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Can a Manager Be a Techie and Survive? 238

Posted by Zonk
from the pointy-hair-with-a-diploma dept.
theodp writes "Some say that good managers should not be technical at all. Over at Computerworld, 'C.J. Kelly' takes a contrarian position, arguing that managers should keep their hands on the technology. The ability to tell the difference between fiction and reality, says Kelly, is priceless." From the article: "If you don't know the difference between fiction and reality, you've got a problem. By being technically informed while managing people and projects, no one can blow smoke up my skirt. I can tell the difference between a lame excuse for a delay and a legitimate reason why something can't be done." Where do you fall on this issue? Is it nice to be able to flim-flam the boss once in a while? Or is the valuable input of a boss with a technical background worth the occasional all-nighter?
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Can a Manager Be a Techie and Survive?

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  • by Amehcs (1019694) on Saturday November 25, 2006 @03:42PM (#16986252)
    Of course it's "nice to be able to flim-flam the boss once in a while," but that doesn't make them a good manager. I'm sure that the their boss wouldn't see it that way if they knew what was going down.
    • by iocat (572367) on Saturday November 25, 2006 @04:12PM (#16986536) Homepage Journal
      Good managers should be able to tell when they're being flim-flammed, regardless of their technical expertise, by the way their team responds to them. That said, they should also be able to suss out when they should let something go, because they're being flim-flammed for a reason (such as: the original request was retarded, and it's easier to flim-flam than actually implement something dumb, or some other reason).

      Not at all saying I'm a good manager, but I once asked someone to do something, and they explained to me very earnestly that it couldn't be done until some other guy did something (and that guy was gone for the weekend). Since "other guy" was way more junior, and this guy was very talented and generally very eager to tackle any task, I knew something was up, and it was -- his girlfriend was coming in from out of town about 20 minutes later and he wanted to get out of Dodge. That was when he was new (now he'd be like "dude, gf coming to town, can't do it now") but it does illustrate the scenario I'm presenting.

      On the larger issue, I always like it when my managers have at least a vague clue about what I'm talking about. They don't need to know details, but they should get the general idea of what we do and how we do it.

      • by ray-auch (454705) on Saturday November 25, 2006 @04:44PM (#16986782)
        Say what ? You hire techies who have girlfriends ?

        Why ? Why take the productivity hit when there's such a massive pool of talented geek labour* that is never going to have this problem ?

        *large parts of it reading right here...
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by iocat (572367)
          Actually, to be really cynical, someone with a long-distance relationship is the ideal tech hire. They have a girlfriend, so they don't feel any obligation to go out and socialize and try to find a girlfriend, and instead can concentrate, most of the time, entirely on work. I had a big discussion about this with the guy in question, and he felt that he did far more work (measured as spending time at the office, which is of course not actually equal to work performed in most cases, but there is usually a rea
      • by Anonymous Coward
        A lie in the workplace, much more serious than telling someone that their hair doesn't look silly, is a dangerous place to tread.
        The technical savvy or character judgement of your management should not be the factor that determines your integrity.

        While it is important to have a manager that can "read" people, agreed, it is equally important to have technical people that you can trust. A manager, while he should be a good read of people, is there more so to be a leader and manage the direction of the compan
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mark-t (151149)
      A few years ago, at a brand new job I once had (my 5th day there), I was asked by my new boss how I accomplished a particular system administration task that I had completed when he asked me to do it. I thought that glossing over the details of how I accomplished it would be a good idea, not realizing that he himself was a system administrator, and this task was merely a test of my skills (in fact, I had crudely hacked the solution, which worked fine, and I had backed things up to restore immediately if th
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by hazem (472289)
        Think of his question as a project in itself and assess the deliverables, etc. "How much detail would you like?" would have been a good way to find out what he's looking for. And that way, when you answer you're delivering what he wanted.

        On the other hand, he should have asked you for more detail rather than accusing you of lying.

        Some people like to ask open-ended questions to get you to stumble... like giving enough rope to hang yourself. The best way to fight this is to ask questions about what exactly
    • Techies do not respect "managers" who are not at least as smart as they are. A manager who knows what questions to ask, and where to drill down, is a valuable asset to the organization and mentor to the team he leads. A manager that could, if need be, sit down at a keyboard, help the team debug, troubleshoot, brainstorm, and even code a problem that the team is struggling with is priceless. The team will follow him to the ends of the earth. As long as the manager isn't on an ego trip. Its about the tea
  • Obviously, Yes! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by aneeshm (862723) on Saturday November 25, 2006 @03:42PM (#16986258)
    Does this even need to be said?

    I mean, come on! How much easier the lives of techies would be if their boss was one of them, if he would actually understand?
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by sphealey (2855)

      === mean, come on! How much easier the lives of techies would be if their boss was one of them, if he would actually understand? ===

      A little bit of a problem there: the microsecond the boss lifts his hand to actually perform any technical task, the rest of the management team classifies him with the toilet-cleaner and never listens to him seriously again. There might be a few hyper-technical organizations where this isn't strictly true, but it is a fact for 95% of the employers out there.

      sPh

      • by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Saturday November 25, 2006 @04:51PM (#16986844)
        A little bit of a problem there: the microsecond the boss lifts his hand to actually perform any technical task, the rest of the management team classifies him with the toilet-cleaner and never listens to him seriously again.

        The manager should be sufficiently aware of the organization's culture to know that ahead of time.

        It isn't necessary for him to do any of the actual coding. But he needs to be able to explain to the other managers why, with the current people / money / time / equipment / deadlines / other projects, the IT team will not be able to hit the deadline of the new project.

        Then it gets into negotiating with the other managers for more people / money / equipment ... or pushing out other deadlines ... or dropping requirements (for the new project or existing projects) ... or re-prioritizing the projects ...

        The manager's job is to understand the business and the technology sufficiently well that he is able to communicate the business's IT requirements to the coders and provide them with the resources necessary to achieve those requirements in the time allocated.

