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Jumping Tracks: Taking The Management Train – Information Age March 2008

In the face of cries from employers in the ICT industry for talent with good people management and communication skills, Anne-Marie Orrock explores the challenges and opportunities for technical professionals changing from a traditional, technical career track to people management roles — and the intricacies of managing high-aptitude technical staff along the way.

The alarm bells are ringing and much industry discussion around the “ICT skills crisis” is generating numerous groups and task forces to determine what the priority problems are and how to solve them.

A recent industry event hosted by the Department of State and Regional Development brought together participants representing all areas of the ICT industry from industry associations and advocacies, to educational institutions, government, industry service providers and corporate employers to address the critical skills issues for the ICT industry and discuss the impact of key skills deficiencies.

Among other themes the most prominent issue that came out of rigorous discussion was that the quality of the communication and people management skills within the ICT industry was lacking and impacting upon many areas of workplace management.

Corporate Canary - Human Resources ConsultingThere is also the argument, however, that technically inclined people don’t traditionally or initially enter the industry to become highly interactive with people, let alone managers. In the past, computer science degrees or related disciplines did not have management subjects like other business degrees to develop and support such a transition for graduates in their future career. After all, a graduate only needs to cut code, right?

This illuminates the question: how and why does a technical professional make that leap across the track into the human zoo of people management? And what have they found on the “other side”.

In search for the background and answers, research and interviews with various subjects were undertaken to determine their main decision points, concerns, challenges, preparation needed and what practical advice they would give to others contemplating moving away from pure technical or coding career tracks to the business and people management track.

Q: What were your main reasons for going into a management role and not staying on a technical track?

A: The leap of faith

While some subjects found that the opportunity to move into management was unplanned and presented to them by being in the “right place at the right time”, the majority of respondents reflected that ultimately, the drivers to leave a pure technical track came down to the realisation that with their passion for being creative with technology, and to pursue their desire to be able to “make a difference”, they needed to become a people manager.

They had to make the move to step up to the level where strategic decisions are being made and have a direct influence in setting the technical agenda for the company to allow them to see their passion followed through.

As one new manager remarked: “Engineering can be an art as well as a science — so that creative aspect is self-fulfilling, therefore most engineers don’t always seek out management roles. However, when experienced engineers realise that to be able to have their creativity make a difference, or just to be used, they need to make the step up in management to gain the control and influence to make it happen.”

Other reasons were that despite the efforts of their organisation to develop alternative “technical” career paths of Lead, Principal, Senior Principal (and even Guru Master at one charismatic outfit) that they were limited by traditional organisation structure, and that ultimately status, decision-making ability and salary didn’t really stack up as “equal” and the favorable path leaning towards people or business management career paths.

Q: What were your concerns in making this decision? Were they well founded or not?

A: Feeling the fear . . .

Most found the decision to change to a people management career path brought some concerns and challenges that were both realised and unrealised.

Many were in a position where they were now the manager of their former peers and there was concern of possible or perceived resentment by their fellows. This was mainly unfounded, with many handling this transition by having a frank one-on-one discussion with each to understand and talk over any concerns or issues.

A worry bug that hit most at the time of their decision, and that many have now reported as well-founded, is the losing touch with technical skills. Whilst most acknowledge that over time they now do not have the same technical skill depth they used to, it is in still being able to communicate with their technical staff at their level of detail which is more important.

Many ensure that they are still physically located within their teams as much as possible and others will maintain a small part of the coding on a project to keep their hand in. Being involved in the coding review process with senior team members where possible is recommended.

Weekend reading on newer technologies and approaches was also reported as important.

Unanimously, all interviewees reported that their formal qualifications did not help them at all with people management skills or foundations. This was due the nature of their degree, being in computer science or related engineering that did not have adequate people management subjects outside of a basic Project Management subject offered.

Advice for technical professionals
considering changing tracks

Collectively, the subjects agree: don’t be driven by the promise of better remuneration or title as your basis for decision. 

  • Be prepared to step out of your comfort zone in communicating. Develop your communication skills and understand your, and others’ communication style.
  • Understand that it is not still a technical role with a different salary and title. A massive amount of your time is spent on people and HR issues.
  • Attend industry networking events, e.g. ACS events and special interest groups to develop your networking and communication skills.
  • Develop your coaching skills and be a mentor to junior technical staff.
  • Be willing to let go of coding and technical skills. You must ask yourself, “have I had my fill of coding?” and honestly answer yes.
  • Establish your credibility by getting involved with other groups and key stakeholders in the organisation before you make the change.
  • Get a non-technical manager as your mentor.
  • Make a point of demonstrating that you can bridge the gap between technical and business and know who in the company you need to demonstrate it to.
  • Join industry associations like ACS, AIIA and IEEE and subscribe to industry newsletters to broaden your commercial knowledge.
  • Develop non-technical skills by volunteering for something outside your direct job responsibilities, e.g. organise Christmas Party or join internal committees, become a fire warden, etc.
  • Talk with HR and understand basic employment legal requirements and practices.
  • Get from a library, or purchase, management texts and periodicals.
  • Go on general management courses.
  • Develop an interest in the commercial purpose and direction for your company or business in general.

