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.