A manager is a worker with ambition who seized greater responsibility. But as the old saying goes, many manage to rise above their abilities, and attract reputations for uncertain guidance, indecision, and de-motivation.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Putting the right person in the right job is the most important task that many companies screw up. A bad hire is bad enough, but the problem compounds when that bad hire is a manager—and the problem may scale up exponentially when you have an IT-oriented unit answering to a non-tech manager.
At some point, tech pros must interface with people who have relatively little idea how technology works. Yet “those people” run the business, and must understand and sign off on projects. They aren’t going away.
With all that in mind, can a non-tech manager effectively manage tech pros? Experts and consultants hold different opinions on that. No matter what the situation, though, hiring “the right manager” requires attention and effort.
Fernando Delgado is a consultant who makes his living as a coach for project managers, having worked at Yahoo and Google. Based on his experience, he is convinced that software engineers are best managed by other software engineers.
“In history… not a single product has ever shipped on time,” Delgado said. Any software project will hit unexpected roadblocks and snags along the way. Resolving those issues may require taking shortcuts or making tradeoffs. “Software engineers make the right trade-offs when faced with obstacles,” which makes software development unpredictable.
There is another soft factor to consider: the relationship between the manager and the managed. “Engineers want the trust and respect of whoever is leading them.” Delgado said.
An alternative viewpoint says it is possible for a non-tech manager to manage the technical. All it takes is a heavy reliance on soft skills, according to Scott Berkun, blogger and public speaker on creativity and business culture.
“A good manager provides clarity. They create clear goals that IT, or a programmer, or anyone in any role, can understand.” Berkun said via e-mail. “A good manager also invites feedback and listens well, inviting experts who work for them to give their perspective on proposed goals they set, to help managers recognize their potentially dangerous assumptions, and to revise their goals and requests to be better informed. “
A tech pro might not understand business goals or internal politics, which are more important in some situations, he added. Managers have to orchestrate a project, listen to the experts who report to them, and incorporate feedback—all of which are people skills, not technical ones.
“I myself am not deeply technical, but I am tech-inclined,” said Kurt Van Etten, VP for product development at RedSeal, a cybersecurity analytics platform. His past experience serves as a bridge of sorts between the tech and managerial worlds: ‘You need a basic understanding of technology. You don’t need the expertise.”
A technical manager may know how a product works, only to have trouble conveying its importance to the board and CEO, Van Etten noted. When things get lost in that translation, issues arise.
Product managers can serve as the ideal mediator between the business and the technology, he added. People with a background in quantitative analysis work well in such positions, as they not only understand the user experience, but can talk to engineers: “It’s great if they come with an MBA.”
Managers must be analytical, communicative, have a good product sense and a vision. “The best product managers are capable of getting the team to be as productive as possible.” Delgado said. They do not expect perfection, instead looking for good-enough solutions that get past obstacles.
The best product managers show competence in a number of factors, but probably “spike” in one or two of them, Delgado continued: “Smart companies will place people in places they already spike to get the best return on team execution.”
It probably does not pay to spruce up skills that are already adequate, he added. “You can coach people to play to their strengths.”
Van Etten also keeps an eye out for soft skills. Can this person make a call on trade-offs? If the architect and the engineer both think they are right, and disagree on a course of action, how do you resolve it? “The key to soft skills is empathy,” he said. Listen to people and understand where they are coming from; explain why a decision was made, and why one factor mattered more than another. “Make sure you get contribution from everyone.”
Picking a winner in such circumstances is a problematic challenge. “All interview methods are highly subjective and prone to error: we all know this from the interviews we’ve experienced in our own careers,” Berkun said. “The best way to hire people is through experience—to actually work with someone on a small project where you can experience firsthand their abilities and qualities.”
A good interview focuses on the candidate, lets them talk or demonstrate their key abilities, and incorporates input from several different people on the team. It also delves into the necessary skills for the job at hand.
Management Is Not…
The sad reality is that bad management is commonplace. Still, there are methods that companies can use to ensure they do not cultivate bad managers.
“Bad management is common because management is both hard and subjective. Human nature is much harder to work with than the rules of engineering, science or grammar,” Berkun said. “There are different management styles, and types of workplace culture, and it’s rare that a manager is self-aware about both of those, much less knows how to improve them. “
A manager who believes their own success is dependent on the employee’s success is great for the employee; but if the manager believes his success depends on an employee’s failure, then the employee had better find another job inside the firm. “In a small company, a poor manager is a strong enough reason to search for a job elsewhere,” Delgado explained.
Bad managers can be weeded out, but that often takes a performance review that includes peer reviews from other managers, as well as feedback from employees who are protected from retaliation, Delgado continued. “Then you can get a system where a bad manager gets identified very quickly.” Such a system will also expose a manager who is good at managing up but terrible at managing down.
Typical companies will promote the best person or highest performer in a unit. “The best individual contributing is not the best manager,” Van Etten observed. “You see high performers put into a management role with no training… Of course they are going to fail.”
Management is about playing a different role, not being better or smarter than the staff, Van Etten continued. The solution is training someone in leadership. That means setting an example, sharing a vision and building trust with employees: “Followership is cultivated by leadership.”
“A good rule to reduce the creation of bad managers is to have a promotion path in each role that doesn’t require becoming a manager.” Berkun said. “If the only way to get a raise is to become a manager, workers who don’t really want to manage will be incentivized to do it anyway—they want more money, not the role of being a leader.”
It all comes down to listening, flexibility, and making informed decisions with the input from the staff. “Any conversation that involves considering different ideas can be seen as having friction, but that friction is a kind of energy, a heat that can be used to improve thinking, ” Berkun added. Whatever the trade-offs, there’s often more than one “good path” to take when it comes to effective management.