        It's a simple definition, but it's been useful for me. It also allows you to see where the "bad" managers have problems.

        #1. They don't understand the business and the team gets stress for delivering tech that isn't appropriate.

        #2. They don't understand the tech and over-promise what can be delivered.

        #3. They don't understand the business or the tech.

        #4. They don't communicate the requirements to the coders.

        #5. They don't provide the resources the coders need.

        etc.

        It's difficult to fail if your manager is competent at each of those steps. But not impossible. There can still be personal issues that cause conflicts/problems.

        But the chance of failure goes up dramatically with each step that the manager fails.
    • Re:Obviously, Yes! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by pcraven (191172) <paul AT cravenfamily DOT com> on Saturday November 25, 2006 @04:39PM (#16986736) Homepage
      I've found bosses that are good at tech, or think they are, to sometimes be guilty of micro-management. If they were good at tech, fine. But if they are spending all their time keeping up with technical stuff, then they aren't spending that time learning how to do their management job. Usually those people micro-manage and are good at neither tech nor management.

      Management and programming/system administration are two totally different things. If you are a manager, do you job and manage.
      • Re:Obviously, Yes! (Score:5, Insightful)

        by brad-x (566807) <brad@brad-x.com> on Saturday November 25, 2006 @04:48PM (#16986820) Homepage
        I've been here. My experience is the same - when a manager is technically minded, he or she involves himself far too deeply in the details of projects they should simply be overseeing.

        Sometimes, in the case of managers with particularly stunted emotional makeup, you'll find them attempting to use their managerial position to prove themselves as technical geniuses, to the detriment of the people on their team.

        While it may be beneficial in theory to have a technically savvy manager, in practice it's very dependent on the person. Most tech people don't have the emotional makeup required to successfully manage.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by toolo (142169)
          Normally the response of someone who's not confident about their work or cannot articulate progress properly are the ones that scream micro-management first.

          As a manager who is technical at a FTSE 250 company, it is common that employees who are behind and/or not skilled enough to carry out a request cry micro-management when they are questioned on activity list detail. I would suggest that you give updates on progress before being asked, to get us tech-manager types off of your ass.

          Remember your output as
          • by Linegod (9952)
            Have somebody record what you wrote and play it back to you in a week.

            If you don't hear 'blah blah blah I'm so great blah blah blah' you're not technical, you're just a manager.
        • by cayenne8 (626475)
          "My experience is the same - when a manager is technically minded, he or she involves himself far too deeply in the details of projects they should simply be overseeing."

          I'm a bit surprised at all the negative comments on managers with technical know-how. If so many rule out a techie becoming a manager....well, let me ask this: How do YOU as a tech figure to ever progress through your career and 'move up the ladder'??

          You certainly don't wanna be in your mid-40's...and trying to pump out code do you? I me

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by phorm (591458)
          Unfortunately many non-technical managers are often impressed by glitzy displays and powerpoint presentations. Technical ones tend to get overinvolved, but sometimes better understand where pitches do not equal reality, so the best is to perhaps have a technically-informed non-technical person, or a technical person who is able to seperate knowledge from the desrie to butt in.
        • by Shelled (81123)
          I think what often ticks off people with this perspective is technically-capable managers are harder to dupe. Yes, I'm a manager of a technical group and I usually hear the micromanagement complaint when investigating why simple tasks take four time longer than I'm capable of doing myself. My expectations are a staff who better my work and do it faster than I can with skills dulled by years of deskwork. Those who meet that metric and call me on it are my successes, those who whine about micromanagement eat
      • by syousef (465911)
        Of course they need to have let go enough that they're not trying to design the solutions themselves (unless we're talking about an architect not a manager). Knowing what is and isn't technically possible, and knowing if your team is feeding you BS or not is critical though. Ex-techies that have let go and taken on board their new role properly make the best managers! A good manager also knows how to isolate his team from some of the politics that techies don't like, while still meeting the needs of his or
      • Re:Obviously, Yes! (Score:5, Insightful)

        by griffjon (14945) <GriffJon&gmail,com> on Saturday November 25, 2006 @06:40PM (#16987636) Homepage Journal
        I've been nodding my head to almost every contradictory post so far, and that means there's something more here. I think it's obvious that you can have a good manager who's clueless at tech, or a horrible manager who stays afterhours to rebuild his kernel. I'll take a manager who matches my in brains with whom I can establish a mutually-trusting relationship, regardless of their area of expertise, any day. I should be able to explain my problems and such to someone that smart, and our trust and relationship should let us both fudge a bit on whatever side we feel needs to be fudged, with tacit and/or even explicit knowledge of the other. Most importantly, I want an advocate who can and will go to bat for me at the managerial/executive/funding agency levels. Now, it's nice if I don't have to show them how to do column-sums in Excel, but not necessary.
    • Obviously, Yes! However, how many techies have the necessary organisation and human skill to climb up the corporate ladder?
    • by morcego (260031) *
      I mean, come on! How much easier the lives of techies would be if their boss was one of them, if he would actually understand?


      How much easier the lives of the manager would be if their techies actually understand the non-technical issues ?

      I can't even begin to count the number of "technical perfect" projects that flunked, many times taking the company along.

      Well, guess what ? We have techs and managers because both are needed for things to work.
    • by DancesWithBlowTorch (809750) on Saturday November 25, 2006 @07:25PM (#16987996)
      I don't know much about the big corporations in the States, but over here in Germany, it is actually rather common for CEOs of big technical firms (and, being Germany, most of our big companies are technology producers) to have an education in natural sciences or technology.

