Part-time technical and part-time manager
As I indicated in my previous blog, I taught a class this week on being a technical professional and technical manager at the same time. This is usually the situation that arises when a technical person is first promoted to management. They are promoted to a position that is part-time technical and part-time manager. During the class I taught, we discussed how and why a technical person is promoted to this “schizophrenic” situation; a situation in which they have to shift from technical to manager and back and forth and back and forth. It seems pretty difficult to be both at the same time and yet this condition seems to occur with regularity.
So I thought this would be a good time to discuss the thinking process that managers go through when they promote their best technical people to part-time manager and part-time technical individual contributor.
The first point I want to make is that very, very rarely does a full-time technical person get promoted to a position of full-time technical manager, and for good reason. Experience counts for something. Judgment is important. It’s very risky to take someone who has not done management work and promote them to full-time manager. So it makes sense that a technical person will be given management responsibilities in a piecemeal approach. It’s more like a proof of concept process.
However, the issue is that it’s usually a proof of concept without adequate training. Most technical professionals get very little if any training before they are given their first management assignment. And for this reason, most technical professionals who get their first promotion to part-time manager have a very difficult time.
It’s not uncommon for a person who is 50% technical person and 50% technical manager (i.e., it might be a team lead position, or manager of a small project with one or two people) to get frustrated because the team he or she is managing isn’t delivering their tasks on time or in budget. The new manager is often trying not to look like a “micro-manager” and yet by taking such a “hands-off” approach, the tasks aren’t getting done. This was exactly the situation facing one of the students in this week’s class.
So let’s talk first about how the best technical professionals get promoted to this position of part-time technical and part-time manager usually without adequate training. Why would a manager pick the best technical person and promote them out of the job they do so well into a new job without training them?”
From the manager’s point of view, the best technical employee may seem to get their work done very quickly and effectively, and therefore, may have something to teach other employees. But most of the time, the reason the manager picks the best technical person is because the manager certainly can’t pick the worst technical person to manage technical people who are more competent.
So once the best technical person is targeted for promotion to part-time manager, the manager has to justify the selection. The rationale for the selection process is comprised of several myths. I call these myths, “The Myths of Early Management Selection”.
The first Myth is what I call: “Good Technical Job: Why Not Manage?” The thought here is that “if you can do your technical work well you can obviously manage people doing the same or similar work.” Underlying this myth is the belief that you can manage a small team or a small project because managing people doing the same work you do is easy.” It is, isn’t it? This myth completely ignores the fact that your technical work and the management job are completely different disciplines.
The second Myth is what I call “Osmosis”. This myth says “Don’t worry. Just hang out and assist a good manager in the company and you’ll learn what you need to learn from that manager.” The unfortunate part about this myth is that while you may well learn some good practices you’ll also pick up all the weaknesses and faults of your teaching manager. Myth #2 produces a series of managers that all have the same strengths and the same weaknesses.
The third Myth #3 is what I call, “Trial by fire”. It translates into a philosophy which is something like, just jump in there and do the management job. It’s a “sink or swim” approach. It’s similar to throwing a child who can’t swim off the deep end of the pool expecting them to dog paddle their way to the edge of the pool and thereby, gain the ability to swim. Or maybe it’s like putting a novice in the left seat of an airliner and expecting them to fly you from San Francisco to New York safely. By any stretch of the imagination, Myth #3 is a looser.
The point I’m driving home is that none of these myths include management training. They are based on the basic assumption that technical management, at least in the early stages, is a no-brainer. It’s easy. It’s obvious.
The reality is that technical people haven’t taken any training to speak of by the time they have graduated from college. They’ve focused most, if not all their time, on their technical work.
And the necessary training I’m talking about is not training in Microsoft Project, or in budgets, or schedules. I’m talking about the skills of
Management Style Selction;
and other inter-personal skills that make the difference between success and failure.
Before taking your first step up the technology management ladder, get some preparation in the inter-personal skills that truly make a manager a manager.