So now you're the boss... (Parts 1-4)
© Douglas E. Welch 1997
If you work in computers long enough you will eventually have
to face a very difficult decision. Everyone?s answer is different
and your career, as well as your mental well being, could depend
on making the correct choice. The decision is that, after years
of working in the computer trenches, you will be asked to join
the ranks of management. There are both pros and cons to technical
types moving into management positions This month I will explore
them and discuss how to make the decision that is best for you.
No where else to go?
There are several reasons the dilemma of management vs. worker
arises in almost every company. Regardless of the role you might
currently be filling, there is a finite number of possible titles
that can exist in any company at any one time. Usually, titles
run from staffer to junior ?whatever? to senior ?whatever? to
principal ?whatever? but eventually there is an end.
Sometimes, in order to promote someone who has run out of the
titles, management will give them responsibility for a group of
people and call them a supervisor. From there the next step is
manager and so on. Unfortunately there are problems with promoting
people to management who have no desire to be managers.
There?s no place like home
In many cases we are working in a job because we honestly like
the actual tasks we perform each day. We may like dealing with
customers, whether they are external purchasers of our services
or internal co-workers who rely on our computer skills to perform
their jobs well. We may enjoy the camaraderie of working in a
group of equals. We may even enjoy being free from the necessary
?management work? of budgeting and reporting. These are some of
the very items that are lost when technical people move into management.
Many companies take their best technical people and put them into
positions where they no longer use their technical skills; where
they lose touch with their former strengths and go from being
a great technician to a mediocre manager. Almost all of us have
seen this happen.
If you truly think you would like the challenges of management,
then by all means seek it out. Some might say that technically
savvy managers are exactly what most companies need. Go into management
if you truly think that it is the next logical step in your career,
but avoid taking a management title merely to receive the next
promotion. you may find that that promotion could be your last.
Avoiding the pitfalls
There are many pitfalls in the scenario mentioned above and this
month I will explore them and their possible solutions...and there
are solutions. All jobs require creativity. If you find yourself
in the management vs. worker dilemma your own creativity could
help you carve out a new niche in your company that may never
have previously existed.
There are many reasons why any of us could have a tough time being
a manager after working for years in the trenches, even if we
really want to be a manager. There might be internal department
politics that sabotage your goals, there might be a lack of training
available to help you understand your new role or you may realize,
belatedly, that we enjoyed the technical side more than management.
Here are a few ways to make your decision and possible transition
a little easier.
A little push
The first rule with any job, management or not, is don?t be pushed
into any change before you?re comfortable with it. If you aren?t
ready personally, there is little you can do to prepare. If you
are feeling too much pressure then it might be time to consider
to a new position. Chances are there are other issues you are
being pressured on, as well. Your company might try to tell you
that this promotion will be a good thing, but it won?t be if you
aren?t ready for it.
Shoulder to shoulder
One of the first issues to resolve about becoming a manager is
how you will feel managing people who once worked side by side
with you. Are they going to be able to adapt to your new role?
Sometimes it can be a rocky road to management and good co-workers
can help to ease the way. You might even want to discuss the change
with your co-workers to get a better feeling for the situation.
If you sense there might be friction, you might want to see if
your new responsibilities could involve another group of people.
Otherwise, you will have to find some way around these issues.
Little is worse than losing good relationships or even good friends
over job issues.
Another possible failure point in making the climb onto the management
ladder is lack of training. It is common for companies to promote
someone to management and then offer them no assistance in making
the dramatic change. They are expected to sink or swim on their
own instincts. There are ways of preparing yourself by yourself,
Find a manager in your company that you admire. What are their
best traits? Did they come up through the ranks like you? How
did they cope? Schedule a lunch with this manager and ask them
these and other questions about your concerns. People love to
be asked their opinion on issues and act as a mentor. Find your
guide and learn everything you can from them.
You can also call upon the myriad of management books on the market
today -- with one caveat. Don?t buy into any one philosophy entirely.
Take the best information and ideas from each book you read and
use them to develop your own, personal, managerial style. Book
learning can only take you so far and your employees will know
when you are merely following guidelines in a book instead of
following your own heart.