      • The CEO of the national rail system, Hartmut Mehdorn [wikipedia.org], is a Mechanical Engineer.
      • famously, Ron Sommer [wikipedia.org], the former CEO of Deutsche Telekom (think T-Mobile in the states) is a very gifted Mathematician.
      • Dieter Zetsche [wikipedia.org], the CEO of Daimler Chrysler has a PhD in Engineering (hence "Dr. Z.").
      • Ferdinan Piech [wikipedia.org], the head of Volkswagen, studied mechanical engineering in Zurich and is a grandson of the archetype of the German Engineer, Ferdinand Porsche (who, before anyone corrects me, was, arguably, Czech, Austrian or German).
      • Speaking of which, the CEO of Porsche, Wendelin Wiedeking [wikipedia.org] has a PhD in Mechanical Engineering.
      The list continues for companies like the chemistry and pharma giant BASF (Jürgen Hambrecht, a chemist), SAP (all its founders, Hasso Plattner, Hans-Werner Hector, Klaus Tschira and Dietmar Hopp are either Physicists or Mathematicians), ThyssenKrupp (Ekkehard Schulz, a mining engineer), Robert Bosch Inc. (Hermann Scholl, an electrical engineer) and so on. Bear in mind we're not talking about people who directed their companies as startups like Microsoft or Apple, but CEOs of companies who already where global players before they joined (or were even born).
      So, although these people probably qualify more as "leaders" than as managers, it is obviously possible to be a good techie and run a big company at the same time.
  • by nigel_q (523775) on Saturday November 25, 2006 @03:43PM (#16986268) Journal
    I think it depends on what kind of background the boss has, specifically. If they were formerly a member of your development group, then they would likely make a good manager. If they came from another product group, it could be disastrous. For example, there's nothing more annoying than someone offering unqualified technical solutions that they encountered in their former world that don't apply to yours...
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by cbreaker (561297)
      Yea, you can't be definitive on this issue issue because people are different. One boss might be non-technical, but he chooses competent employees/team members and trusts their opinion. Another boss might have a bad team, but is technical enough to know where things should head from a technical point of view.

      Every company, situation, boss, and team is different. None of the variables need be set in stone - it's all about the group dynamic and how they work together.

      And some bosses are just assholes, a
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Duhavid (677874)
        You are correct, but...

        "One boss might be non-technical, but he chooses competent employees/team members and trusts their opinion"

        He/she/it cant know if competency was chosen, or smoke blowing.

        "Another boss might have a bad team, but is technical enough to know where things should head"

        And if he/she/it is not technical, then there will be trouble.

        In either case, having technical grounding will help with the evaluation of the situation.
        • by cbreaker (561297)
          I do agree that a manager with some knowledge of the subject matter would be preferred in most cases, but some of the best bosses I've had were pretty much non-technical. Then again, I'm a self starter and I'd like to think I do a good job, so that works for me.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by dknj (441802)
      smile and nod motherfucker. if its just an offer, then you can decline it.

      now if s/he is saying "you have to do it this way or else" then its time to gather everyone on your team and rebel against your manager. this doesn't mean ignoring what s/he says, or thinking of him/her as less of a manager, but sitting down in a meeting and laying down all the good points and bad points of his plan (either s/he will see how the bad far outweighs the good, or you will actually realize its a good idea. i've seen bot
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      Gosh, I hear this all the time. This is one of my personal tech/religion hot-spots. I'm a Senior IS Business Manager that was writing code in C# and VB.NET not 6 months ago. My background started as a C++ and PAL programmer 14 years ago. Over the years I moved from team member to senior developer to joining the ranks of the managers. I found as the dev lead that I ended up doing most of the work of the manager on top of being the lead. That got old. I'm amazed that this argument keeps coming up. Fro
  • Assuming.. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by diersing (679767)
    Thats assuming the ones blowing smoke have the technical knowledge. In larger organizations, managers usually have other manager reporting to them and throw in managers from risk management, project management, procurement management, and so on - its hard to get things done in general because of the meetings and approvals and testing and argh - I'm glad I left that world behind.

    In smaller shops, IT Managers absolutely have to have the technical knowledge because without it stuff won't get done - small IT M

  • Who says that? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Saturday November 25, 2006 @03:46PM (#16986292)
    Some say that good managers should not be technical at all.

    Who says that? Some people say that if you shove your fingers up your nose and blow, you'll increase your IQ. Some people say ...

    Can we just stop with the "some people say ..." crap?

    If you're a tech manager and you lack the technical knowledge, how will you be able to determine which approach is viable or even realistic?

    And don't tell me that you'd rely upon your staff. How do you know if your staff is any more technically proficient than you are? What happens when two people on your staff have contradicting approaches to a situation? Do you just flip a coin? Or do you go with the one that's been kissing your ass the best in the past week?

    If you're a manager, it means that you have the responsibility to understand BOTH aspects. The technology and the business. That's why you're paid more. That's why you were hired.

    If you can't handle both, then turn the job over to someone who can and find yourself a job more appropriate to your skill set.

    Do we really need another article on this when Dilbert cartoons have been around for so long?
    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 25, 2006 @04:18PM (#16986594)
      How do you know if your staff is any more technically proficient than you are?
      They're all Microsoft Certified Professionals?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jollyplex (865406)
      Words of wisdom coming from a suspiciously low UID.

      Stepping onto campus, I had little interest in management roles, as they did not seem interesting (and presumably did not require technical ability). After several co-ops, I developed a respect for those who had both an extensive mastery of a technical field as well as the ability to earn the trust of and successfully coordinate teams of engineers, scientists, etc.

      It's hard work IMHO, to manage an intelligent team. You have to dive in the psyche of
      • by mustafap (452510)
        >You have to dive in the psyche of each member and figure out what motivates them,

        Rubbish. I sack those ones.
    • >If you can't handle both, then turn the job over to someone who can and find yourself a job more appropriate to your skill set.

      Do you mean a job as manager at McDonalds? Let the BS begin for those who'd rather not give up their 200K+ salaries...
    • They tell the students that there are aspects of running a company that are independant of what the company does. Which is true. But then somehow they conclude that you can run a business without really understanding the business/industry/product/tech. Same goes for management. It's really unbelievable.
    • The only problem with a manager that's good at what the workers are doing is if the boss doesn't want to quit doing what he's good at. This is a problem because a manager has no attention to devote to work (being the person who filters useless distractions) and little time (having the full-time managing job and twice as many meetings as anybody else). So, no matter how good a techie the person is, the output is lousy, ill-considered, and never ready.

