Does a Tech Manager Need to Be Tech-Savvy?

To listen to the techies, any IT manager ought to have deep technical knowledge. Or so the prevailing wisdom goes. When push comes to shove, though, your techies would far prefer that you fine-tune your management skills than compete with them on technical know-how.

By Shawna McAlearney
Fri, September 05, 2008

CIO — To work in IT you have to have a tech background, right? Nope. With the right set of management skills, even a nontechnical person can make it as a successful manager. Sure, it helps to understand the bits and-bytes of each employee's area of expertise. If nothing else, it means the manager can appreciate what the staff does right and recognize weaknesses. But how can managers accurately evaluate team performance or assign tasks when they know little or nothing about what the individual does? According to some technical employees, the answer is communication.

Making the Case for Tech Skills

That's not to say you can be a bozo about the area you're responsible for. People sometimes assume that a good manager can manage anyone. However, a case can easily be made that tech managers should have at least a rudimentary idea of what their teams do. To manage effectively, the manager needs to understand enough to allocate resources and to schedule reasonable time frames for project completion.

"A manager that knows less than the managed loses the respect of the team, unless (s)he is a really good professional that knows what to ask for, how to delegate, and can be supportive," says a developer named Victor." See Dilbert."

That lack of respect frustrates employees, say tech staff members. It translates to miscommunication that negatively impacts productivity and the user experience across the business.

"The untechnical management I've had just wasn't as effective in getting things done," says Donna MacLeod, a systems analyst at a medical diagnostic company. "The lack of understanding for technical matters meant that a lot of projects which really, really needed funding never took off because there was no one both technical enough and business-savvy enough to sell it to the board. We were constantly lacking funding even though we were literally running ancient machines which were the backbone of the business and patching together those boxes with parts ordered off of eBay—and this was a nationwide business, not some mom-and-pop shop."

While technical competency in the department's area of expertise is an obvious asset, being tech-savvy doesn't mean a manager has to be able to do the actual work step by step. Rather, an overall understanding of the technologies being used to meet business needs and how that ties into projects and department responsibilities is key.

"A technical manager should know enough to understand what the technologies we use do, to be able to participate intelligently in meetings," says Jeanne Steinback, a software project manager for Redbox, a provider of automated DVD rental kiosks. She elaborates: "...where we are in the lifecycle of a technology, beta, new, used and ancient, just to be able to make sure we don't stray too far onto the bleeding edge or the technical graveyard."

Michael Roth, an IT manager with Complete Production Services, a provider of oil-field services, adds that a tech manager doesn't need to be capable of doing every job within the IT department; however, the person "should be savvy enough not to be snowed in any area."

Alex, a software quality-assurance analyst, adds, "A manager doesn't have to know how to write code as long as he understands the methodology, processes and terminology around it as that's sufficient for the manager to support it throughout the organization."

People Skills Trump Tech Know-How

Yes, technical skills are important, and to be a successful manager, you should have at least a clue what your department is about. But when looking at a manager's skill set, employees say basic people skills are much more important than being technically savvy.

"The principal role of a technical manager is to be able to manage people and the skill you need to do that is good communication," says Pete Nairn, a test manager at a large IT solutions company in Europe, in another post to the Software QA forum.

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