The Challenge of Managing Tech Workers

Opinion: A seminar at MIT effectively tackles the people issues that are at the heart of successful IT management.

Its almost as inevitable as death and taxes—once you land on the people management side of IT, youll need to take courses and attend seminars on management best practices.

But these courses and seminars— offered through a wide range of institutions, from Ivy League colleges to training and certification companies—tend to focus on broad applications of management theory, things that apply as much to a general sales manager as they do to an IT manager.

And even the programs that do stick to a technology focus often miss one important point—how to manage a technology worker.

Thats why I was intrigued by a promotion for an intensive seminar offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technologys Sloan School of Management titled "Managing Technical Professionals and Organizations"—intrigued enough to attend the seminar in Cambridge, Mass., in early December.

If you think that managing a technology worker is just like managing anyone else, then youve obviously never done it. Those who have managed people with strong technical skills know that they provide a unique challenge to even the most talented managers.

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Often, though certainly not always, workers with strong technical skills have weaker people skills. Conversely, their strong technical skills make it possible for them to find solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems.

And when confronted with an interesting challenge or a project that intrigues them, highly technical people tend to work around the clock to find solutions.

The seminar I attended took place over two days, with each day led by a different professor: Ralph Katz, professor of management at Northeastern Universitys College of Business Administration and principal research associate at the Sloan School, led Day 1; Thomas Allen, Howard W. Johnson professor of management at the Sloan School and professor of engineering systems at MIT, led Day 2. (I attended the first day of the seminar.)

The seminar, offered on a quarterly basis for $2,600 (including meals and extensive course materials), was designed to provide guidance in managing technical organizations, sustaining innovation and creativity, maximizing the potential of technology mavericks and organizing the physical environments for technical teams.

The December seminar was fully attended, and I was impressed with the attendees diversity: They came from many nations and a wide range of businesses and management positions, from IT directors to every type of CXO (including a chief financial officer who sat at my table).

Class act

Given how dry these classes can be, i was also pleased to find that the instructor (at least for the first day) kept the proceedings consistently interesting, interactive and—often—humorous.

No seminar will be perfect, especially since each attendee will have different needs and expectations, but this Sloan School seminar provides a good benchmark for organizations evaluating IT management courses.

The seminar made very good use of examples of potential problems in technical management, and while it was rightly focused on the management of technical personnel, it also covered issues generally pertaining to good management, such as the importance of high-level sponsorship of projects, how corporate culture affects decisions, and the need for face-to-face communication when changes are necessary or buy-in is required.

I also liked the seminars focus on the motivation factors for IT workers and IT projects, including how a project can be affected if workers are assigned to a project versus volunteering for a project. (The professor likened the former class of people to prison workers.)

At the end of the first day, Katz showed us a 1970s-era training film to illustrate a classic technology worker problem and to further discussion in the class.

The film showed a well-disciplined and efficient technical team and what happened to the team when a brilliant but disruptive tech worker was added. This worker didnt participate effectively in meetings or other team environments, ignored the culture and divided the team, but he also solved a problem the team had given up on and greatly increased the teams productive output.

This film was used not so much as a training device but rather to provoke thought about the problems and opportunities presented by highly technical workers.

One element of the film I found especially interesting is that it illustrated the problem caused when both the team manager and the tech worker are technical people, a situation that can create negative and unwelcome competitiveness in the manager.

Of course, the seminar I attended is just one of hundreds or even thousands offered across the country (both in person and online).

Organizations should look for training that offers the same kind of relevant content and effective delivery, specific to business and personnel needs.

The bottom line is: Knowing how to effectively manage highly technical workers can be the difference between successful technology projects and disastrous ones.

For more information on the Sloan School seminars, go to sloan.execseminars. com/index.php?seminar=mtp.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at

Key take-aways

Lessons learned from the MIT Sloan School of Management "Managing Technical Professionals and Organizations" seminar:

  • Focus on the motivation of technical workers; look for project volunteers instead of assignees; many technical workers value interesting projects over promotions
  • Technical workers are problem solvers; dont be a problem; if management policies or rules are perceived by technical workers as a hurdle to getting work done, they will come up with creative ways to work around the management problem
  • Build credibility with technical workers; they need to know that management is serious about new projects and initiatives; management must work to build the trust of technical workers

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