So, You Want To Be A Manager

660 Words. Plan about 3 minute(s) to read this.

As a younger engineer, I was frequently frustrated by co-workers or managers who had control, but lacked my technical ability. At that time, I equated knowledge with responsibility. I felt that if I knew intimately how something worked, I should be the one in charge. I should have control. From some of the frustrated e-mails we get at Packet Pushers, I know that others of you identify with this.

And so it was as a young man that I aspired to be a manager. Management looked like control to me. After all, I worked for a manager. That manager told me what to do, and I did it. That’s a simplification of the relationship, but at the root of it, there it was.

I thought that as I acquired technical expertise in operating systems, security, and networking, I should be the one holding the reins. Since I knew how the systems actually worked, and even understood how they worked together, I should be the one telling everyone else what to be doing.

That’s logical, perhaps. But it’s naive. Management is not engineering. Management is not technical leadership, at least not by default. Management is a skill all its own that, like anything else, must be learned. A good IT manager…

  • is experienced with people.
  • understands how businesses operate.
  • can translate business needs to technical requirements.
  • communicates those technical requirements to engineering.

That’s really what you’re signing up for when you want to be a manager. Managing people, especially hard-headed technical people, is an extraordinarily challenging job. Being a rock star in the data center doesn’t make you a rock star in the office.

Let’s say you choose not to salute my cautionary flag. You believe in your heart of hearts that if you were in charge, things would be better. Maybe you’re right, but consider this. If you are granted managerial responsibility, you are going to have to keep doing the engineering job you’ve always done.

Each time I’ve been a manager with direct reports, I’ve still had to perform engineering duties. And that’s true whether I, in my ignorance, pushed to be a manager, or whether the manager title was hung on me against my will. Doing both is no fun. Engineers think management is no big deal, and trivialize the workload. Don’t make this mistake.

If influence is really what you’re after, you don’t want the manager role. You want a technical leadership role. A technical lead with no direct reports allows you to be the excellent engineer you’ve trained so hard to be, while avoiding the burden of business meetings, budgets, reviews, executive interaction, and (to some degree) project management.

A technical lead role means that you can focus on design, engineering collaboration, and research. You can recommend for and against certain strategies to your manager, who then deals with the business end of things…like getting the solution paid for.

At this point, I feel a disturbance in the Force, as if a thousand readers are all saying, “But if I don’t become a manager, I’ll never get paid more money!” Depending on your employer, that might be true. But folks, it’s a trap. If money is your only reason for accepting a management proposition, it’s the wrong reason. You’ll be unhappy, and the extra money won’t make up the difference.

If you take on a manager role successfully, you’ll focus on management. Again, don’t confuse IT management with engineering. Yes, if you were previously an engineer, that knowledge and experience will come through as a manager. Doing both at the same time is, at best, difficult. Be careful what you wish for.


This piece was originally written for Human Infrastructure Magazine, a Packet Pushers publication. Subscribe to HIM here, and receive it in your inbox every couple of weeks or so.



Ethan Banks writes & podcasts about IT, new media, and personal tech.
about | subscribe | @ecbanks

Comments

  1. John W Kerns

    I do agree with this, but there is something to be said for managers which posses a technical background. I have had managers over the engineering staff who had no technical background and completely misunderstood what was involved in engineering. My experience is that the best managers over engineers are the ones who were once skilled engineers themselves.

    To paraphrase something Ferro once said, “You would never hire a CFO who has no experience in accounting”.

    1. Post
      Author
      Ethan Banks

      I don’t disagree. As long as the formerly technical person going into management grasps that they really are taking on a new role, it makes a lot of sense.

      My experience with managers with technical experience is mixed. Some of them have been great, since they “get it.” Others have been oppressive tool bags who just want to do everything themselves, have expectations of everything working instantly, and have no mentoring skills.

      Managers without engineering skills have been a similar mix. Some of them were great listeners and worked with us. Others were manipulative yes-men who leaned on us to do whatever in unrealistic timelines and without decent support. And when the crap would hit the fan, they’d run and hide.

      I guess we all get what we get, for better or worse.

  2. Damian Huising

    I enjoyed the article and look forward to reading more Human Infrastructure magazine!

    I have also experienced the challenge of becoming a manger without backfilling my technical role right away. Reflecting on the article and this experience I’d like to propose some lessons learned for comment, etc..

    [1] The first thing you should do after being promoted to management is get a requisition approved and job posted to replace your technical role. Strike while the iron is hot and do not delay. If you let it drag out you will be trying to be great at both jobs and end up being second rate at both.

    [2] Make a clean break with your technical duties. Once you transfer technical duties to another team member, avoid the temptation to take them back. This can be particularly challenging when you perceive a situation that is not being resolved as you would have done or taking too long. Its important that you teach them to fish rather than give them a fish.

    [3] If you feel the twitch to learn something new and get your certification fix, try a management cert. PMP, Lean Six Sigma, and Agile seem to be hot right now.

    [4] Accept the fact that your hands-on technical skills will atrophy to some extent and you will no longer know all the answers as quickly as someone working in the data center every day. This is OK. At this point your depth of experience and broad knowledge of various types of solutions and technologies is more important to guide your staff when they get stuck or hung up on one solution.
    (If you ever decide to get back into technical work you can pick it back up like riding a bicycle.)

    If anyone has some questions to raise with management, you can submit them anonymously through Surveymonkey and we will read them on the air during The Next Level podcast. https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/K6MTJZ9

  3. Tom Grisham

    In my experience I’ve found that being a technical leader offered more opportunity to be heard and influential toward the technical direction of the network. Kind of like Jack Black in the School of Rock :-)

    I was occasionally in the early years placed into supervisory roles and latter as an Executive Director of Production Engineering… Sounded nice and my ego was filled, but I was also an Engineer in my own org chart… ugh..

    To many hours, to much lost hair, to much coffee, so little sleep.. oh yeah, that was cool in hindsight. I was lucky enough to be interviewing a candidate for an uBer Senior Network Architect/Engineer role and he looked to be a bit stinky on the engineering, but had tons of managerial roles in his past. At that point it would have been defensible that I was uBer stinky as a manager-type.. So we marched into my bosses office and we hired the candidate for my role and I became the uBer Network-Geek with the same pay, Gone were the endless product, production, customer, HR, meetings…. I won! (within a year the new boss/candidate was given a title of V.P., he was stoked!).

    Since way back then, I raised my children and continued to passionately ply my trade. This allowed me to gain the best of leadership with those that I actually care/love and focus on my customers technology with passion un-encumbered from endless mind-numbing (personnel – posturing – budgetary – bluffing – battleing – schemeing ) hours of drudgery. I think the pay goes with the passion, so if you like mucking around in the human condition go be a manager, but if it’s technology, learn a new aspect of something that isn’t in your organization yet. Someone will notice and pay you for the expertise!

    If you still want to blend business and technology… start your own business, (that will torque your head into several new dimensions)

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