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7451767-Managing-Technical-People-When-Youre-No-Techie -...

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DURING THE “MENTORS, MODELS, AND the Making of Managers” panel at a re- cent software management conference, a participant asked, “Do you need to be technical to manage technical people?” The panelists were united in their an- swer: “No.” I agree, and I would like to explore the question in a little more depth. To what extent do technical skills help managers? And what other skills help managers even more? Susan manages a team of developers who are working in C++ on Windows. The last time she programmed, it was in COBOL on a mini computer. No one in her office even knows the term “mini computer.” She originally felt out of touch technically with her people. But despite her concerns, she has been suc- cessful in leading her department be- cause she has earned the respect of her developers. Frank, a highly successful sales man- ager, was promoted to be the vice presi- dent of a software engineering organiza- tion. The executive staff wanted him to bring his gung ho attitude and customer focus to the development group. Frank eagerly accepted the challenge—then be- gan wondering what he’d gotten himself into. But soon he found that the non- traditional skill set he brought to this position turned around a floundering department. Cheryl manages a team of testers working on billing software. She does- n’t have much test experience, but she has more than a decade of experience working with billing systems. She was concerned that her lack of test experi- ence would make it difficult for her to manage and guide her testers; however, her domain expertise gave her a differ- ent perspective on the problem and made her a very effective manager. Susan, Frank, and Cheryl had a com- mon problem: they didn’t understand the day-to-day details of what their people were doing. They worried that their lack of understanding would undermine their ability to manage. So what can you do if you’re in a sim- ilar situation to Susan, Frank, or Cheryl? How do you manage technical people when you’re either not technical or not up to date on current technologies? Acknowledge What You Don’t Know The first thing that Susan, Frank, and Cheryl did was admit what they didn’t know. They understood that misrepre- senting their skills to their staff would backfire. I once worked with a non-technical manager who kept programming books on his shelf so he’d look more technical. I was fooled for a little while. Then I discovered that he didn’t understand ba- sic programming constructs like loops and case statements. He was trying to bluff, and I lost all respect for him. He would have been better off admitting that he didn’t know how to program.
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