Next week: Making your own technical career without going into
In the past weeks I have discussed how to best cope with an offer
to join management after a technical career. This week I will
outline one possibility for expanding your career without joining
management. Remaining in the technical realm is not an easy proposition,
but hopefully I can provide an outline that you can adapt to your
Doing what we are best at...
As discussed earlier this month, technical people are often offered
promotions to management in the mistaken idea that they have gone
as far as they can go in a strictly technical role. I personally
think this is wrong-headed thinking, at best, and can be damaging
to both the company and the employee.
It makes no sense to remove a talented and experienced technical
staffer from a technical role when they are at their prime. They
have spent years gathering knowledge and experience. They should
spend many more years sharing this knowledge with younger staffers
and helping their customers. In days past, you wouldn?t take your
most experienced machinist off of the shop floor and put them
in charge of time cards. You would assign them to train other
machinists and pass on their experience. The same applies to today?s
A Parallel Path
There are solutions to keep technical staffers in technology,
they just require a bit of courage and a bit of creativity. One
method involves the creation of a new, parallel career track where
technical people are allowed to remain doing what they do best.
As technical staffers become more and more expert they should
move from day-to-day troubleshooting and handholding to high-end
research and advisor roles. Each person should choose two to three
areas where they want to further refine their knowledge. They
could then become the in-house ?guru? for those areas.
The majority of their time would be spent researching new solutions,
testing software and hardware upgrades and monitoring the mothballing
of old technology and the installation of its replacement. Most
of their remaining time would be spent acting as advisors to younger
When a staff member faces a problem they can not solve alone,
they have access to some of the best technical support people
right in their own company. These advisors can then shepherd staffers
through the problem and fulfill the customer?s needs.
Part of the review process for these new advisors is based on
the amount and frequency of knowledge transfer. They need to demonstrate
that their knowledge is being shared with all the technical staff
through one-on-one sessions, training classes and even during
standard troubleshooting work when a staffer calls on them for
Developing a parallel career path for employees allows companies
to retain their most valuable employees without pushing them into
the ranks of management. This has benefits for everyone involved.
The employee is happier, the company maintains an important source
of technical know-how and younger staffers have someone to turn
to when problems arise.
In the last three weeks I have discussed how to keep both you
and your employer happy should you be offered a job in management.
While some technical workers would rather not move into management,
others are energized at the thought. If this describes you, I
want to pass on a few tips that can help you be an even more effective
manager of a technical staff.
In large creative companies there is a phenomenon that takes place
that I call cocooning. In an effort to remove creative people
from the daily stress of the bureaucracy, management goes out
of its way to accommodate them. It is thought that by doing this
people will spend more time creating and less time filling out
forms and sitting in meetings. When used on a small scale this
cocooning can indeed allow for more productive workers. Taken
to extremes it can isolate them even further from the realities
of the work place.
I would call upon managers to practice some version of cocooning
with their technical staffers. There is no reason that ?creative?
departments should be the only ones to benefit from this technique
. Technical managers can offer a buffer zone between chronically
irate users, bureaucratic time-wasters and computer users who
would rather have technical staff perform their job than learn
to do it themselves. Protecting your staff from these types of
activities allows them to concentrate on the task at hand for
sustained periods of time. It also allows them to feel that their
managers care about them, their needs and their lives.
Stand by your man (or woman)
This may sound blindingly obvious but one role of a good manager
is to stand by their employees and sometimes even act as their
protector. There are computer users in all companies that don?t
necessarily have the amount of tact or class that we might wish.
You can hear them shouting at their staffers and anyone else who
doesn?t fulfill their needs exactly when they need it.
If a member of your technical staff is having a problem with another
employee it is in your best interest to intervene. Letting bad
situations fester and grow can lead to all sorts of negative results,
up to and including dismissal for the employee and even for you,
as their manager.
Don?t send a technical staffer to face an irate user alone. Your
presence will help to ensure a certain decorum and respect, especially
when the irate person is in a position of power over your staff
member. You can help balance out the power equation and prevent
the staffer from being abused further. Staffers will remember
your support during crunch times when everyone is being asked
to work just a little bit harder and a little bit longer.
Hopefully this month?s columns have given some insight into the
world of technical management and helped to clarify the issues
involved when technical staffers are offered an entrance into
the wild world of management.
Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant
in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with
other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on
Douglas' web page at: http://www.welchwrite.com/
He can reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org