Planning for Technical Management Time

I recently spoke with a manager who’d just added another group of four people to his original group of three. “I was doing fine with my three people before I took over this group. I had time to manage and I was able to contribute to the application. Now, with seven people, I seem to be floundering.” After asking the manager what else he was doing, he explained he was also recruiting for two open positions in addition to his normal management work and technical contributor work for one of the projects.

This manager has passed his limit of managing people and performing technical work. It’s not possible to be a good manager to more than three people and perform technical work. Depending on the circumstances, it may not be possible to manage even three people and perform technical work.

Here’s a sample breakdown of the kinds of tasks a manager of three people performs over the course of a week:

  • Meeting with each of the three people one-on-one, and a group meeting. Including the preparation and follow-up time, this takes about four hours per week. (Each additional person adds another hour to this total.)
  • Managing the project portfolio (dealing with requests to start/end projects, assigning people to projects, making the tradeoff decisions, and keeping track of what the group is doing takes another hour).
  • Spending time with the manager’s manager to identify issues, solve problems, preparing budgets, reports, or other paperwork is about an hour per week.
  • Talking to peers across the organization can take about an hour.
  • Problem solving with the people in your group, and with other people across the organization on behalf of people in your group takes about four hours per week/person, so here about 12 hours. I include recruiting for open positions in this chunk of work. (For each additional person, add another four hours.)
  • Many managers have an unpredictable amount of organizational issues to resolve as well.

So if a manager is managing only three people, that manager may have about 20 hours available to spend on technical work. But once a manager adds another person, that manager has only about 16 hours left to spend on technical work.

Much of the management work listed above is interrupt-driven, intertwined, and ad hoc. That means that a manager can’t schedule his or her work in discrete chunks. The most effective managers context-switch the entire day. In contrast, the most effective technical people spend large chunks of time on one task until they are stuck or have completed the task. Managers, by the very nature of their problem-solving work, cannot stick with one task until it’s completed.

When your group expands to four or more people, don’t plan on completing much technical work. You may still be able to do little bits and pieces, but managers of four people can only devote small pieces of time to technical tasks. Managers of seven people have no time to perform strictly technical work — they must devote all their time to management to be effective managers.

If you’re managing people, plan for your management time. Then you’ll find out whether you can fit in more technical tasks.

© 2005 Johanna Rothman. This article was originally published in Cutter Business-IT Strategies E-Mail Advisor, Oct 2005

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