Managing Technical People

In some cases, the supervisor of an IT group has years of experience in leading teams and has noteworthy technical skills. Often, though, the person at the top has one or the other: programming prowess or a background in organizing, motivating, and communicating with others.

Matthew Marini is the president of Agile, the IT staffing company. His employer clients describe managing technical people as one of the biggest challenges they face.

“Managers who don’t have a technical background may be evaluating their team on the wrong criteria or creating the wrong work environment,” Marini says. The same problems can come up with a supervisor who has a technical background but who isn’t used to leading others.

According to Marini, it’s a common reason employees leave their company. “An unhappy developer is going to look for opportunities elsewhere.” It’s a job seeker’s market for the field right now, and IT staffing trends from 2020 suggest it’s going to stay that way for a long time. Responding to these conditions can help businesses with both retention and recruitment.

How Different Types of Leaders Manage Technical Teams

The best coders and most innovative problem-solvers often rise quickly through the ranks of an organization. However, they may or may not have good managerial skills.

When a developer reaches a supervisory role, he or she will often lead from the front, by example, rather than relying on traditional management skills for organizing a team’s activities. This has its advantages:

  • Leaders may find it easier to gain the respect of their team on a one-to-one basis because of their technical abilities.
  • They may feel more comfortable coding than managing other technical people. Development work is more straightforward than establishing a common vision for success or coaching up employees.
  • Leaders may have a better grasp of whether the team is on task because they are regularly involved in the development process.

The downside to this approach is that these leaders may not be giving their team the opportunity to grow. Instead of training staff to handle tasks, they are staying in the weeds of technical development.

Marini suggests that this system gets less effective the larger an organization grows. “Big teams require management on a broad scale, not the efforts of a single person,” he says. Ultimately, leaders should be seeking ways to remove themselves from the day-to-day of coding and encouraging independent problem-solving and project management.

The opposite challenges may exist for people without strong development skills who are managing technical people. They need to build trust with their employees that projects are on schedule and according to scope. They also have to create ways to judge the quality of work. One solution is to have direct reports who help them assess code and find efficient ways to resolve problems.

Motivating Factors for Technical Employees

While there are always exceptions, people in certain job functions tend to be motivated by the same things. Some examples:

  • In sales, the motivating factor might be higher earnings for themselves and for their team.
  • Accounting professionals tend to focus on the idea of doing things correctly — as close to the rules and requirements as a situation requires.
  • Human resources employees tend to enjoy helping other people and the personal connection of their work.

IT professionals are no different in this regard, says Marini. “Usually, tech people get satisfaction from problem-solving. They’re most happy when their contribution makes a product better, moves a process forward, or even changes an industry.”

This is probably familiar to an experienced developer who is managing technical people. If you’re not an IT specialist by training, though, it’s essential to tap into this mindset. The right compensation, clear guidelines, and interpersonal connections may still matter to your team. However, the strongest motivation may come from giving your staff big, important problems to solve in a clever way.

An Effective Work Environment

Leaders can build around this problem-solving mentality in a few different ways.

Provide Time for Side Projects

Create room in the schedule so that team members can work on areas of interest outside of their core duties. Make sure that this side work focuses on the needs of the current project or even the organization at large, but set few restrictions otherwise.

A lot of innovations can come out of this type of freedom, Marini notes. Also, non-technical supervisors may discover hidden talents that an employee’s assigned project doesn’t showcase.

Ensure Voices Are Heard

People with strong personalities often make the loudest case for a particular solution. Marini warns that this doesn’t make it the right solution.

“Some IT staff, even if they have the best idea for fixing a problem, may not be comfortable with confrontation,” Marini says. “If their solution gets shouted down, a manager needs to encourage them to make their case.” Try to limit free-for-alls in meetings where conflicts occur, and create other, less public opportunities for people to have their ideas heard.

Watch Out for Functional Bias

When you’re hiring and managing technical people, you may be evaluating them on factors that matter in some jobs but not in others.

Marini describes a case where you’re interviewing someone for a software engineering position or you’re recruiting for scarce skill sets. Maybe the candidate isn’t very talkative and maybe conversation is somewhat stilted. You aren’t sure about hiring that person or the fit with your team.

“Being a great talker might be essential for a sales role, but consider whether it’s really that important for the job you’re trying to fill,” he says.

When you’re managing technical people, it’s their ability to do the work — to handle coding and systems, to bring an engineering mindset to their tasks, to provision servers or check network standards — that matters. Yes, you want someone who will be able to work as part of a team, but don’t overlook great candidates and employees because they don’t have the same personality as someone in a client-facing role.

Building a Team from Employees and Contractors

If your organization hires both full-time employees and contract workers, it’s helpful to know the advantages that each offers.

Full-time employees usually have a longer tenure with the company. Even though IT professionals often move from business to business, you are more likely to keep a talented employee with a permanent position. “Long-term employees also help establish norms and team culture and may train up junior talent,” Marini notes.

On the other hand, recruiting for contract positions can speed the hiring process. There are fewer corporate policies that dictate how jobs need to be promoted and filled. Contract workers can also come in for a specific project, support an existing team during a period of high activity, and then move to the next opportunity when there’s no longer a need.

One downside is that contractors can cost more over time. Also, because of their temporary nature, you may have a challenge integrating a contractor’s work into the team’s or developing effective communication between the two. By expecting these challenges and other aspects of managing technical people, you can more effectively guide your team.

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