Podcast transcript: Why techies shouldn’t become managers

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Podcast transcript: Why techies shouldn’t become managers

This automatically-generated transcript is taken from the IT Pro Podcast episode ‘Why techies shouldn’t become managers’. To listen to the full episode, click here. We apologise for any errors. 

Adam Shepherd 

Hi, I'm Adam Shepherd. 

Jane McCallion 

And I'm Jane McCallion. 

Adam  

And you're listening to the IT Pro Podcast, where today we're talking about careers.

Jane  

When it comes to jobs, there's a common mantra: 'do what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life'. It's a philosophy that many people subscribe to. But what happens when the job you love turns into something else? 

Adam  

That's the problem faced by many IT professionals, when their technical ability drives them up the career ladder into a management role that has more to do with people than it does with tech. But does a good technician make a good manager? Or is it better to hire dedicated leaders with appropriate skills? 

Jane  

So Adam, this isn't a problem, if you like, that's unique to the tech industry, I think it's important to say that. I think, as far as I know, across most industries, the longer that you have been in any given job, the further away you get from what it is your job is nominally about. Anybody checking out itpro.co.uk, or indeed .com, will find out that I write very little compared to the amount that I did a couple of years ago. And I know that you're very much in the same boat. 

Adam  

Yeah, promotion is quite often based on seniority, rather than the specific skill set required. But I think in technology, particularly, I think it's more of a problem than in other industries. And the reason for that, I think, is that IT disciplines tend to be a bit more removed from the soft skills that management tends to need than in other kind of job roles. 

Jane  

Yeah, yeah. And this is without wishing to kind of plunge into the nerdy computer lad can't communicate with other human beings type stereotype. But yeah, it's a completely different set of skills. It's like watching TV versus riding a bicycle. These are two completely different skill sets.

Adam  

Yes....

Yeah, and we actually ran a recent IT Pro Panel discussion on a very similar topic, talking about the soft skills that IT leaders need to have in order to do their jobs effectively. And one of the things that came up is that those with the best technical skills don't necessarily have the best soft skills by default. Often, the two skill sets required different kind of attitudes, and it often takes a certain degree of training in order to, to develop those soft skills. Many of the panellists that we spoke to actually said they prioritised hiring for soft skills, and then teaching technical skills on the job rather than the other way around.

Jane  

And I think this is something that's come up in one of our previous podcasts, actually, on our Silicon Valley CEO double episode about when do they bring on their right hand woman/man, you know, who is the people person while they are the vision person. And it's, quite often with Silicon Valley CEOs, they started off in a technical role as well, they need somebody with those kinds of soft skills, those people skills to go out and talk to investors and to deal with the people who work for them and that kind of thing. 

Adam  

And we're gonna be talking about Silicon Valley CEOs a lot later on in this episode. 

Jane  

They're complimentary things you don't necessarily find in the same person.

And this is something that we have on the site as well about the soft skills that CIOs need nowadays. And I think it's also worth considering that this can turn into a real pipeline problem, and actually a kind of skills gap type problem, that if you are promoting your most senior technicians out of technical roles, and into management, then you're losing skills and kind of needing to bring in people who, while they may be talented, do not have the experience and the skills that the person who you have actually just promoted out of the role that they were potentially most suited to. 

Adam  

And this raises an interesting question, do tech leaders need to have deep tech skills? 

Jane  

I thought was going to be 'is the IT skills gap real or have they all just become managers?' That's where they went. That's what the retention problem is; they're all in middle management!

Adam  

I need a wall chart and six feet of red string, stat.

Do IT leaders need deep technical skills? Because I mean, obviously... 

Jane  

I think you need understanding. 

Adam  

Yeah, you need to understand how the tech stacks you're working with work, you know, what, what they do, what the considerations are, what the, the challenges are that you're going to need to overcome. But do you need to know like, as a CIO or a CTO or even just like a head of IT, do you need to know how to configure an AWS instance? You know, do you need to know how to write SQL queries, how to troubleshoot databases, all of that kind of deep technical knowledge? I'd argue no. 