      So the answer is really that a manager can't really be a t
  • You've heard the expression about people "being promoted to the level of their own incompetence"? Well, in order to be a good manager, you should be good at managing AND at the tech involved in what you're managing - but unfortunately, if you're THAT good, you're probably either working at either a much higher level or attempting your own start-up. This leaves people who are only good at one or the other, and sticking someone who can't manage in a mangement position would be even worse than using someone
    • by ScrewMaster (602015) on Saturday November 25, 2006 @04:13PM (#16986548)
      You've heard the expression about people "being promoted to the level of their own incompetence"?

      Yes indeed, "The Peter Principle", from Dr. Laurence J. Peter's 1968 book of the same name. Technically, this has nothing to do with some managers being dicks but in practice it does seem that way.
      • >Dr. Laurence J. Peter's 1968 book of the same name. Technically, this has nothing to do with some managers being dicks

        But his theory of "injelitance" does. Incompetent people with enough brains to realize they are incompetent will be hostile to anyone who exceeds their abilities. Peter identified this blend of jealousy with incompetence ("injelitance") as the driver for much organizational politics.
  • by jackb_guppy (204733) on Saturday November 25, 2006 @03:46PM (#16986308)
    I have worked for both types of Mgrs: Tech Mgrs and Mgrs of Tech. Tbe second tend to better because they stay out of development and allow their staffs to do the work. A Tech Mgr beleives they are right and will commit to schedules that generally not reasonable nor possible.
    • by imadork (226897) on Saturday November 25, 2006 @04:08PM (#16986502) Homepage
      I've found the exact opposite. In my experience, a "Mgr. of Tech" is more likely to be bamboozled by bright, shiny schedules that bear no resemblance to reality (and by people who are better at smooth talking then getting their work done), while a "Tech Mgr." is more likely to create reasonable schedules because they've done the death march before, and can smell bullshit a mile away because they've slung some themselves at tome point.

      It's all a matter of personality, I think. A good techie is not necessarily cut out for management, and not all managers are cut out to understand the underlying technology they're managing in any real depth.

    • by shirai (42309) on Saturday November 25, 2006 @04:27PM (#16986646) Homepage
      If you are managing tech and either of these describes you, you could use improvement:

      You are a manager with little tech knowledge

      You are a techie with little management knowledge

      The problem with the tech managers you had is that they just didn't know enough about how to manage or had enough management experience. They believed that all techies are just like them. That TRAIT, is a problem. And while it may be beneficial to be managed by a non-techie, the company may suffer overall because the manager does not know how to drive his team.

      I am CEO/owner of a 25 person (successful, profitable and fast growing) Internet company and my best managers are both comfortable being in a management role and are very smart in the area they manage. A good manager knows the capabilities of his/her team and also knows what they don't know and helps them learn it. Instead of resigning ourselves to be as weak as our weakest link, we teach that we need to be as strong as our strongest link and we have created a teaching and learning environment. This doesn't work if the manager doesn't understand much of the tech him/herself.

      The result? Many people think our company is 2-4x as large as it actually is. We have an environment where everybody loves coming to work. There is a huge amount of respect for our managers and there is constant praise both from managers, from the teams and across team boundaries. We love our work, we work hard and in our case, our tech managers were actually all techies first but they have received guidance on how to be a good manager. I don't think a really good manager can be just either/or.

      This is a philosophy I have personally taken throughout my life. I came out of business school from marketing (though most of my best marketing knowledge I learned through books), but also am a programmer (wrote most of our original code), graphic designer (owned a design co) and was CTO for another Internet company. The more I know about my business as a whole, the better I can run my company.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by DoofusOfDeath (636671)

        I came out of business school from marketing (though most of my best marketing knowledge I learned through books), but also am a programmer (wrote most of our original code), graphic designer (owned a design co) and was CTO for another Internet company.

        Hey, is that you Ted? You're back!!! http://dilbert.com/comics/dilbert/archive/dilbert- 20061113.html [dilbert.com]

    • Both tech and non-tech scenarios of management just ape the traditional view, which is that management (as a distinct function to tech) is mandatory.

      I'm afraid this is entirely wrong, and just a self-serving view created by the management "class".

      Competent techs can organize themselves perfectly well without any imposed hierarchy --- in fact, this is probably a good definition of "competent". An unthinking directed tech slave is not really a competent tech in a true sense, because all tech work requires ef
  • A leader should be more experienced than the people he or she leads. This does not mean the leader should know about or be concerned with the smaller details, but he should have a broad enough background to comprehend the individual tasks he is organizing people to do. A manager is not there to tell people what to do, he is there to organize the division of labour. If a manager was cloned ten times he should be able to replace the people he organizes after learning the specifics of each task he would other
  • One example (Score:5, Funny)

    by laing (303349) on Saturday November 25, 2006 @03:53PM (#16986352)
    I remember hearing this story from some senior engineers I worked with about 20 years ago. I'm pretty sure that it's true.

    They were all working hard down at Cape Canaveral getting ready to launch a satellite (an old HS-376). The boss came by and asked how things were going and one of the guys said that they were stuck on a problem and needed some parts. The boss eagerly got involved because this was something that he knew he could handle. They sent him to Radio Shack (Titusville) and had him ask for some polarized resistors. He took it in stride and did not get too upset when he came back (red faced) without them. It must have been very humbling for him.

    JSL
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      That's dangerous as hell. If you sent someone to Radio Shack for a polarized resistor today, he'd come back with a cell-phone charger and insist that you install it in your satellite.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      The worst part of this story is that 20 years *if* you walked into a Radio Shack and ask for polarized resistors you'd probably at least be talking with someone knowledgeable enough to laugh at you. Nowadays, under the same circumstances, the kid behind the counter would look it up in the catalog, not find it, and just offer to sell you some batteries.

