IT Management 101 For Unrepentant Techies

Are you management material? You know the stereotypes: techies are good with silicon, bad with people. Here are the top 10 aptitudes you¿ll need to become a manager.

By Mathew Schwartz | August 2006


Are you management material?

You know the stereotypes: techies are good with silicon, bad with people.

Yet given today¿s increasingly distributed and often continent-straddling IT project teams, the sure path to promotion doesn¿t just include technical expertise, but also people and project management skills, a way with the written word, and cross-cultural finesse.

Avoid mastering such aptitudes at your peril. Sure, you might become an advanced, highly paid technologist, but in today¿s global technology jobs marketplace, competition for such positions is fierce. Furthermore, ¿if you have your eye on the CIO¿s office ¿ or perhaps even the CEO¿s ¿ your odds of getting there are substantially greater if your career path includes people management,¿ notes Brian D. Jaffe, an IT director in New York City, and co-author of the IT Manager¿s Handbook: Getting Your New Job Done (Morgan Kaufmann, 2nd edition, September 2006).

Accordingly, here are the top 10 ways to become management material:

1) Emulate Your Favorite Boss

Want to learn management skills? ¿Take a look at the people you admire, those that have particularly good reputations within the company,¿ recommends Jaffe. ¿How do they handle themselves? What behaviors of theirs can you adapt? What do others say about them, and why? Did you like working for one particular boss? Why? And what about bosses you didn¿t like ¿ which of their behaviors do you want to avoid?¿

2) Practice the Art of Managing

To be an effective manager, ¿by far the most important skill-set is building relationships,¿ says Jaffe, ¿and whether you call it relationship building, or managing, you have to do it in four directions.¿ That includes managing down (your staff), sideways (customers and peers), and up (supervisors). Each group will require a different management touch. ¿It¿s important to remember that this is an art, not a science.¿

3) Polish Your People Skills

In any profession, excellent communication skills are always a valued commodity. Yet in IT, such skills can be rare. ¿Let¿s put this bluntly: many technical staff are not renowned for their social skills,¿ says Jon Collins, a former IT manager who¿s now principal analyst at Macehiter Ward-Dutton, an IT-business advisory firm based in Cambridge, England.

One quick fix for building your people skills, as well as business savvy: simply spend more time with end users. ¿The ultimate role of the IT manager is to deliver IT that fits the needs of users, and even very little time spent in the company of real users can very quickly help set priorities,¿ he says. ¿For example, users value productivity over security. If you are locking down a system to an extent that a sale can no longer be made, are you really helping the business?¿

4) Cultivate a Go-To Demeanor

Another way to extrapolate the skills you need to become a manager is to determine if you could cover for a supervisor. Don¿t worry: he or she is asking the same question.

¿When I consider promoting someone, in addition to their skills, and ability to get results, I also give thought to the scenario of a crisis while I¿m out of the office, and this person having to explain the situation to senior management in my absence,¿ says Jaffe. ¿Would I be comfortable with this person representing me and my department to the company president?¿

5) Manage Cross-Culturally

Today¿s IT environment differs substantially from that of 5 or 10 years ago, and especially in the use of project teams located in different countries. On any given project, for example, ¿your resources may be located in Boston, Ireland, China, and India, and all of these have to be managed so they eventually lead to a desired end result, in a financially productive and viable way,¿ says Heikki Topi, associate professor, Ph.D. and chair of the Computer Information Systems Department at Bentley College, near Boston. Hence the more you know not just about your team members, but the cultures from which they hail, the more successful a manager you¿ll be.

6) Excel at Writing

Managers often gripe about employees who can¿t write clearly (to say nothing of their spelling or grammar). Yet polished writing skills are increasingly important in today¿s distributed work environments, where the only thing linking two teams on opposite sides of the world may be a set of written specifications.

¿One of the most critical elements in the allocation of labor and tasks is to understand who can do what best, and where and when, and that cannot be done without well-written specifications, and well-written communication about how to allocate tasks based on specifications,¿ notes Topi.

7) Operate Outside

Your ¿Comfort Zone¿
Becoming a manager is rarely an overnight process (barring family connections). Rather, IT workers who demonstrate the necessary skills, and have the right opportunities, will find themselves continually getting more responsibilities, and transitioning toward management roles. ¿It doesn¿t happen automatically, but it happens when one makes oneself available and exposed to a rich variety of projects and such, assuming the foundation is there and the skills are okay,¿ says Topi.

The key is pursuing new challenges. ¿Sometimes highly skilled technology professionals are somewhat shy, and not necessarily actively looking for opportunities that have complex communication environments, or that require, say, traveling,¿ he says. Yet operating outside your comfort zone ¿is an excellent way to prepare: basically to get exposed to different types of settings, management structures, and ways to accomplish projects.¿

8) Know How to Talk Business

Succeeding as a manager means knowing the big picture while also sweating the small stuff. So start practicing now. ¿Think strategically, act tactically. Have an IT strategy ¿ or let¿s rephrase ¿ a strategy for IT,¿ says Collins. ¿You don¿t have to be a CIO to be thinking more strategically about IT.¿

Talking strategy, however, requires business knowledge ¿ an intimate understanding of your organization¿s business processes, compliance requirements, and how IT integrates with them. ¿Understand how business is done, and how technology can transform the way business is done,¿ recommends Topi. Such knowledge will be crucial for relaying goals, deliverables, and successes in terms your business co-workers will understand and appreciate. (It never hurts to market yourself.)

9) Stay Technologically Current

An IT manager must be comfortable navigating the technology/business divide. ¿Managers need to keep their feet in the technical, but move their heads into the managerial, otherwise they lose sight of reality,¿ says Collins.

Many newly minted managers think they can move away from being technologically proficient. Don¿t count on it. ¿On the contrary, there¿s an increasingly strong need to understand technology, as long as that understanding is at the right level,¿ says Topi. What¿s especially needed (and marketable) today, he notes, is ¿understanding architectures ¿ technology architectures for data, infrastructure, software; that has become very, very important.¿

10) Boost Your Educational Pedigree

What training does your company offer? ¿Companies that are advanced and which are taking the development of their workforce seriously are offering courses specifically in developing soft skills ¿ whether it¿s communication skills, project management skills, cross-cultural awareness, the ability to manage in a geographically distributed environment,¿ says Topi. Are you taking advantage of such courses?

Another way to significantly boost your technology, management, and business expertise is to get a Master¿s degree ¿ or even two. For example, Bentley offers several graduate-level IT programs, including an MS+MBA (¿two degrees in 21 months¿) for people with prior work experience.

Many universities offer these types of advanced programs, and they¿re an excellent way to quickly improve your skills. ¿Integrating technology expertise with business understanding is a really powerful combination,¿ notes Topi, ¿and very important for someone that wants to be very successful as a technology leader.¿

Mathew Schwartz is a freelance business and technology journalist based in Cambridge, Mass.

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