#5 To Be A Manager

by Steven Cerri on September 25, 2006

So You Want To Be A Manager

How Does A Technical Person Get Promoted To Manager?

If you’re currently a technical professional and you’re thinking about going into management, it’s important that you be aware that your transition to management isn’t going to be an overnight process. You’re not going to go to bed one night as a technical professional and wake up the next morning as a technical manager. But you knew that, right? What you probably didn’t know is that it can be a very slow OR a relatively fast process. And it most certainly won’t be orderly because your boss or your company probably won’t prepare you well for the transition.

I’ve seen a lot of technical people get selected for management and so I’m going to tell you one of the likely scenarios you might experience.

First and foremost, most managers, and here I’m speaking of your manager; most managers don’t really understand management as a discipline. (I know, it sounds like a ridiculous statement, but all I can do is ask you to consider how competent you believe the managers are that you’ve met? Most of you will say, “not very”.) This is because most managers think that management is a no-brainer, or at the very least, it’s not a very rigorous discipline. Therefore, if you do your engineering work well, and you seem readily capable of talking to people, your manager will think that because you can do your technical work well you can manage other people doing the same or similar work.

That’s right. Most technical professionals who do a very good job at their technical work are “assumed” to be competent to manage a team of people doing the same or similar work. You manager is thinking something like this: “Well John (or Betty) is a really good engineer. He really seems to know his stuff when it comes to the technology. And he seems to be a nice enough person. He seems to communicate well enough with other people. Most people like him. He doesn’t seem to raise his voice or get into verbal disputes. He can probably manage one or two people doing similar work to what he has been doing. I’ll just give him a simple management task with a few people to manage and see how he works out.”

That’s it. That’s how you get selected for management. There is usually no more preparation than that. As you will probably notice from this scenario, you’ve been selected for a relatively small project. That’s reasonable. You’re not going to be selected to be a full-time manager without significant experience. However, the key here is that you will often be selected for your first management position without being given sufficient training. You’ll be seen as a good technical person. You’ll be seen as someone without significant inter-social faults. You’ll be asked (usually) if you want to be a manager and most of the time the response is “sure”. And that will be it.

Now once in a while a good technical person is selected to manage a small project and they are given some training in preparation for this new responsibility. The training will often come in the form of one or more of the following classes: corporate human resources/personnel policies; project management; budgeting and scheduling; good listening skills. While these classes regarding the “doing” of management at your company are useful, they are not what you need as a new manager. Primarily what you need as a new manager is a way to understand how to make the transition from individual contributor, the “doer” part to the motivator, the “doer doing less and motivating others to do”.

As an individual contributor you got your rewards from the doing. As a manager, you will get part or all of your rewards from what others are doing. This is the shift you want to make. This is what you want to learn about. This is what will make or break your transition.

 

I want to point out one more major dilemma in this early stage transition, and that is you will have “one foot” in the management world and “one foot” in the individual contributor world. That is, you won’t be a full-time manager and you won’t be a full-time individual contributor either. This is a very difficult situation to be in but unfortunately, we all have to go through it. There seems to be no other way to get from technical professional to manager. At some point in the early days of our transition process, we all have to be part-time manager and part-time technical professional. You will have to “change hats” frequently from manager to individual contributor and back and forth and this will definitely get confusing and it will be a challenge… I can guarantee it. But frankly, there isn’t any other way. You won’t have sufficient experience to be a full-time manager so you’ll have to make it a part-time gig. And about half of you will not succeed.

You won’t succeed because you never wanted management in the first place. If you had wanted management you certainly wouldn’t have studied all those years to be a technical professional. So let’s be clear. Being a technical professional is generally not a “people oriented” profession. Technology deals with ideas, laws of physics, machines, equations, and only peripherally, with people.

Now all of a sudden, because you do your technical work so well, you are going to be asked to focus on “people”.

 

I take the position, that from the technical professionals’ point of view, management is a new career. One that you didn’t ask for and one you didn’t prepare for. And yet, here it is. It’s going to require preparation and practice. And it’s going to require more than just knowledge of how to use Microsoft Project, or how to set up budgets and schedules. It’s going to require an understanding of how to deal with and communicate with and manage people. It’s going to require a personal understanding of your own motivational forces and an understanding of the motivational forces of others. This is why the transition to management is such a challenge for many technical professionals.

It’s a new career. It can be done. It can be done smoothly, elegantly, and successfully. It must be done with a conscious process of choice and an understanding that, for most technical professionals, it’s a second career.

Steven Cerri

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