Corporate Canary - Human Resources Consulting

They heavily relied on their employer to provide any form of management training and were putting the onus squarely on the shoulders of their employers to do so. Knowing that they did not have basic people management training, and having observed other technical professionals unsuccessfully promoted to a people manager, just about all feared they may not make it as a manager.

Typically: “I have witnessed a number of my technical colleagues who, with all good intentions from management, have become people managers and found they did not have the foundation people skills, or the passion, to see it through. In their case they sunk or management politely moved them sideways to the ‘special project’ departure lounge.”

Q: What are the main management challenges that technical professionals face when going from a technical professional to a manager of people with staffing/HR responsibilities?

A: Landing on the other side

Martin Duursma, CTO Office Chair & VP Advanced Products at Citrix Systems, leads several global development teams and has seen many technical professionals under his guidance jump tracks to the people management side. He is in agreement with the resounding response from respondents that the main management challenge new managers find is communicating and developing good communication skills.

Duursma believes that key to becoming effective at adjusting and developing communication skills as a new manager of technical people is to recognise your own primary communication style and personality traits and to be able to demonstrate ‘flex’ in adjusting your communication style into a differing or more ‘extroverted’ and assertive way. This can be a challenge for some technical professionals who fit the traditional trait of being more reserved and introverted in their style.

He also advises that being able to step up and communicate within a business context at the management level is also required or a new challenge that technical professionals moving up into management need to be prepared for.

“Often, technical professionals that take the transition to management find there is a different language and thought focus on a commercial level. They are now exposed as managers to what they were sheltered from previously.” says Duursma.

A statement that is supported by Anil Roychoudhry, previously a software developer within Duursma’s ranks who has recently been promoted above his peers within the development team to become their manager of development.Corporate Canary - Human Resources Consulting

Roychoudhry had been a veteran developer for 15 years of which eight was with Citrix, when he put his hand up for an opportunity that opened up for the management role. He learned that communicating with advanced technical detail was natural and successful for him as an engineer, but it was lost on upper management.

“Invariably when talking to the upper levels of management, you have to simplify the message to get the gist of the subject across. Many engineers see this as dumbing down the message, but non-technical people don’t need to be bogged down by detail,” says Roychoudhry.

Similarly, Mark Greenwood, Development Manager at Altiris , a division of Symantec, found one of his biggest challenges was dealing with a range of business people that as a developer, he previously was not exposed to: CEOs, partners, customers — and the requirement to change his communication style where needed.

“The ability to talk at a simplified technical level, and a business level, is crucial to an IT management role. Conversely, you need to have the skill and awareness to flip that over when dealing with your staff, and give them the level of detail they seek,” Greenwood says.

Having good communication and influence also came into play when new managers found that now they were on the management team — it was a different ball game with politics the referee and the ‘game’ was on. The challenge most found was the decision to be a player or not.

Greenwood cites another change of dealing with being a new manager was the shock factor of politics and how it permeates the management level in different ways from power plays, to ‘smoke and mirrors’ tactics and strategies employed around conflicts.

Many realised that they had been protected from politics and that they had been sheltered from communication occurring at the management level that was very different in terms of language used, the commercial and business aspect of the conversations and that strong technical arguments can be and are overridden by stronger commercial arguments — a new world was opening up to them.

Interestingly, most found the answer to their long asked question as a staffer — ”What does management do all day?”

It was to be one of their greatest challenges: the significant amount of time required on communicating, be it in more meetings, more telephone and conference calls, coaching staff and dealing with staff issues and the biggest change — “10 times more e-mails”.

As Roychoudhry advised: “You have to figure out very quickly how to separate the signal from the noise to manage your daily inbox.”

Q: What are the challenges of managing high aptitude technical staff?

A: Keeping the passengers on the train
The key to successfully managing and retaining high aptitude technical staff was acknowledged by most as keeping up the level of mental stimulation and enabling their skills to be developed on an ongoing basis.

Challenges of managing high aptitude staff included dealing with egos, technical snobbery, mismatched levels of aptitude within a team, pacifying staff when good technical ideas are not “bought” by management for commercial reasons, keeping work environment up to date with latest equipment and being able to spread around new product development work rather than just maintenance work to feed the hungry mouths.

“You may not be able to give the sexy work to everyone all the time, but if they know that you have their best interest at heart and can see a pipeline of skill development opportunities coming, they are willing to wait it out,” says Greenwood.

Getting the team environment with the right mix of individuals is very important. High aptitude technical staff need to be able to relate to each other at a similar intellectual level to self validate their mental capacity.

Mismatched levels of aptitude can create problems where team members either withhold information or form cliques. Managers need to keep the teams functioning efficiently with good collaboration.

As Duursma warns: “High aptitude people will move on if they are not paralleled with equally stimulating minds; the challenge is finding the right balance of aptitude in your teams.”

Reaching the destination
Whilst most agree they found the change to people management more challenging than they thought with some concerns that were founded and others that were not, they are still learning. Communicating is the biggest challenge and the key to their success. A concerted investment by employers and employees on developing communication, coaching and people management skills needs to be addressed industry wide in order to meet increasing demands by internal stakeholders, employees, and customers for hybrid talent of technical professionals. It makes the difference between a train wreck or a successful journey for management and their staff within the organisation.

Anne-Marie Orrock is managing director of Corporate Canary HR Consulting. www.corporatecanary.com.au