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Kevin Kline

Why Do IT Pros Make Awful Managers?

I'm being a little bit incendiary with that title. Many IT pros grow into very good managers. But it almost never comes naturally. It takes hard work and many hard won lessons before most of us ever achieve a degree of skill and comfort with managing other people. Thinking about moving into management? Help is here!

I've been spending the past several years turning the lessons I've learned as a manager into a set of courses for IT professionals who want to make the leap in to management. I'll be presenting some of these lessons as full-day seminars. I hope you can join me! Details below:

Some of them I learned (fortunately) through reading, training, and extensive coursework before I ever experienced them in person. Some of the lessons, I learned through a kindly mentor who helped me see problems coming just over the horizon. And some of the lessons I've simply learned the hard way. Maybe your career path is headed in the same direction as mine...

An Oft-repeated Career Path...

Here's how mine went, and it's a rather common refrain among IT pros. It goes like this - you're outstanding at your IT job. You excel. You have a lot of credibility. Every few years, you get a promotion. But eventual, your boss (or your boss' boss) tells you that you've topped out as a technologist. They simply can't give you any more raises. And there are no higher level technology jobs you can get promoted to. You couldn't even get a better job at another company. Ah, but there's more to the corporate ladder than just IT. There are all of those juicy management positions that =DO= offer potential for more raises. So you say to yourself "Why don't I just jump over to the management track? I excel as an IT guru. I can do that management stuff easily. In fact, I'll be better than any of my bosses ever were!"

...Leads To Oft-repeated Mistakes

But if you're like many IT pros, it starts to sink in that all of those skills which made you 'the awesome' as an technologist are =NOT= transferrable to the management work you've now got on your plate. Successful IT people, by their very nature, often succeed because they enjoy "the machine" more than personal interactions - and that's what good management is all about.

Here are some common behaviors I've seen from IT people once they get into management that can cause lots of problems.

  • Answering a simple question via email, Twitter, or IM when the person asking the question is in the cube a couple strides away.
  • Spinning up a long back-n-forth email thread when a phone call could settle the issue in 10-20 minutes.
  • Spending many hours on research to justify a recommendation for an important decision, sharing the research with other stakeholders (via email, usually), and then being surprised that no one supports the recommendation.
  • Failing to convince the boss into spending money on important ideas, like training or tools, or increasing headcount.
  • Even after extensive interviewing, hiring someone whose a poor fit for the team.
  • Thinking "We're way behind on our projects, so I'll just spend today hip deep in the technology helping the team get back on track."
  • Puzzling over why team members are demotivated and unproductive, or that they are motivated and productive but to their own purposes.

Can you name a few more? Add a comment!

But Why?

Problems like these are simple issues of human nature. We all, naturally, try to do things according to our preferences and experiences. But their two very consistent built-in preferences of IT pros that these mistakes keep happening again and again are:

  1. Choosing the computer interface over the human interface: We got into IT because we like computers. We thought of them as at least a little bit cool. As we spent a bigger percentage of our day clacking on keyboards, clacking on the keyboard became our preferred way to interact with other people. In fact, as IT people, the computer is our work. But when we become managers, the computer is, at best, only a tool for our work of managing people and, at worst, an outright impediment and obstacle to our work. Many problems in leading teams have their origins in choosing a computer-based method of communication when another form of interperson communication would be quicker, yield better results, and improve team interaction.
  2. Smart is as smart does: A very common element of human nature is for people who are successful and smart to believe that success and smart applies to pretty much everything they do. In my own family, I recall family reunions where one of the more successful cousins, who was in the insurance business, enjoyed giving everyone else advice about personal finance, stock and investing, politics, religion, parenting, animal husbandry, and who-knows-what else. He basically believed that because he'd done well in other areas of his life that he was right about everything he had an opinion about. Ah, but pride comes before the fall, does it not? And of course, he was tripped up several times by his own limitations. We see this same sort of pattern repeated when the IT Pro begins to manage a team in the same way s/he managed her IT resources. The only problem is that machines deterministic. They yield consistent results when provided consistent inputs. People, well, we could say that people are non-deterministic, but it might be more accurate to say that people are plain ol' chaotic.

Of course, I've just touched the tip of the iceberg with these two points. I'll be talking a lot more about these problems and fixes for them in future posts.

Comments? Thoughts? Experiences?

I'd love to hear your own experiences either as the IT pro seeking or working in a management role, or as an employee watching another IT person learn the management ropes. Add a comment here or drop me an email.

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Published Friday, March 9, 2012 1:29 PM by KKline

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Jeff York said:

Kevin- Great article. I am a DBA for a medium sized company and although my promary function is DBA related activities we recently hired out first to software devlopers to rewrite our sales tool. They report to me and it has been a challenge. I love it, but a challenge nonetheless. I look forward to attending one of your seminars regarding the challenges in the future.

March 9, 2012 3:53 PM

mjswart said:

Wow, great post Kevin, I'm really looking forward to these posts. Personally I'm happy honing my tech skills.

One skill I've learned (or am currently in the process of learning) is how translate Database needs into business needs. Surely what's good for the database is good for the business right? Not always, and not as often as I used to think.

March 9, 2012 4:34 PM

Janos said:

I do not think IT Pros are awful managers. I think those IT Pros are awful managers who were "forced" to be a manager or do not have enough experience. I belive people must do that work what they like and good in it.

March 10, 2012 12:57 AM

Chris Nelson said:

I believe that management has to have the ability to handle people that can't handle truth. I understand my companies technology. I understand the business. I don't have the "soft skills" to manipulate clients and coworkers that are lazy or irrational into doing the right thing even if it does benefit them and requires very little effort.

March 11, 2012 9:55 AM

Kevin Kline said:

Jeff, you've hit the key to success as an IT pro managing other people - don't just assume it'll come naturally.  Try to learn the ropes, and you'll do great!

Michael, you're right. It always comes back to the business needs. If you can't correlate your IT skills to the ways that it benefits the business, it'll be just as hard (or harder) to do that as a manager.

Janos, I'm sure you saw my first sentence saying that many IT managers are great at their job.  The headline is what we call 'bait'. It's intended to be a little bit inflammatory to draw you in and read the rest.  But I also agree with you.  Many IT pro managers have NO experience and are doomed to fail as managers if they don't learn the best practices and techniques that will help them succeed.

Chris, Many IT pros don't like the idea of having to convince others based on something besides a rational argument and good data.  Sadly, this also doesn't work very well in the wider world.  Just as a marriage proposal based on showing them all the data about improved financial stability, personal happiness, and elongated lifespans will fall on its face.  So too will business and leadership arguments that are only based on data, facts, and rational arguments.  You may win some, but you won't win them all.  It's worth another post specifically to speak to your comment here for two reason: A) Your characterization of this process as 'manipulation' says a lot is a mindset which impacts the whole process, and B) People who don't see things your way may actually be lazy or can't handle the truth, but there are possibly 10x other reasons not related to laziness or the 'truth' which might be coming in to play and influencing their decision making.  Again, great points worthy of another post.

March 11, 2012 6:14 PM

Geoff said:

It's the Peter Principle.

March 12, 2012 10:54 PM

RJ Book said:

I agree there are many times when things need to be discussed in person, however, I prefer email conversations for the main reason they can be saved and referenced whenever needed. Without the paper trail things turn into "he said, she said" and "I thought you said"...

March 31, 2012 8:53 AM

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About KKline

Kevin Kline is a well-known database industry expert, author, and speaker. Kevin is a long-time Microsoft MVP and was one of the founders of PASS,

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