Jane  

If that one documentary, The IT Crowd has taught me anything, it's that the head of IT doesn't actually need to know anything about computers at all.

See, I, yeah, no, I don't think so necessarily, I think you kind of have to have an understanding of how it works, and why you might want to do that. But that if you want to extract somebody with you know, kind of technical knowledge, but who has management promise, if you like, actually, you take them out mid-career. 

Adam  

Yes. 

Jane  

Rather than promoting somebody who's got kind of as senior as you can, and very, very technical, you take somebody out mid-career, sort of a few years into their career and divert them onto a management path, that way, so that they can still converse with and understand their peers, and the people who they will be working with, or indeed, who will be working under them. But that they have those management skills and have had those skills applied to them, as well, which, you know, we're talking about management, they are called management skills, it's clearly that part is, is important. But, but then you know, kind of it's a bit of a double edged sword, do you have the problem, that potentially you're taking people out at a point where they're learning technical stuff, the technical world moves on without them, they're in kind of management now. And so is a gulf going to build between them, because they don't have quite as much knowledge as a person who has been doing IT technical roles for longer? 

Adam  

Well, I would argue no, because that's going to happen sooner or later, eventually, you know, the, the tech world moves at such a rapid pace that as basically as soon as you take someone out of the trenches, and away from the kind of coalface of day to day IT operations, within, I would argue six months to a year, that person's knowledge will have started to become a little bit outdated. But how you get around that as a manager, is you surround yourself with people who are specialists and who are still, you know, on the on the cutting edge and working in the thick of it, and you rely on them for the technical side, you know, you say to them, right, you know, we we have X problem, you know, whether it's increasing server uptime, or making your database queries more efficient, or scaling up your IT to serve more regions, whatever it might be. You go to your team, and you say, right, this is the problem. How do we fix it? What tools do we need? What optimizations can we make? And then your job is to coordinate that and manage that process. 

Jane  

Yes, yes, that word again. Yeah, and you know, and also, there is always the option to immerse yourself still in you know, IT stuff. While it may not be your day to day, and you not might not be down at the coalface as it were, you can still read itpro.co.uk, other news sites, or the BBC. But yeah, you can still read industry news, you can still talk to peers, all that kind of stuff. None of that is cut off from you. 

Adam  

No, but it's worth pointing out that the amount of, if you like, extra curricular learning that CIOs and senior, senior IT people have to do in order to keep on top of trends is just astonishing. You know, there's a, there's a decent chance that many of the people listening to this episode will be doing so in their off time, in order to keep their hand in, effectively. And incidentally, hello, thanks for listening.

But you, if you're in that position, and you're having to put in that much effort to keep on top of, you know, the current trends. There's an argument, I think, for saying is that necessary. Yeah, well, it's, if you if you want to do that, then sure, by all means, knock yourself out. But I don't think it should be a requirement by any manner of means. 

Jane  

Yeah, I agree. And you know, while there's been a lot of talk about work life balance over the past two years and indeed before, I don't personally consider that it's a good work life balance to do all your work and in the evenings effectively put yourself through some kind of self directed night school in order to keep up with what's going on in the the IT landscape. 

Adam  

Yeah, and we also shouldn't forget that there's, if you're a technical person moving into a management role, there's a whole bunch of other learning you need to do anyway, even if you have good soft skills to begin with. There's a lot of things like financial management and board relations, and you know, collaborating with other business departments that you will need to, you know, learn how to do, you know, if you don't already come from a, from an executive management background, all of that stuff takes time to learn and trying to balance that with also keeping on top of cloud trends and new DevOps methodologies and, God forbid, programming languages, that's, that's difficult. 