      • by Tim Browse (9263)

        if you walked into a Radio Shack and ask for polarized resistors you'd probably at least be talking with someone knowledgeable enough to laugh at you.

        Nah, they would have sold you the polarised resistors, along with some headlamp fluid they had going on special offer.

    • by pjt33 (739471)
      Doesn't say much for the Radio Shack sales staff if they couldn't persuade him that he was looking for diodes.
  • We've all seen a case or two when a tech moves into management. Rarely is it a smooth transition.

    I think it's great if a manager keeps up on technology, but once you're a manager, don't step on your workers' job responsibilities. I once had a manager who would constantly say things like "When I was doing it, I always did it this way. Try that." Yeah, that's nice and all that, but when you were doing it, the kernel was at level 2.0.13. Things have changed enough that the way you used to do it no longe

  • Sad State (Score:4, Insightful)

    by CyberLife (63954) on Saturday November 25, 2006 @03:56PM (#16986372)

    Is it nice to be able to flim-flam the boss once in a while?

    I'm sorry, but the fact that anyone would even consider this paints a very sad picture of society.

    • Point of view (Score:2, Insightful)

      by karlto (883425)

      Every time I see one of these management articles/questions on Slashdot, I wonder from which perspective many posters are commenting. If each poster was tagged "have been in management" or "have never been in management", I think that would make for very interesting reading...

      Disclaimer: have been in management (goodbye karma)

  • Yes (Score:5, Insightful)

    by daeg (828071) on Saturday November 25, 2006 @03:57PM (#16986386)
    If my manager doesn't know the technology that I'm using, he will inevitably agree to something that cannot be done (either impossible or not feasible). Haven't we all had bosses come down and dish out a nearly impossible task that sounds simple when he explains it, but really isn't? When that happens, a few things can happen: a) you get stuck doing it anyway, putting other projects behind schedule b) you fail to do it and look bad (and your boss is insulated from it: "I thought he could do it!") or worse.

    I don't expect my bosses to know how to program Python, but they at least have to know what the technology is, how it works, and preferably at least how to read/interpret it.

    Of course, in smaller teams, your manager is probably coding with you. Not every group can have a hands-off manager. However, if this is the case, the manager does need to ensure his role is maintained as manager, and not simply a developer. Managers need to insulate their team from stupid ideas, demands, and pet projects from higher levels of management.

    Best of all, a manager that really does know the underlying technology will protect his job better. He might not have to program, but he could if he wanted to. Then he is telling the truth when he tells a manager that the "Project was possible, we just didn't have the talent for it."

    Ideally managers should be very blunt, too, but that's just a personal preference. Where I work now, for instance, the managers are all-but-silent except during your yearly review. They then present a binder (not just a folder...) of your performance through the year. You may have sucked for 8 months, but they won't tell you til that review, and by then it is probably too late. I'd rather know that I suck sooner than later. Tech-savy managers could make that happen easier.
  • by onyxruby (118189) <.onyxruby. .at. .comcast.net.> on Saturday November 25, 2006 @04:00PM (#16986430)
    You have to be in order to be effective. While the manager can't be expected to get in the trenches to do the work, they have to know how the trenches work. And for far more than knowing if a tech is blowing smoke. The techs need a manager that is technically competent to at least a certain level.

    Incompetent managers can cause dilbertesque levels of insanity in technology just as much as anywhere else. I've seen managers so incompetent that they have led multimillion dollar projects straight into the ground through sheer ineptitude.

    I recall one 100 million dollar plus project I was brought in on where a manager believed the vendor when they said you didn't need a single desktop technician to migrate tens of thousands of desktops. Needless to say that manager lost their job and the vender was sued for millions.

    The manager needs to know enough to know what's needed for the department to do it's job, to know what to ask for it from venders and upper management. I've seen an it manager approve money for expensive inkjets because they like the pictures without leaving any money in the budget to replace a five year old server on it's last legs. I shouldn't have to explain to a manager that tape drives really do cost much and that a failed unit really needs replaced /now/!

    Upper Management needs someone that can make that kind of decision correctly, they rely heavily on management's opinions for purchasing. The user base needs someone that isn't going to be snowed by a vendor with a dog and pony show. The techs need someone that knows what tools they need to do their job.

    The job of management is to be an abstraction layer that interfaces between workers and upper management. They need to know enough about the job being done by their employees to do that.

  • Yes and no (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tttonyyy (726776) on Saturday November 25, 2006 @04:05PM (#16986462) Homepage Journal
    I've been managed by non-technical managers and technically-aware managers, and also been a technically-aware manager myself for a little while.

    It's a double edged sword. Non-technical managers might not understand the importance of technical details/problems, but technical managers might end up micromanaging [wikipedia.org]. Personally I believe it all comes down to trust (and hence personality). The best managers are those that are technically competent but trust their team to make the correct judgements without the managers input. The worst are managers that are technically competent but want to make every decision for the team. Engineers *need* to have creative input and make decisions in order to be happy in their roles. Non-technical managers are in-between - they are forced to trust their team, but might not understand the pros and cons of important technical decisions.

    Like it or not, those "difficult to quantise" aspects of running a technical project (such as personality) can make or break it. Surviving as a techie manager depends 100% on your personality. Put your trust in your team.
  • Here's an example (Score:5, Informative)

    by broothal (186066) <christian@fabel.dk> on Saturday November 25, 2006 @04:06PM (#16986480) Homepage Journal
    I'll stand up. I have a masters in computer science. I read slashdot. I'm a manager. I'd say it helps me a lot in my daily work to have the same mindset as the developers and architects I manage. Of course, most of my guys could out-code me any day of the week. Luckily, it's not a competition. I'm glad their java-fu is better than mine. I use my background knowledge of developing to ask the right questions and find the right answers, based on their skills.

    By being technically informed while managing people and projects, no one can blow smoke up my skirt. I can tell the difference between a lame excuse for a delay and a legitimate reason why something can't be done. That ability is priceless.

