From Techie to Manager: What Does it Take?

Can “techies”—engineers, scientists, or programmers—become good managers?

Some of the technical people I’ve known have become extraordinarily capable managers and executives.  Yet many more have difficulty making the grade.

Most of us have seen the consequences of ineffective managers—low productivity, poor morale, high turnover. In a startup I worked with recently, the CIO’s entire staff—all 5 of them—marched en masse into the CEO’s office and threatened to quit unless their critical and bullying boss was fired.  (He was.)

Why do some technical folks have a natural bent towards relating and communicating well with colleagues, while others have more difficulty? One major obstacle is a tendency toward binary thinking.  The training in most technical fields leads to a perspective that sees the world in terms of yes or no, black or white, on or off.  While useful for developing code or solving technical problems, such thinking is a hindrance when dealing with people.  Relationships and relationship issues are filled with ambiguity.  They rarely fall into neat categories, nor can they be addressed using formulas or either/or thinking.

Top management’s promotion criteria are the flip side of the problem.  Some companies don’t sufficiently consider people skills when hiring for technical positions, then promote the most technically skilled to management.  It’s a hit or miss proposition, especially when there’s little or no support later on for developing the needed interpersonal and management skills.  The predictable result: limitations of many of these managers will show up in their groups’ lack of teamwork or sub-par performance.

Once promoted, many techies unconsciously slip into their former problem-solving mode, often forgetting that “delegation, motivation and supervision” are now part of their job description. While hands-on detail work serves them well as individual contributors, it’s contrary to the role of a good manager.  In their heart of hearts, technical people may not want to manage others, or even value management as a discipline, but are lured up the hierarchy by the promise of the higher rewards and status granted to managers.  (While many technical companies do have “dual career tracks,” which provide technical positions comparable in rank to management positions, many other companies have not created these structures.)

What does it take for the technical person to become an effective manager?

  • Shifting the technical mindset.  Technical managers often retreat to familiar and concrete technical work, drawn to the details rather than the big picture.  Motivated by a need for individual expression of creativity and inventiveness, they often view their managerial duties as a minor annoyance to be dealt with only when absolutely necessary. To overcome this mindset, they need to shift their definition of success from achieving individual goals to accomplishing team or organizational goals. 
  • Developing management skills. Managers require a host of skills which may be unfamiliar.  Aside from a foundation of well-developed basic communication skills, as a manager, the techie will need to be able to manage differences among staff, delegate effectively, exercise influence, and coach others. While the rare technical person comes to management with finely-honed communication skills, almost all will benefit from some combination of training programs, mentoring from more senior managers, and/or one-on-one coaching.
  • Developing emotional intelligence. Shifting the technical mindset, and developing management skills aren’t enough to produce a truly effective manager.  What’s also necessary is emotional intelligence (EQ)—the ability to recognize and manage emotions—our own and others’—in order to create trust and connections with others.  Managers with a high level of EQ are better able to deal with change and ambiguity, handle charged situations without over-reacting or withdrawing, and manage productive working relationships with others. While EQ generally increases with age, it can also be learned.  Cognitive methods alone, such as reading books or attending brief seminars, are usually insufficient to achieve long-term emotional competency.  Techies who wish to improve their EQ will need to practice new skills, monitor their own behaviors, and receive feedback from others—preferably under the guidance of a skilled mentor or coach.

 Techies can become good, even outstanding managers and leaders.  They can learn to use their cognitive abilities in the service of learning new skills and expanding their repertoire of behaviors.  However, as in the old joke about how many therapists it takes to change a light bulb (only one, but the bulb has to want to change), techies must have a genuine desire to adjust their behaviors and become good managers.  Those with the motivation to develop themselves in a new direction, and with the courage to leave behind a good part of what has made them successful, can reap the personal and professional rewards of mastering a new challenge while enhancing their organization’s overall capability.