Jane  

Yeah, is there potentially kind of a budget and resource type issue here, that you know, in order to have a IT leader, who is well versed in management, and then has the team supporting them to, you know, with the technical skills, who have the kind of boots on the ground knowledge and can feed that up to them and help make good decisions. That requires a large team, potentially larger than some companies might be willing to put money into, especially having a relatively sort of... top heavy isn't quite the right word, but like, enough people at a senior level, who you're not just promoting up to management all the time, forever - no apotheosis - and they, you know, is that, could that be just kind of expensive. 

Adam  

I don't necessarily think it could, because, I mean, assuming you've got all of the people that you need to run your IT department effectively in the first place, all you need really is an extra management person. 

Jane  

Mmhmm. Yeah. Yeah. 

Adam  

And I, I think that there's a definite argument for hiring dedicated technical managers, who aren't themselves, you know, deeply skilled technicians and operators, but know, you know, know how the, how the technology landscape operates, and have that kind of broad, you know, 10,000 foot level knowledge, combined with the kind of management skills and soft skills that we've been discussing, it allows your technical staff to specialise in their given areas, while still having that kind of that top level management skill that allows them to be effectively coordinated.

So then, let's say that you want to keep your technical people as technical people and hire dedicated technical managers to manage them. Where does that leave your technical staff in terms of progression? Can you effectively stay at the coalface as a, an engineer, or an operations person, or any kind of, any kind of technical role, without effectively saying goodbye to career progression and advancement?

Jane  

I think that to an extent, unless you move into another discipline, which management I think we've kind of determined is here, there is always going to be an endpoint to your career, if you get what I mean. Like there is always going to be, you're going to get as senior as you can. And if you, like, kind of remove that movement into management, then, then yeah, you know, the progress has to stop because there's nowhere further to go unless a new discipline opens up, or you become really specialised in one thing and that's that's kind of an individual choice. But I don't think that it needs to necessarily mean stagnation. You could become a super senior developer and still receive training and input on on new developments or you know ,whether that is something completely new or you know, the latest stuff that's happening in Azure or whatever. You know, it doesn't - the end of career progression, you know, if there is a terminus if you'd like - which there is in a lot of other professions. If you're a doctor, you get to consultant and that... would you consider consultant, staying as a consultant, the worst thing ever? Oh, no. The complete end of career progression. What am I gonna do? You know, that's still, it's a good job. It's a good role and you're doing something that you enjoy, hopefully, for the sake of anybody being operated on!

Adam  

And it's also worth bearing in mind, as you, as you alluded to, IT moves at such a rapid pace that you can... effectively the endpoint of a technical role in terms of progression is the cutting edge. And staying at that cutting edge does require constant learning and development as new technologies and new techniques become available and arrive on the market.

Jane  

Maybe this is just requires a change of mindset for office based roles, which IT generally speaking, is, that you know, it's okay to reach the top level in your career, this is a good thing: to get to the top, to be the best at this thing is good, you know, and if you get fed up with the company you're working with currently, you can go and work for another company at a similarly senior role. And that's not a bad thing, and kind of this doesn't mean that you're doing some kind of mind numbing, you know, just grind every day, it can still be interesting, without having to be constantly thinking about working towards that next promotion into a role that you may or may not really want.

Adam  

Yeah, and I think a big problem with this is the fact that progression is so often tied into salary increase. Because if you are in a role that you enjoy, and have kind of reached the end, the end point of that role, the most senior senior level of that particular discipline, if your salary increases are tied to job progression, then you kind of need to either choose between, okay, am I comfortable staying, staying at roughly the same salary for the rest of my career? Or do I want to sacrifice the, you know, some of the elements of the job that I enjoy for the sake of more money?

Jane  

Yeah, whether that be moving into a management role, or moving sideways into another company that, you know, if you don't really like where you're currently working, or you don't really care, then that's not gonna be so much of an issue. But I think by the time you get to quite senior roles, people, you've got there because you enjoy it. And you may not really want to leave that company in order to get a pay rise. But if that's the only way to do it, then you've got a problem. I think it depends on the organisation. I do know of companies I do know of IT people who still do get recognition for the work they do via salary increases, even though they're you know, they're in the same job. That job is kind of, there's nowhere else to go.

