accepted way of working. One thing's for certain – companies in all sectors are likely to become more dependent on technology than ever before and that should be good news for the employment prospects of people who help manage its implementation.

How will the IT manager role develop?

Beyond the impact of COVID-19, there's a range of other factors that are likely to affect the future of IT middle management in the medium to longer term. While technology continues to be in high demand, the pace of development within the sector is on an equally upwards trajectory.

IT managers will have to develop an awareness of many emerging technologies. Gartner's recently released Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies outlines a range of trends the analyst thinks will drive technology innovation during the next decade. These developments include already high-profile innovations, like 5G and artificial intelligence (AI), and fast-emerging technologies, such as DNA computing and biodegradable sensors.

Lily Haake, head of the CIO Practice at recruiter Harvey Nash, recognises the pace of change is likely to create big demands for the senior IT managers who are expected to help the business exploit these developments. Such is the rapid pace of change that three in 10 IT leaders expect their skills to be outdated in three years, according to research from Harvey Nash and consultant KPMG.

While Gartner says some innovations will take as many as ten years to hit the mainstream, a new form of IT management is already emerging, says Haake. Rather than being dominated by the heavy-duty systems of big tech, IT managers are developing an agile approach to IT that relies on cloud services and lighter operating models.

"What we're seeing is a lot of movement away from monolithic architectures onto big microservices platforms. So that's digital platforms that are enabling interconnectivity of lots of different systems, with speed and agility and DevOps operating models, rather than typical 'plan, build, run' programmes. That seems to have gone."

What about automation – how will that change the role of the IT manager?

Just like in other sectors, automation is expected to alter the role of the IT manager. And just like in other sectors, the jury is still out considering the likely impact of these changes.

Artificial intelligence and robotic process automation (RPA) are likely to mean that large amounts of the day-to-day operational role could be fulfilled by technology. Almost two-thirds (63%) of companies say they hope to achieve greater efficiencies within IT operations. Another 45% are aiming for improved product support and customer experiences, while another 29% are seeking improved cybersecurity systems.

SEE: An IT pro's guide to robotic process automation (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Some IT leaders envisage a scenario in the not-too-distant future when an internal tech department at a reasonably large firm consists of no more than a dozen people. This small team would consist of an adept group of IT managers who take responsibility for managing key elements of the technology operation, from cybersecurity to cloud provision.

While this shift sounds cataclysmic in terms of the demand for IT professionals, the reality could be far less catastrophic. The transition to a small cohort of specialist managers is in many ways an echo of the shift that's already taking place, with IT managers now expected to spend more time sourcing cloud-based solutions to business challenges.

RPA could help IT managers to spend more time on the things that really matter: sourcing and implementing technology systems and services, rather than testing, reporting, scheduling, fixing and orchestrating.

How much do IT managers get paid?

IT managers will usually have gained a solid wedge of experience in the IT department. They might have risen through any element of the IT profession but will have shown an aptitude and interest in managing people and projects.

Payscale says a mid-career IT manager with between five and nine years of experience earns an average of £38,468 a year. An experienced IT manager with up to 19 years of experience can expect to earn upwards of £42,000. Some professionals will snare higher salaries. The national average salary for an IT manager in the UK is £52,894, reports Glassdoor. Indeed says the average salary for an IT manager in the US is $93,322 per year. 

What's the IT manager career path?

In smaller organisations, IT manager might be the top tech position available. Experienced professionals who are looking to climb the career ladder and boost their salary might need to move companies, either to fulfil a broader IT management role or to take on a more senior tech leadership position, such as IT director or CIO. While many CIOs and CTOs have come up through the IT manager career path, that's not the only way into senior management.

What's the future of the IT manager?

A combination of forces – digitisation, consumerisation and automation – could lead observers to conclude that IT management is a job role on the wane. As organisations turn their attention to undertaking digital transformation and exploiting data science, then it might seem from the outside that the requirement for IT managers is in terminal decline.

However, most experts seem sure that companies will need to retain at least a core of operationally focused IT professionals. While line-of-business employees might be eager to procure their own applications through the cloud, someone back at base needs to make sure these services are safe and serviceable. That's where IT managers can step in, says Sheffield City Council's Gannon, who believes the future of the role involves a focus on partnership.

"Our IT team is working a lot with our commercial team because a large part of the job now is managing suppliers and managing the roadmaps. So it's those commercial relationships with suppliers that are going to be a thing where a lot of time is going to be spent," he says.

"There are people who can do things for you; you don't need to spend time, necessarily, on the wires and the boxes yourself. What you need to understand is how those wires and boxes are going to deliver the service value but also how you get the best commercial value."

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