    If your people blows smoke up your ass then you need to work on your management skills. Regardless that you can detect their lame excuses - if they feel the need to give a lame excuse then it's not only them that's doing a poor job - you are as well.
  • As a messenger years back I watched two high end video techs snow a room full of ad agency suits at $400 an hour while editing a toy commerical.
    One kept saying: "I've got 14", and the other would reply from behind the control desk "I've got 15". At one point I grinned at them as this had been 30 minutes of downtime that shouldn't have been billable. They grinned back as they knew I didn't have any where near the authority, or motivation, to mention it to the suits. It went on for over an hour.

    OT? sort of I
  • And both have their place. It's nice to have a manager with technical know-how when they can truly act as another person in your workgroup, in essence increasing the number of people trying to fix a problem.
     
    It's also nice to have a manager that trusts their employees and will fight in the management trenches leaving their employees free to actually do the work.
  • A good manager has to be a good leader first and foremost. A non technical manager will have a very difficult time earning respect among techies. Conversely, techies will eagerly follow someone who they perceive as an expert in technical matters.
    Managers who can't lead are useless and should be outsourced to India.
    • But it's rare. The trick is to earn the respect, as you said, and the only way for a non-technical person to do that is to admit up front that they have no idea what the techical aspects of the issue are. They then have to deal with the aspects that they do know -- making sure the techies don't get bogged down in meetings, keeping channels of communication open that are necessary, etc.

      Although it's nice to have someone who understands what it is that you do, it's even more important to have someone who ac
  • The non-technical managers feel threatened by managers that have technical know-how. And they can use their considerable social skills to brand that know-how as a disadvanage, as a distraction to the essential task of management, which they see as making financial decisions and communication.

    I have experienced this ostracism, and while it can be dealt with, it is definitely something a techie manager has to keep in mind when dealing with the other non-so-clued managers. It is a "weakness" which can easily n
    • by wikinerd (809585)
      You are right that combining technical knowledge with business awareness is a quality appropriate for entrepreneurs. Managers are slaves just like anyone else: They know the business side of things but can't build a product themselves. Programmers, likewise, can make products but often have difficulty marketing them. A programmer who knows about business and has an urge to self-start things can become a great entrepreneur.
  • If you don't understand the hardware, how can you manage it? How can you understand why one system or software package is better than another?

    I feel if you don't know your particular field as a manager then you're just a PHB, and probably buy everything Microsoft and Dell tell you to.

  • Nay 'Can', Must. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Demiansmark (927787)

    I was brought in by a small web design and development company to refine their methodology and process while increasing the overall quality of the work. The owner is essentially a sales person and has no knowledge of the technology beyond (often false) sales sound bites. This has completely undermined almost all my work as the owner makes commitments to clients that are unrealistic given the scope and budget of a given project and as a result client expectations are consistently unmet.

    I believe anyone w

  • Having worked my way up through the ranks to management and seen both non-technical and technical managers, I'd have to say that managers with a technical background and are keeping their skills or knowledge (at least) current are better than many of non-technical managers. As was stated in a previous post above it all depends on whether the technical manager has a head for the business side of things, and vice-versa. If the non-technical manager is at least reading journals, studying trends in the market
  • If you're going to be a "technical" manager, for crying out loud stay current! Whatever you do, don't force it and be half-assed... If it comes naturally to you, do it. If not, maybe you should think about that MBA and become a "senior" manager.
  • Technical Manager (Score:3, Insightful)

    by wikinerd (809585) on Saturday November 25, 2006 @04:33PM (#16986688) Journal

    A Technical Manager, such as a project manager, must know a lot about technology and use it actively in practice, otherwise they are just wasting the programmers's time by asking stupid questions and giving bad directions. A General Manager in an IT business need not have much grasp of technical matters except excellent appreciation of the concepts involved (e.g. they ought to know about information systems), but I would still recommend some weekend coding even to a general manager, especially if they participate in hiring decisions.

    I personally am a holder of a BSc(Hons) in Computer Science and I am now studying towards an MSc in Management, while I work as an Analyst Programmer on European Union projects and contribute to open-source. It's not all bad: Techies can certainly become good managers if they try, but I guess it all depends on why one decided to go to business school.

  • Being technical is great and all for managers that proceed up through the ranks, but what happens when a good (and technical) manager changes jobs? What I'm getting at is that (supposedly) a good manager can manage people in various industries and many do switch entirely. I had a manager once that had proceeded through the ranks and knew all the technical aspects of the systems he and his staff managed, but once he was hired in as our manager (same industry - health care) it was entirely different systems a
  • by ellem (147712) * <ellem52 AT gmail DOT com> on Saturday November 25, 2006 @04:55PM (#16986876) Homepage Journal
    I have 2 HUGE problems as a manager who was a tech.

    1) I side with my "guys" (who are .33 women!) too often.
    2) I have a nagging feeling I could "do that better" than they're doing it.

    Sounds fun, or funny but it's not. It's a pain in the ass. It literally triples my stress levels.

    There is no doubt in my mind that being a Sys Admin was a MUCH easier job.
  • This can really go two ways.

