by Robert Austin

Hotshot Envy: Managing Smart People

Jan 15, 20014 mins
IT Leadership

Among the myriad challenges managers have had to face during the IT revolution of recent years, dealing with an increasingly specialized workforce has provoked particular angst. I saw this firsthand when I led a small, elite team of young programmers who supported mission-critical systems in an automaker’s assembly plants. The plants are literally where the rubber hits the road in the auto business. They have a rugged history and even today retain practices from the kick-butt-and-take-names school of management. Imagine the discomfort of a veteran plant manager, his operation laid low by a computer glitch, as he watches a parade of hotshot twentysomethings arriving to save him.

A Breed Apart

Most managers who have been around for a while have experienced some version of this discomfort. The more technological things get, the more it seems we are critically dependent on a specialized, highly talented subset of our employees who understand the things we need to know about. If you are like many experienced managers, these critical employees are not like you. In addition to being very young, they are—as one of my colleagues has pointed out—”smart enough to be CEO if they had any interest at all in that.” The fact that they lack interest in most things managerial simply adds to their alienness. You suspect that they are prone to prioritize things differently than you would. But if you are like most managers, you can pretty much forget about understanding what they are doing. You simply don’t have the time to acquire the background you’d need to interpret their techno-speak explanations.

So how do you manage people whom you can’t really supervise in any traditional sense? The story of how Sun Microsystems came to realize the importance of the Web is a cautionary tale on this subject.

When the Web came to Sun, it was via the techies. They played with it, and they loved it. For their part, the managers didn’t get it. In fact, management instituted a policy that discouraged the use of Web browsers because of the network traffic they generated. Sun’s techies revolted.

On the day the policy was announced, more than 600 people sent e-mails as a protest to senior managers. The uproar culminated in one of the biggest companywide meetings in Sun’s history. Within days, the policy was reversed. But it took months of techies pushing this newfangled technology before Sun’s managers realized its importance. Fortunately, when they finally came around, Sun was still very early to the Web; despite management’s initial reluctance, the company deserves its reputation as one of the pioneers of the Web economy.

Disorderly Conduct

If we are to give Sun’s managers credit in this story, it is not for their ability to clearly see the future. Rather, it is because they tolerated and even nurtured the sort of “out-of-controlness” that sometimes distresses us as managers of highly technical employees. Sun has a culture in which the techies push back hard when managers do something dumb. In such a culture, change can come from just about anywhere in the company. But it’s not always pretty—or orderly.

In the old days of functional hierarchies, managers did two things: They encouraged sound habits and practices, and they encouraged changes in those habits and practices when they saw business conditions changing. Since the beginning of the IT revolution, the second of these two things is much harder because managers often aren’t the ones who see change coming. A manager’s job in this IT-complicated world still involves encouraging sound habits and practices. But it has less than ever to do with deciding what exactly constitutes those sound habits and practices.