Why tech encourages bad managers–and hope for those who want to be good managers

A friend asked me recently to talk to his son, a talented software developer whose career recently took a (temporary) turn for the worse, and he asked me a very good question.

Are there more bad managers in technology than good ones?

I said I think there are. And I told him why. But I’ve also worked for some very good managers, and I know exactly what it is that sets them apart.The trap that’s easy for a technical manager to fall into is to emphasize the technical too much. And why wouldn’t they fall into it? Most likely they’re working in technology because that’s what they love, so staying involved in the technology is enjoyable and comfortable. You’re happier when you love what you do, so a technical manager who loves technology is going to prefer messing with the tech over going to meetings.

The problem is that a good manager needs soft skills and an understanding of business. Soft skills can mean writing and presenting, but it also means getting people to help you.

Let me give you an example.

About six months ago, my project was stuck. We had a technical problem that took me a few days to solve, but I solved it. I solved the problem, and I had ample evidence from lab experiments to prove the problem was solved. But I didn’t have the administrative rights to deploy the solution. As a security person, I didn’t want those rights. But that meant I needed help from the system administrators who had that power. They weren’t answering my e-mail messages, or my boss’ e-mail messages.

My boss asked a senior director to help us.

The senior director sent a few instant messages to people with the power to help. He acknowledged that they were busy, but asked up front for what I needed from them, promised it wouldn’t take very long, and promised that they would benefit from it too. That person referred him to someone else lower down the chain, who in turn referred him to yet another person further down the chain, but 10 minutes later, I had the help I needed.

And guess what? What this senior director said came true. Four months later, those guys came to me asking for help. And because they’d helped me last summer, I had what I needed to be able to help them in the fall.

Now, more often than not, my boss at the time and my current boss can ask for help and get it. They have those soft skills too, but every once in a while you need someone with a little higher rank and the soft skills.

That’s what a great manager does. A great manager gives team members a little bit of help to get them unstuck when they need it, then lets the team do what it was hired to do. That help might not necessarily be technical.

A poor manager doesn’t trust the team, works from the assumption that the team is going to get stuck, and it’s going to be up to him or her to come up with the technical solution to the problem, and possibly to implement it too. That’s stressful for both the team and the manager–it’s really hard for one person to know more than the entirety of the team. In a technical field, it’s probably impossible.

My current manager–who is also a good manager–has the counter to that attitude. If he’s going to come up with the technical solution and implement it, then he might as well get rid of the team because he doesn’t need one. He hasn’t done that, so that means he wants his team to be his team and do its job. He has plenty of technical chops himself, but instead he uses them to understand what his team is doing and can be doing. He’s extremely effective because he knows how to get his team unstuck, and he won’t make promises that his team can’t keep. This gives him a great deal of credibility, something I suspect every manager would like to have more of.

Speaking of credibility, a good manager needs some business skills too, because the manager needs to know enough about the business to align what the team is doing with the business’ needs. Frequently when IT fails, it’s because the business thinks IT is out of touch. When you find a company that actually likes its IT department, that’s because the IT thought leaders understand the company’s business enough that the business owners feel comfortable talking with them, and trust them. Then they can collaborate and make sure that what the business spends on IT is actually helping the business accomplish its goal (which, unless it’s a not-for-profit, is to make money).

None of this is easy, and I doubt much of it feels natural. I’m sure reorganizing yet again feels a lot more like progress. After all, reorganizing is doing something.

I’ve been in both extremes. I’ve worked for managers who have won awards for their leadership, and I also once worked for a management hierarchy that was fired–the whole hierarchy. The people who were fired never fully acquired those skills that would give them the credibility they needed with their team and the organization. That wasn’t for lack of trying–they all had training that pointed them in the right direction and gave them a good hard shove. But the managers I know who’ve won awards took more steps. That’s the difference.

Taking emotion out of the equation and looking at things objectively, any one of them probably was a single aha! moment away from making that same shift. For all I know, they’re all doing well now, wherever they landed.

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