What Makes a Great Technical Manager

Jurgen's post, How to Select a Fine Technical Manager, along with the posts he responded to prompted this one. I'm not agreeing much with Jurgen today. I suspect it's because we have very different experience. In my experience, only technical people who want to manage want to be managers–unless HR has screwed up the salary ranges. If the salary ranges don't go high enough for technical staff to make a good living, they want to be managers to increase salary.

I addressed part of this question in How Technical Does a Project Manager Have to Be?. And the answers are similar for a people, not project, manager.

Technical managers need to have these technical skills: None.

Seriously, when was the last time you needed your manager to tell you how to solve a technical problem? Unless your manager is coaching you, the last time was when you only had a year or two of experience.

Technical managers need an in-depth understanding of the process by which the technical staff can perform the work. That may well mean an experience in where coding can trip developers up, where testers might have blind spots, how to help business analysts talk to the people who have requirements and how to translate those requirements into user stories, and so on. But the manager does not need to be the star of the group–and in many cases, the star is not interested in management, so makes a bad manager.

What's way more important is all the interpersonal skills. Here are some from the chapter in Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers…:

  • Provide effective feedback.
  • Influence and negotiation skills.
  • Problem solving and decision-making. Managers need to be able to solve problems and make decisions in the face of ambiguity.
  • Delegation.
  • Ability to manage things, such as projects or groups of tasks. Technical people don’t need supervisors; they need leadership, guidance, and effective decision-making, especially when faced with too many options or insufficient information.
  • Ability to observe current state and choose another action to change state.

Jurgen goes on to say

Give the job to a technical person who never asked for it.

Well, I don't buy that either. I have asked people who were critical of management if they wanted to try it. Some organizations make effective management just about impossible. I was a middle manager, had a technical lead who was critical of everything, and asked him if he wanted to try management for a few months. He lasted three months, and gave up. I told him not every place was as screwed up as that one, and to try management again later.

Potential managers need to want to work with people. They need to make decisions without enough information. They need to wean themselves off the technical work. They need to learn how to hire, give feedback, and all kinds of other management skills. (To see how great managers work, read Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management.) But they don't need to be dumped into a management role, or think they aren't good at technology and that's why they're managers.

BTW, if you're wondering, I started my career as a developer, did some small-project management and people management starting once I'd been working a few years, still developing. I became a tester and took on a bunch of project management and coordination work because I liked it. After a couple of years, I became a full-time project and program manager. After a few years, I became a manager, then a group manager, then a director. Then, I went back to developing test code for a while, then a manager, then a consultant. Don't think you need a linear career path. You can try management and return to your technical work if you don't like it or if you're not ready for more responsibility. But don't try management unless you want to work with people. Management is a people-centric role.

4 Replies to “What Makes a Great Technical Manager”

  1. “…HR has screwed up the salary ranges…”

    That happened in government jobs decades ago. So, technical people, who have little interest and fewer skills in working with people, flock to management.

    The result is predictable: depletion of the technical ranks by the departure of top technical people and population of the management ranks with people who refuse to manage. This doesn’t work well.

    I advise young engineers to either (1) have the government pay for your masters degree and immediately leave or (2) become enthralled in all things people and go into management immediately.

    I have heard rumors of correcting HR’s mistake for several decades now. I doubt it will ever happen.

  2. Ah, the ole technical-person-who-became-management-person …

    It’s the same thing since the beginning of time!

    Nowhere for the technician to advance and business continues to rein in salaries at their expense.

    Faster, cheaper has never produced better.

    A good technician does not make a good manager and vice versa. They’re distinctly very separate and different skills.

    When the bean counters stop counting how many beans they’ve saved in salaries for cheap technicians and start REALLY investing in their “people” and the quality of their products, will be the day I retire!

  3. Pingback: HR World » Blog Archive
  4. I’m not sure you and Jurgen disagree as much as you think. You both agree that in order to be an effective manager you need non-technical (i.e. people) skills. What Jurgen is suggesting is that those managers with a technical background will have more success in a management role. I tend to agree. Having empathy for your team is crucial and I know a lot of non-technical managers who can’t do this because they don’t fully understand the issues that developers face or the personality traits that developers often exhibit. Where I don’t agree with Jurgen is what appears to be a suggestion that reluctant managers (i.e. technical people who don’t really want to do it) make good ones. I would say to be a great technical manager you need to have been a technician but have reached a point in your career when they want to try something new. You also need to possess the personality characteristics you’ve both identified as important. And that’s the problem – this combination is pretty rare.

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