Technical people and their managers get caught in this myth all the time. And there’s a good reason for it. For the first few years of a technical person’s career — in fact until the person moves into management — each technical person is evaluated on their technical skills. When a star technical person moves into management, many people find it difficult to change their perspective of how they provide value to the organization. It’s not just a perception problem for the manager; sometimes it’s a problem for the technical staff.
I started a new job at the Director level in a relatively young startup. I was supposed to raise the general technical level of the testers and initiate a true Quality Assurance group. When I started, there were three testers, two of whom were highly technical. One of the technical testers was also supposed to be the test manager. He was fine as a manager with two other people, because he could still do some technical work. And the other two people were self-directed. But as his group grew to 5 and then 6 people, he stopped being able to perform the management work.
I gave him feedback and coached him. He decided he didn’t want to be a manager. That was fine, and we defined a transition for him to Test Architect, a role he was perfect for. About a month later, we met because he had a “serious” problem to discuss. He asked me a detailed implementation question that I couldn’t answer. In fact, no one he’d asked had yet been able to answer. I suggested some places to read the code and one other person to talk to. My architect told me I wasn’t doing my job. I was stunned. I asked what he thought my job was. According to him, the manager (at whatever level) should be the technical star.
I was relieved and dismayed. Relieved because I knew I could discuss this with him. Dismayed because I was sure I couldn’t change his mind, at least not for a few years. After we spoke for a while, I asked him if he thought he was supposed to be the technical star when he was a manager. He said yes, that’s what he had been trying to do.
It’s not possible to be a technical star and be an effective manager of more than 3 people. (Esther and I have a sidebar in the Behind Closed Doors about why that is.) I’m not sure it’s possible to be a technical star and manage three people, but I’ll admit that if you’re already intimately familiar with the system and the people are self-managing, you’ve got at least a shot.
I wish I could tell you precisely how technical a manager has to be. (I have an “it depends” answer in How Technical Does a Project Manager Have to Be for project managers.) But each organization is different, and each group of people is different. I do believe a manager of technical people needs to know at least:
- The dynamics of how people perform their work
- Enough about the internals of the system (the architecture) and enough about the problems the system is attempting to solve so that the manager can make good management decisions
- How to determine where the opportunities and black holes (that suck up all available resources) are, and how to tell the difference
There’s a lot of gray area there.
If you’re a manager of technical people and you’re not technical, try these guidelines:
- Know your knowledge boundaries, and especially what you don’t know.
- Don’t pretend to be more technical than you are.
- Focus on the management, especially the project portfolio management.
- Decide how you’re going to learn enough technical detail.
Once you become a manager, the technical work is ripe for delegation. Focus on the management, and delegate the hands-on technical work. Become a management star, not a technical star.