How Technical Does an IT Manager Need to Be?

By Donald Sears  |  Posted 2009-06-11 Print this article Print

I think the answer on how technical an IT manager should have to be is dependent on a whole slew of issues, and open to a lot of discussion. But it also depends on the actual management the job requires as well as the state of your company in these challenging business times.

Many managers are being thrown back into the ranks to help get things done and manage. And, really, what are we talking about when we say a "technology manager" anyway?

Someone who leads meetings, teams and projects? Someone who manages a budget, deals with HR issues and other departments wanting something from yours? Someone who takes responsibility and accountability for your group, outside contractors, clients and business metrics? Is the manager also on call, or is he/she out of the on-call pool of resources?

It could be all of these things, or none of them at all. It's an interesting dilemma and one I imagine many of you in the rank and file wonder what is required. A recent article delves into these questions, and there are a host of answers that staff members of a variety of IT organizations responded with. The following are a few snippets of differing opinion.

This one says IT managers need to be technical:

"The untechnical management I've had just wasn't as effective in getting things done," says Donna MacLeod, a systems analyst at a medical diagnostic company. "The lack of understanding for technical matters meant that a lot of projects which really, really needed funding never took off because there was no one both technical enough and business-savvy enough to sell it to the board."

The lack of tech knowledge coupled with a lack of business know-how sounds like a recipe for chaos. This person is less adamant:

"A technical manager should know enough to understand what the technologies we use do, to be able to participate intelligently in meetings," says Jeanne Steinback, a software project manager for Redbox, a provider of automated DVD rental kiosks. She elaborates: "... where we are in the lifecycle of a technology, beta, new, used and ancient, just to be able to make sure we don't stray too far onto the bleeding edge or the technical graveyard."

And, this person doesn't need management; he needs someone to deal with work barriers:

"If my supervisor needs to manage me, then s/he needs to fire me," says Gary Brown, extreme programming coach for Carfax. "I depend on my manager to be politically savvy, to understand technical issues at the been-there-done-that level and to remove barriers to progress."

And in similar vein to the last comment, Ken Boucher, a former Smalltalk developer for First Data Corporation says:

"I need a manager to handle all that HR stuff or find out why the DB2 department can't run a simple table creation without six weeks' advance notice. I need a manager who can explain to the Six Sigma folks what we do in their language and why it isn't what they seem to think we do. I don't need a manager to manage me. I need one to manage them."

If you manage a team of Web developers who are generally programming projects on deadline, is that manager also developing code or is he managing the people in the project? There are job descriptions that specifically ask for Technical Project Managers or Technical Leads--those who manage and develop at the same time. It obviously depends on the situation and job at hand.

In IT management below the line of business VP, CIO and CTO, there is always a mix of hands-on work and staff and departmental management to be found. Obviously, this depends on the size of your organization, but for mid- to large-sized companies, this is the norm. But is it now?

With the economy, layoffs and depleted IT budgets, what are you seeing from technical managers these days? Are they back more in the ranks, or are they pushing more work in your direction? How savvy are they at managing your team, the groups you have to work with and the technology you use? |

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