So following on from my last instalment (it has been a while, I know, sorry), a related question is whether or not a manager needs to have technical knowledge to manage a technical team. It will probably come as no surprise if I say “yes”, “no” and “it depends”!
A traditional route to becoming the manager of a technical team is progression from being a technician, perhaps via team leader.
This is a great way to ensure continuity of technical knowledge and succession planning within the team. A technical manager can not only contribute to resolution in the event of a technical problem, but they can also hold their own with other technical teams. A technical manager is likely to stay abreast of technology changes and automatically therefore be thinking ahead to future skills requirements. They will be able to contribute to technical strategy and design and keep the support team in the picture directly. Technical support staff have a close-up view of the customer experience and a direct line into strategy via their manager demonstrates joined up thinking to the business. Support is also the shop window on IT – their capability is what the customers see so it pays to make sure that they are up to speed with what is coming when it comes. Sometimes, though, you can’t hold back the tide when senior managers bring in the latest smartphone or tablet and expect Support to configure it to their business needs reactively. Even though it is hot off the production line Support may appear incompetent if they haven’t anticipated the need.
But I digress. Having a technical manager is great, but sometimes having a non-technical manager can be better. Although technical insight is good, it brings with it the temptation to get involved in fixing things at the expense of wider management responsibilities. This is a bigger risk if team skills are patchy but it can be a conflict of interests. In the event of a major technical incident, managers should be fronting progress to their team, management and the business, but if they are in the server room with everyone else there may be no one senior left to talk to the customers. As a manager, if you can’t do it you can’t be tempted. Anyway, eating too many pizzas is bad for you.
Another good reason to be a non-technical manager is good customer communication. You will be used to translating jargon and you will be less likely to give the customers an opportunity to accuse IT of not understanding the business. If you don’t speak the lingo you can’t go native.
However, you do need some credibility with your team and your peers. If you have no technical knowledge and proclaim it whenever you can, you might expose yourself to disrespect. You need some balance. You need to have a broad awareness of technical matters and be able to hold your own in a conversation. You need to be able to catch the casually tossed explanation of the major incident given by the engineer who is genuinely too busy fixing the problem to step away from it sufficiently to start at the beginning for you. At the very least make sure you have an overview of the technical infrastructure and how it hangs together. You need to stay inside the dialogue or you might end up in a vacuum and that means gaining and improving technical understanding over time. It is what the Internet is for.
So when does it depend then? I think it depends on the bigger picture and context. Are you manager of a team of one or two in a small organisation? You probably need to be technical for escalation purposes and to talk to third party suppliers. Are you manager of a large Support desk with several technical teams and a first line of support? You are probably better off being less (not un-) technical and maintaining your focus, as long as you have some technical seniority on your team for support. It also depends on the culture too. As technicians together it might have been a great team dynamic and mutually supportive social structure. But moving up from team member to team leader or manager can be a culture shock. Suddenly you have to manage your mates and now the dynamic has changed. And my Dad always said you should never take a good man (or woman) off the tools. But that’s a different subject ….