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Lower Levels of IT Managers Should Have IT Experience

In my roles as IBM senior systems engineer, and later, IT consultant and project manager, I’ve worked with a wide variety of IT managers, especially first and second level managers. That’s where most of the work is done, where pieces are connected and enabled, yet I found in many projects or development efforts—especially situations involving vendor systems software—had two types the two lowest levels of IT managers:

  1. Technically-literate ones who were active, productive participants
  2. Technically deficient ones who were like deer in the headlights, who issued ill-advised orders and made uninformed, misguided, foolish, even disastrous decisions

Most technically-deficient IT managers are those who came directly from college, or from non-IT business units. They feel they must take charge because of their title, but lack direction, likely because they were hired or promoted for internal political reasons or because HR believed that all a lower level IT manager needed to be effective was good management experience or skills. That might be enough if the manager’s staff had enough skills and experience in the products and applications they supported to carry him, but even if the manager leaned on staff members or superiors, it was a team without leadership, direction, or guidance.
A compounding problem with technically-deficient IT managers is they’re often slow to embrace their deliverable—technical products and IT processes. This is understandable, because they don’t have the background to perceive many of their unit’s vagaries, an entirely destructive backdrop. I’ve worked with many IT-literate management newcomers who enthusiastically embrace their new charter; they prove willingness to learn is one of the most important qualities any manager can have. The manager doesn’t need to be an expert, only conversant on the subject, something that can be acquired via briefings and demonstrations. His or her technicians become teachers.
A lower level IT manager will likely be under pressure from upper management to focus on issues such as cost, contracts, project overruns or delays, staff availability, reporting and more. Upper management often has little interest in the technical aspects of IT compared to the greater objectives of profit, growth, product set, marketing, competition and other strategic objectives, and thus want their subservient layers to positively impact those issues. This is reasonable, but an IT manager needs balance between technical and business matters, and a technically-naïve manager will be strongly tempted to avoid this part of his responsibility due to lack of skills.
It’s a common fallacy that technical skills are optional to good IT managers. My experience is when lower level IT managers have IT experience—hardware and/or software—they become more productive more quickly. This doesn’t mean people skills are trifling; they’re vital, but people, motivational, organizational and other management skills are only part of the equation. IT managers need to know their unit’s workers and nature. Don’t get me wrong, good management and people skills are crucial.
Here are some additional advantages having some IT experience provides lower level IT managers:

Being Technically Literate Engenders Respect and Camaraderie 

Nothing engenders respect for a lower level manager like being able to show he or she has an appreciation for his or her employees’ work, understanding the workload distinction between application programmers, systems programmers, analysts, operators, etc., what their skills and specialties are, and how to speak the IT language. My experience from working with a wide variety of fledging IT managers is the ones who have some IT experience learn these traits and job characteristics easily, and consequently become accepted and respected more readily and quickly, a byproduct of familiarity with technological tasks.

Technical Experience Lends Itself to Planning Expertise

Planning—whether it’s project planning, activity scheduling, product acquisition, system management tasks, other scheduling or coordination activities, or dispatching technicians, is a core function for an IT unit manager. Having a substantial understanding of products, applications and—or even the wherewithal to know what the right questions are, and who’s is the right person to ask—can greatly simplify the process of dispatching the right activities, and the right level of priority to place on those activities, is the cornerstone for good management. A working understanding of these skills is magnified by having a modicum of technical experience.

Technical Experience Is Vital in Problem and Outage Management

Dealing with code defects, outages, system software failures or functional flaws, bad response time, application malfunctions, or usability restrictions are events that invariably involve lower level IT managers. This is where technical decisions are made because the pros and cons can be evaluated, interdependencies and compatibilities are identified, and the implications and ramifications are revealed and communicated. It’s where products are implemented, programs are written, files are populated and databases are designed, where problems or drawbacks are resolved, where all pieces are connected into automated business processes. Technical fluency is imperative.

Technical Experience Enhances Capacity and Performance Management 

Whether a lower level IT manager is tasked to oversee systems programming, application systems, hardware, the network, or other IT components, the topics of capacity and performance will invariably arise as the overall IT operation evolves and grows. In addition, software will be upgraded via new releases as or before older versions become unsupported. An IT manager may get charged with analyzing capacity changes future years may require, new applications may need, and increasing business volumes may necessitate. System or application tuning may be necessary, and migration plans will be needed for product upgrades.
Situations like these must be a team operation, because the effort is substantial and the skills required are varied, often requiring outside help. It will be the unit manager who has to direct his or her staff as to what tasks are assigned to which individuals, what deliverables are to be produced and what schedule is needed. This is where an IT background can be particularly valuable to new or relatively new IT managers, allowing that person to manage the project more efficaciously because he or she has a sufficient amount of IT knowledge and skills to manage the project—a fairly straightforward process focused on following a plan.

Technical Experience Is Vital in Exploiting New Technology

Perhaps the situation where a relatively new and IT-deficient manager needs technology insight is in the case of a new technology project. It’s hard enough to learn the basic concepts, specifics and jargon of the new job, let alone understand the implications and details of implementing new technology. The learning curve is twice as hard and three times larger, making even the role of scribe overwhelming because of all the acronyms and terminology are gibberish to the individual. There’s no “IT for Dummies” book the manager can read, no video to watch. Even limited technical knowledge can make a huge difference.

Knowledge Is Power

I’ve worked with a couple hundred IT managers over the years, and the vast majority was conversant in their company’s technology and how it was used. The top 50-65% were very competent, great to work with, and extremely helpful, talented, and skilled. A third or so were competent with limited skills, but able to perform their duties sufficiently albeit with help. It was only occasionally I had to work with a technology-deficient managers, and my client would often request I train that person. More often than not, the manager was a detriment to the project, had little interest in learning IT and was more concerned with recognition.
I earned an MBA, and after17 years with IBM, founded and managed a consulting firm, so I know management. I also got IT experience in college, then IBM’s intensive training. I learned the whole is greater than the sum of the parts when skills are diversified, and equal priority is given to the work’s nature and the worker’s nature. Here’s the bottom line: A fledgling IT manager with IT experience will come up to speed more quickly, have greater enthusiasm for the work, and mesh with staff more smoothly than a naïve neophyte. In fact, a potential manager with some IT training may bring new ideas, techniques and wisdom to an IT shop.