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#67 How Technical Should A Manager Be?

by Steven Cerri on July 28, 2008

Should a technical manager be a technical expert?

Hello everyone!

There seems to be an on-going debate about how technical an engineering manager ought to be.

Some say that any manager worth his or her weight in salt has to understand the technology they’re managing well enough to actually have answers and be capable of doing some of the work themselves.

Others say that any manager worth his or her weight in salt doesn’t have to understand the technology. They just have to know how to “facilitate” the technologists who are the experts in the technology.

So who’s right? What’s the answer?

And the answer is: Neither is right? Or to put it another way: Both are wrong!

An example of the first answer is Bill Gates. It’s pretty clear that Bill Gates was up on most of the technology in Microsoft. By all accounts he was capable of doing a good deal of the technical work performed by the technologists in the company. Obviously he couldn’t because there was only one of him, but he was capable.

Because Microsoft was so successful, many come to the erroneous conclusion that Microsoft was successful because Bill Gates was at the helm. They conclude that because Microsoft was so successful and Bill was such a technologist, there must be a causal relationship here.

Not so. Bill only had this influence when Microsoft was small. The reason Microsoft became a powerhouse and was so successful was because it had a monopoly, not because Bill was a geek. The CEO of Microsoft would have had to have been a rock to drive Microsoft into the ground, at least up until recently when it finally got some competition. So Bill Gates is not a valid nor good example of how technical a manager has to be in order to be successful. The causal relationship in the success of Microsoft is not with Bill Gates but with it’s lack of competition.

If you want to read in interesting article that erroneously supports the idea that the technical Bill Gates made Microsoft successful, then read the article titled “How Hard Could It Be? Glory Days”, by Joel Spolsky. The article appears in Inc. Magazine, dated July 1, 2008.

In it, Joel talks about when he was a young Program Manager at Microsoft and had to give a presentation to Bill Gates. Joel wrote a specification and had to run the specification by Bill Gates. Joel talks glowingly about how Bill actually read his spec and how this was a testament to Bill’s technical prowess. Joel’s bottom line conclusion by the end of the article is that a good technical manager must be technically savvy. The more technically savvy the better. And as far as Joel is concerned, the Bill Gates he presented to was extremely technically savvy and therefore Bill represented the epitome of good management.

And of course, this myth persists still. People still believe that Microsoft was successful because Bill, the ultimate CEO-geek, was at the helm.

I don’t think so. This is not management. This is self-aggrandizement.

At the opposite extreme are those managers who don’t know anything about technology and therefore manage to drive their teams in the wrong direction. This usually happens when managers attempt to make decisions when they don’t have the minimal technical knowledge to make intelligent decisions.

I know plenty of managers who think that because they know management they can manage any technical team. Their position is that because they can manage, they think they can take any number of highly technical people, in any technology, and turn them into a successful, high performance team. They’re fond of saying, “I don’t need to be the technical expert. I know how to manage technology and therefore I can manage any technical team.” These are the managers who say that their role is to “facilitate” the team. They don’t need to know the technology because they are really only “facilitators”.

I don’t think so. This is not management. This is self-deception.

So what is the right answer? How technical should a manager of technical people be?

The answer, Einstein famously said, is, “Just enough but no more”.

Actually, when Einstein was asked how simple things should be made, he responded, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.”

The same applies here. How technical should a technical manager be, “as technical as necessary, but not one bit more”.

So exactly how technical is “as technical as necessary?”

Technology is changing rapidly. In fact, so rapidly that few people can keep up with it for more than a decade. In fact, keeping up with technological advances for several decades is very difficult. The kids coming out of college have the latest knowledge and it’s only good for 5 to 10 years at the most, unless it basic technical and engineering knowledge they’ve been trained in.

So the technical managers’ job is not to have the latest technical knowledge. It’s not to know how to do the work that his or her direct reports are doing.

Here is the way I look at it. When I’m managing a team, my goal is to give my direct reports as much independent latitude as possible and no more. That means that each person is treated differently and each person gets a certain amount of independence, depending upon their expertise, and the situation. My goal it to keep them from failing. Put positively, my goal is to help them to be successful.

The metaphor I use is that my job is to keep them from “falling off the cliff” and yet, I want them to get close to the cliff. Getting close to the cliff means that they are pushing the boundaries of their own capabilities. It means that they are learning. But I don’t want them to fall off the cliff and fail.

Therefore, my job is to know “where the edge of the cliff is.” My job is to know when my direct reports are heading for disaster. That’s as technically savvy as I need to be. My job is to know when my direct reports are making technically sound decisions, but operationally poor ones. That means they and we are all close to falling off the edge of the cliff.

That doesn’t require that I have 100% technical knowledge. It requires that I have a combination of technical knowledge, interpersonal communication skills, and an ability to integrate facts as well as unrealized potentials. It means that I have to be able to integrate the known and the unknown in a model that can be projected into the future.

Instead of looking for managers that are technically savvy or for managers who can facilitate, we ought to be looking for managers who can integrate what they know about the technology and what they know about their team and what they know about the environment and be able to use their frontal lobes (where decisions are projected into the future) in a way that they can make sound decisions.

If you want to really understand how this is done just compare and contrast Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Bill Gates is smart but he doesn’t project unknowns into the future well. Just notice how Microsoft delayed entry into the Internet because Bill was so technically savvy he was sure he knew what was up. In fact, a great majority of the success Microsoft has experienced has been the result of its monopoly.

Now look at Steve Jobs. Apple, with it’s small market share, has been projecting far in advance of the current state. And all with a CEO who is not a geek. Go figure!

The primary requirement for managers is not to be able to “do”, but to be able to “see”.

The technical manager must constantly ask himself or herself, “what do I need to know and understand in order to point my technical experts into the future I see?”

Ask and answer that question consistently and often and you will be just technical enough.

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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