Management Myth #6: I Have to be the Technical Star

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.

2 Replies to “Management Myth #6: I Have to be the Technical Star”

  1. There is good book by Patrick McKenna and David Maister called “First Among Equals: How to Manage a Group of Professionals” that deals with this subject. It provides some good guidelines for moving from peer to manager and specifically talks about highly educated people who can be difficult to manage.

  2. I absolutely agree with the point you make. However, here’s a situation that I once found difficult to deal with as a non-technical-star manager:
    I managed a team of specialist engineers and technicians providing a service to the rest of the organisation. We had a very technically competent (PhD) guy who was knocking on the door of management, and who questioned my decisions at every turn. I would defer to him for advice on technical matters but because he had mangerial talents himself, was intensely political AND was a technical star, he was able to take the team with him, which took away my credibility as a manager.

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