Adam  

Yeah, they're not getting more responsibilities. They're not, you know, they're not getting more management duties. They're just kind of doing, you know, doing the thing they do and doing it well.

Jane  

Yeah, yeah. And you know, kind of, if a bunch of new business comes in, then they can handle that and that kind of thing. But those tend to be I think, technical roles within technical businesses, as well, rather than just people working in IT within organisations that are not IT companies. 

Adam  

Yes. 

Jane  

And I think that's probably an issue almost of philosophy at the very top.

Adam  

Yeah.

Jane  

And I think that's going to be like, kind of how would you change the entire philosophy of non IT organisations and large organisations?

Adam  

Yeah, exactly. It's something of a problem within business generally. I think the attitude quite often is that, you know, well, people naturally want to be, you know, moving up to the next step into more responsibility. It's the, the assumption that, at some point, everyone ultimately wants to become the CEO. You know, the the everyone wants to have the Antonio Neri career trajectory, where you start as a level one support engineer and work your way up and up and up, and up, and up until eventually you're the Grand Fromage.

Jane  

Yeah. Do you know what, I was just thinking about Antonio Neri, though - for listeners who are not aware, the CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, HPE - because we do get very excited in the IT industry, you're a journalist, and I think it's your kind of IT people, when somebody with a tech background becomes the CEO of a tech company, rather than somebody who is just, you know, kind of management through and through? Yes, so you know, kind of that slightly undermines our argument here that keep the tech people in the trenches.

Adam  

Well, it's interesting, because generally speaking, tech companies work best when they have tech leaders. So Dr. Lisa Su, CEO of AMD. Took the company from a kind of fairly distant second place to Intel to an actual genuine challenger by focusing on engineering and leveraging her technical expertise. Pat Gelsinger, ex-CEO of VMware, now CEO of Intel, is looking to do much the same thing with Intel after a couple of years of arguable engineering, stagnation. There is a big history of engineers being the most effective leaders for tech companies specifically, but ultimately, it's about choice. You know, those all of those examples? Are people who have really good business and management skills. But not every engineer has those.

Jane  

Yeah, not every manager has good technical skills. And I think that is really the crux of our of our argument here, isn't it that not so much that it should never be a management, but that they shouldn't be forced in that direction? If they don't want to that that door should be open in the same way that should be open to, to anyone with the requisite skill was with the requisite personality type? Because, you know, not all of us are, not all of us are set out to be mentors and managers. And there's a reason why I'm not a teacher, for example. The patience for it, you. 

Adam  

And yeah, there's a good few examples of leaders taking the opposite approach, in fact, and stepping back from executive and management roles, to focus specifically on technical tasks. Recently, the co founder of HashiCorp, Mitchell Hashimoto, stepped back from being co CTO, to being an individual contributor, he previously stepped back from his role as CEO, to be co CTO, and he's now stepped back again, because he just doesn't enjoy leadership as much as he loves coding and being an engineer, and that's fine.

Jane  

Yeah, that's absolutely fine. And Marco Praccuci, who went from being the CTO at Spreaker, to the obsolete similar trajectory again, a few years back,

Adam  

it's actually a very valuable thing, I think. Because if you are a leader, and you're not enjoying being a leader and making those kind of management decisions, you're probably not going to be doing as good a job as somebody who is really invested in doing that role.

Jane  

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And I think that's an important point, really, that, you know, people we said, the whole kind of like, find a job that you love is, allegedly Confucius or possibly one of the Greek philosophers, but yet you should be allowed to do a job that you really enjoy. Even if that doesn't follow the traditional career trajectory, even if you stop at some point. Even if you kind of you want to do what Hashimoto and Praccuci have done, which is, I'm reluctant to call it everything that went through my head, like downgrade stepped down, whatever. That's all very negative connotations. If you want to downshift, everything has the word down in it, Adam!