    On one hand, if your manager has some technical knowledge, he's more likely to go to bat for you when upper management gets unreasonable with their demands. Ideally, he'd be able to understand the technical reasons for, say, a production delay - and translate that to management-ese for HIS boss. Having a manager who is hands-off enough to let you do your job, but still really interested in the workings of the things you're creating - heaven! Imagine a boss who sees in your work a
  • Bad managers come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them have good technical knowledge, some don't. But a special place of contempt is reserved for the truly *clueless* manager. Those are usually of the non-technical sort.
  • Surely the basic fallacy here is that "techie" is a unidimensional attribute that you either have or you don't. In reality, no-one these days has up to date technical knowledge of every aspect of IT. Even if you take, say, web-based solutions, anyone who claims to be up to speed on all the relevant technology is lying or stupid. And if "manager" means more than "lead programmer", the chances are that the project as a whole involves more skills than any one member of the team - techie or not - has mastered.
  • Cooking, like development, requires a combination of knowledge, technical skill, and creativity. I've eaten at restaurants run by chefs, and at ones run by bean-counters. There's no prize for guessing where one gets the better dinner -- but the dinner is enough, if you're the one eating it.
  • I've got a pretty wide background in IT. Thirteen years of overall experience with the last five plus a few months in senior management. The first five years in management were at the Director of IT level where I reported to the CFO and last couple of months as a CIO on the executive team. My background includes programming, DBA, networking, systems, help desk, training, etc. I stay very, very current on my technical skills by writing technical articles. This serves me in three ways: (1) it helps me st
  • One of the most difficult phases of my career was coming to the understanding that I, as a manager, was not responsible for determining how something was done or the technical purity/perfection of my subordinates work. I am a manager... I am not a implementer or designer. My job is to:

    1) Determine the competence of those that I manage.
    2) Rely on their judgment and expertise to solve the problem.
    3) Assess the value of their solution against the needs of the customer and the company.
    4) Provide them the reso
  • Look, managers don't need to be technical, they just need to contact their nearest Microsoft salesman to ask which Microsoft solution is appropriate to their current business problem.
  • There are two ways to design an app - bottom up or top down, but most everyone agrees that no app can be 100% of either. It is a continuum, and the properly point of that continuum is dependent on the application being built. The same is true for management. If the department's work isn't extraordinarily technical, then why have a guy who knows assembly leave.

    But I think what we have here is fear mongering from those that are currently leading without understanding the tech. Eventally, those who do know the
  • Some say that good managers should not be technical at all.

    As one poster says, who cares what "some people" say.

    A technical manager isn't a good manager because he's not technical. He's a good manager because he trusts the other technical members on his team, and deflects "management" stuff from them, leaving them free to be technicians.

    A techcnical manager, by definition, has to be technical in order to successfully serve as the wall between management and rank-and-file. If he can't understand what

  • In Europe where managers and companies are like blood vessels and muscles, they can get away with it. In other so called countries, where the managers are hired years after the founding and strict hierarchy is worshipped, the managers can't be close to the technology.

  • Of course (Score:2, Insightful)

    by polyex (736819)
    A one word point on whether having managers with a technical background in a technology company is superior - Google
  • A few months ago, my company hired a manager whose chief responsibility was to provide a liaison between the project management staff and the development teams. He also asked without prompting to make some contributions to coding standards and reviews. Because we had the need and desire to establish better processes, our VP readily agreed.

    I interviewed this guy before we hired him. My only feedback: "Good management knowledge, but technical background is inconsistent." I gave him a thumbs-up, because I lik
  • by AK Marc (707885) on Saturday November 25, 2006 @07:34PM (#16988072)
    Would a bank hire a manager that worked at a shipping company that has never even had a bank account in his life? Why is it that managers in every field except technology expect that the manager is minimally competent in the part that they are managing? I have worked in a public company where the EVP in charge of IT, HR and PR had never had or used a computer in his life. Every expense over something trivial like $5000 had to be approved by someone that was proven to not know what any of it was and usually didn't even know what it was supposed to do. This is a man that had all his emails printed for him to read and he dictated them to a secretary that sent them in his name.

    It makes sense for managers to come to IT the way they come to most other professions. You are competent in the basics of the profession, and then you move up to supervisory positions, work well at that, then become a manager. I understand that it is sometimes harder for that to happen in IT because the people drawn to the IT profession are not necessarily heavy in the traits that are valued in managers, but it is still a much better proposition than taking someone who has never owned or used a computer in his life and putting him in charge of IT for a company. I'd like to say that was unusual, but almost every large company I've worked for has had a level at the VP level that had never done anything on a computer other than word processing, or if they were an expert, maybe Power Point.

    The question isn't whether a manager can be a techie and survive, the question is why can so many be non-technical and survive, when every other profession has a massive affinity for managers being competent workers in what they manage?
  • by ghjm (8918) on Saturday November 25, 2006 @08:20PM (#16988414) Homepage
    Let's talk about the CEO for a minute. If you're saying that the CEO needs to have tech skills "in order to tell the difference betwen fiction and reality," then you are saying that no techie or middle manager below the CEO can be trusted to provide accurate information. If this is the case, then the CEO needs to re-think his staffing plan. Also, why is this limited to tech? Does the CEO also need to have a detailed understanding of marketing, accounting, human resources, law, etc., in order to avoid being lied to by those departments as well?

    So: Direct supervisors of tech staff should have tech skills, but at some level above them in the organization, tech skills give way in importance to management and business skills.

    This leads to question #2: What do you mean by survive? No doubt an ambitious manager would like to see a clear promotion path all the way up to the CEO level. I don't think tech skills are a liability to achieving this, but once you cross the threshold from supervisory to executive management, those tech skills are not worth much any more. If you have to spend a lot of energy maintaining the techie side of your brain, you are presumably detracting from the amount of time you can spend polishing your executive skills. And this makes you less promotable than someone without this distraction.

    So: Can you survive? Yes, you can do very well as a supervisor of techies, but insisting on a robust set of tech skills may cost you as an executive.

    -Graham
  • As a manager, let me say the best manager is someone who does less "doing" and puts the focus on "leading". That's a hard thing for managers to come to grips with, especially those that have risen up to management "from the ranks". To be a manager, you must be willing to give up the day-to-day hands-on stuff, and leave that to your staff. To try to remain hands-on means you aren't doing your job as a manager. When you move into management, your job changes. It's a big thing to accept.

    However, that do

  • It's of course a necessity that your boss has an idea of the technology he orders for the company. Nothing is more of a headache than working with useless tools because some clever marketing goon tricked your boss into buying them. And now YOU have to work with them because the marketing goon said that they're fool proof, so if you can't handle them, YOU are the fool.

