How to Hire Technical Managers

© 2004 Johanna Rothman.

Hiring technical managers is different — and more difficult — than hiring technical people. When I hire a technical person, such as a developer, I look for design, implementation and debugging abilities as part of the candidate’s technical skill set. But when I hire managers, the rules are different. Technical managers don’t need to be the technical gurus in their functional area; rather, they need to understand how their area is supposed to work and how to hire people who are the technical gurus in that area. So I look for management skills, such as coaching, negotiation, feedback, planning and organizing, and the like.

Even seasoned managers can be confused by the differences in hiring for a management position, and all too often they will promote or hire the best technical person into the management position. The problem is, the job of manager is completely different from the job of a senior technical person.

The common missteps I see in hiring technical managers are:

  1. Hiring for the future, not the present.
  2. Assuming that the technical manager will be able to perform work at a variety of levels.
  3. Not assessing a candidate’s familiarity with the issues and dynamics of a particular area.

Hire for the Present

I recently worked with a CTO, Ralph, whose organization was planning huge growth. He wanted to hire an experienced program manager (someone who manages several concurrent projects that are all part of one release), because as soon as the current release was complete, he was going to hire more technical staffers. He knew the product development staff was going to have two simultaneous projects in two months and would have up to six simultaneous projects in a couple of years.

But when he interviewed candidates, most of the experienced program managers were doubtful about taking the position. One of them told Ralph, “You don’t have enough work to keep me busy for at least a year. What else am I going to do?”

Ralph explained his concerns: “If I hire a junior project manager, or even just a technical lead now, I’ll have to bring someone else in over that person. I’ll still be involved in hiring all these people. I wanted to hand that off to someone else.” Ralph’s concerns were valid, and he finally decided that he needed a manager — someone who would determine which people were needed when and would interview them.

Select the Management Level

Especially in a growing organization, it’s very tempting to assume that a first-level manager can take on technical work as well as management work. Or that the first-level manager can manage several functional areas. Or that a manager can work at setting a direction for his function (strategic work), manage the day-to-day activities (operational management) and every so often contribute technically. Unfortunately, those assumptions are wrong.

If you’re promoting or hiring someone into his first management position, that person needs time to learn the job of management. If you also allow or require that person to contribute technically, the person won’t learn the job of management. You’ll have a great individual contributor who can’t perform management well. I coached a development manager, Stuart, a few years ago. He wanted to be a manager but consistently kept returning to the technical work, especially when he was stumped by his management job. Part of Stuart’s problem was his manager’s insistence that Stuart “keep his hands in” the technical work. But there’s not enough time in the day to do all of that. Stuart had several hours of management meetings and technical design meetings every week and still needed to create time to do the technical work. He couldn’t succeed at everything, so he chose to do the technical work.

My rule of thumb is this: If you are managing more than three people and you have less than two years of management experience, you can’t perform technical work. It may be possible to manage up to three people and learn how to be a great manager, but it’s not possible with more than that. Some part of your work will not be successful.

A similar problem is when the management role is supposed to be strategic, operational and technical. I worked with a CIO who wanted a quality manager to lead his company’s process improvement effort (strategic work), manage the testers and auditors (operational work) and generate tests (technical work). One manager can’t work at all three levels. Many managers may be able to work at two levels, if they can find ways to make the work complimentary.

Managers Manage the Dynamics of an Area

The third problem I’ve seen is hiring someone with no experience in what the group does to be the first-line manager or project manager. That puts the manager and the team under stress. When a manager doesn’t understand the issues, the manager tends to make bad decisions.

I worked with Sheryl, a successful project manager who used to plan events, such as trade shows. She had a string of trade show successes under her belt when she was hired away to manage a software project at a small IT shop. Unfortunately, Sheryl did not understand how to help the developers assess how well they had completed a project — she was focused only on the milestone, not on the quality or quantity of work completed by that date. When the testers received the product to test, it was riddled with problems and had an inadequate interface design. Sheryl was unable to predict how much longer the rework would take and when the project would end. She felt pushed around by the project and completely out of control.

Functional managers may feel this way also if they’re attempting to manage an area in which they don’t understand how the work is accomplished and the risks intrinsic to that work.

Hiring technical managers is difficult. Remember, companies hire (and fire) managers on the basis of their management skills. Make sure you’re hiring managers who can manage, have the capacity to manage at the level you need and understand the work their group will perform.

Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

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