Adam  

I think that's that's part of the problem. We view careers as a ladder, you know, you can either be going up or you can be going down. And I don't think that's a helpful way to think about careers in the year of our Lord 2021.

Jane  

Indeed. So when it comes to money, in particular, then what is the solution here? To my mind, one of the ideas would be your I mentioned consultants earlier. I know that in the NHS, and I think in teaching as well. So certain public sector bits and bobs, you have salary banding, where if you will get this kind of job has a salary of between here and here. And depending on your experience, and seniority and stuff, you will either be earning 25 and a half grand, or you'll be earning 32 and a bit grand. And that's where it is, yes, sure. If you want to increase beyond that 32 bracket, you are going to need to upskill and go somewhere beyond that. But that seems like a way that you can ensure that there is still monetary reward without there having to be that pressure to go and do basically something that is not the job that you want to be doing.

Adam  

I think that's I think that's certainly a viable tactic, but it's hard to pull off from a cultural standpoint, I think particularly in non it organisations because one of the big issues with IT and with IT promotion is demonstrating ROI, both as a department and as an individual employee. That's part of the reason that promotions and raises are so often Tied to increases in responsibility and increases in job role. Because how do you as an IT person, particularly as kind of like an operations person who is in, you know, working on new things and, you know, developing new features and products and whatnot? How do you demonstrate that you are effectively quote unquote worth the extra salary increase? It's, it's often hard for IT professionals to justify that and demonstrate that to the posting holders in non technical businesses.

Jane  

So once again, what we're calling for in the IT Pro Podcast is revolution.

Adam  

I think so yes.

Jane  

Root and branch social revolution. How does how does an IT Pro Podcast always ends up in the overthrow of society?

Adam  

So revolution aside, should technical staff be thinking about management roles?

Jane  

I think like, if they can see themselves as a manager, if that is part of what they want for their life, then yeah, go for it, do it, you know, look out for those opportunities, find those training opportunities, do it. If the idea of you know, managing a team or department or whatever, loosely coupled, then perhaps consider that? Where would you be happy? How far do you want to go with your career? And of course, it's not a kind of dead bet that anybody is going to end up in management anyway. 

Adam  

No. And it's also not a dead end, to stay in a technical role. The examples are out there. It's perfectly acceptable to say no, this is, this is what I want to do this is as far as I want to go. Anything else would be taking me away from what I enjoy doing. And I don't want to do that, you know, have a conversation with your manager, have a conversation within the business about? Okay, you know, I don't want to move up to any more senior levels, how we, how can we build increases in, you know, compensation and rewards, and, you know, all those kind of retention mechanisms into my existing role without bolting extra bits onto it every six months?

Jane  

Yeah. I mean, we've spoken a lot. And you've spoken about the kind of slightly putting the burden on IT employees, it's also proven upon their employer to think about how can they reward people who, for whatever reason, are not going to move up to management, whether that is because the employer doesn't think that they're around, they're right, fit for that role, or the employee themselves doesn't want to do it. And so I think that does require something of a rethink of how they handle employee progression beyond just upwards the kind of what does sideways look like. 

Adam

Lateral movement.

Jane

Yes.

Adam  

Career progression isn't a ladder. It's a web.

Jane  

It's multi layered marketing scheme.

Adam  

Yeah, no, I think thinking about employee progression and job roles as a as a tree rather than as one continuous path is the way to both happier employees and honestly, a more effective business.

Jane  

Well, unfortunately, that's all we have time for on this week's IT Pro Podcast. You can find out more about everything we spoke about this week in the show notes and even more on our website itpro.co.uk.

Adam  

You can also follow us on Twitter at @itpro as well as Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube.

Jane  

Don't forget to subscribe to the IT Pro Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts to never miss an episode. And if you can leave us a rating and a review.

Adam  

We'll be back next week with more analysis from the world of IT but until then, Goodbye.

Jane  

Bye.

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