    On the other end of the annoyance spectrum is the boss that knows all, knows that he knows all and starts micromanaging you. Having the respon
  • by anubi (640541) on Sunday November 26, 2006 @12:12AM (#16989732) Journal
    Since this forum is about one's experiences with managers, I'll post mine. This is for what its worth, likely redundant.

    My most memorable experience in engineering came upon joining a group of people, all very techie, who were a group of radio amateurs doing what they liked to do - namely - tinkering with RF.

    It was a helluva "job", if you can call it that. "Lifestyle" was more the word for me.

    It was the kind of thing you couldn't wait to get to the lab. I bought my house really close so I could minimize the time I had to do such nuisance things like eating or sleeping. All my "toys" were at the lab. The house was more like somewhere I went when I had to go to sleep. I would have gladly slept at the lab if there were somewhere to do it. Yeh - true-blue nerd. I was just as addicted to my RF toys as gamers are to games.

    I had the best boss imaginable. A wizard of all things. That guy knew everything. But he just had one set of hands and that was a severe limition to him. I'd gladly be his hands if he would just show me how all this stuff worked. He had a really uncanny understanding of how stuff worked. I almost say I had religious experiences just talking to this guy. Its just the way he could explain fields and energy flows in such a graphical nature.

    A big corporation bought us out one day.

    They brought in their Masters of Business Degree managers, well schooled in the motivational theories and executive management skills, but didn't know much of a damn about how anything worked. Working for them was hell.

    I soon found I anxiously awaited going-home time and weekends. I soon found why they called it "work". It wasn't fun anymore. It was hell.

    I found myself surrounded by people making far more money than anyone I had ever seen make, yet they were completely ignorant of what we did. Only thing they seemed to care about were schedules and what software and tools we were going to be allowed to use. They set themselves up with altars and the rest of us now had the onus of paying homage to these altars, telling the holy priests of the altar what they wanted to hear, or we would be excommunicated as "not being a team player". The old paradigms of knowing what one was doing did not seem germane anymore. We were just supposed to "point and click". A lot of us had to go. I was financially insecure, so I hung on a bit longer and got laid off.

    I see two schools of thought here. Whether one aligns himself with the ability to do or the ability to control.

    I guess its like supplying water to a city....are you a pump or a valve?

    Companies with an overabundance of creativity may want to throttle it back by hiring people to tell the creative people that they can't use the tools they like.

    Newly forming companies may want to open the creativity spigots wide open and clear our all obstructions to generate the most possible throughput.

    Its a cycle seen in all of nature - things get old, and are replaced with new things. Millions of seedlings are nourished by the rot of one big dead tree.

    I am quite aware that quite a few very innovative companies arose from our "corpse".

    I am of the belief that in younger growing companies, the manager is a mentor, that can do everything, yet due to time constraints, has to bring in more hands to do the work, and he personally mentors them.

    In larger, more mature companies, which do not need the growth, the manager does not need to know what the people do. By now, its a commodity thing, he just has to look at numbers. Who can make the cheapest aspirin...

  • by Archtech (159117) on Sunday November 26, 2006 @06:41AM (#16990866)
    Considering the vastness of our collective ignorance, and the smaller - but even more frightening - ignorance of people in key positions about the work for which they are responsible, it is absurd to argue that managers should lack domain expertise.

    It seems obvious to me that a manager who understands what his people are doing will be more successful. BUT there are a few provisos that might blur the issue:

    1. A "techie" manager must be able to resist the temptation to get sucked into micromanaging or - worse still - trying to compete with his own team. Instead, he should be mature enough to let people learn and grow, even if they must make mistakes in the process (and no one learns without a few mistakes).

    2. As others have noted, not even the most gifted and expert techie knows it all. The manager must realise that, even in his own field of expertise, other opinions are valid - and sometimes might be better than his own.

    3. Unless he is able to stay current (which is unlikely if he is doing his current job properly), a manager must always be careful to allow for the time that has passed since he was an active practitioner. The state of the art ten years ago is apt to be laughably obsolete today, especially in fast-changing fields like IT. (On the other hand, wisdom of the type contained in "The Mythical Man-Month", for instance, is just as relevant as it ever was).

    4. A manager needs to be able to switch communication modes when talking to non-techies. Even a CIO will be unsuccessful if the other CxOs are baffled by what they they perceive as his "technical mumbo-jumbo". It is essential to talk each person's own language, stay within their comfort zones, and reason in ways they can appreciate and follow.

    5. Even if technical knowledge is very desirable, it is not the most important attribute of a good manager. Leadership, the ability to listen and understand, team building, and sensitivity have to come first. Far better a seasoned, sympathetic manager from a different industry than a stubborn, micro-managing, blinkered techie whose ideas have passed their sell-by date.
  • No (Score:3, Insightful)

    by pvera (250260) <pedro.vera@gmail.com> on Sunday November 26, 2006 @10:02AM (#16991592) Homepage Journal
    The purpose of the PM is to keep the project on track. Any additional knowledge will only slow him down as he tries to "fix" things that should be left to the people in the project originally assigned to do so.

    The idea of having a PM is so you can leave the tech people alone doing their thing and not having to worry about scheduling and other non technical work. The best PMs I have worked with were not technically impaired, in fact they were geeks but within the scope of the project they acted as if they did not know a thing about it. This is why they worked out so well, they could talk to the client just fine, but did not get lost whenever talking to one of the programmers for more than 5 minutes.

    I also had PMs that had absolutely no technical knowledge, but they understood the goals, had a very good relationship with the client and they listened to us. Project makes it on budget, client is happy, programmers don't hate the project or the PM, the PM still has all of his hair and did not turn into an alcoholic so everyone wins.

    The two biggest problems with project managers, something that has not changed in the past 15 years or so:

    1. Prima donna customers.
    2. Prima donna programmers.

    Not much you can do about #1, since these customers usually hold a lot of cash that you want to push your way. As for #2, you will be amazed at how much nicer it is to deal with the PMs if you (I am going to include myself in this one, guilty as charged) bump down the attitude from a 12 (on a ten scale) to maybe a 9.5.

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