Published on March 2nd, 20121
How to turn an IT technician into a manager
Noel Bruton explains the fundamental steps which must be followed if a technician is to successfully transition to a management role, and it starts by taking the screwdriver out of the top pocket.
It is a painful memory. I had been engaged by a company to help improve their IT support, my stock-in-trade. As part of this, I had to interview a number of users for their impressions of the service. One asked who had hired me, so I took out my copy of the IT organisation chart to illustrate my sponsor. “Look at them,” the user commented, “all those people and not a single manager among them.” He was not quite, but very nearly right. In this case, as I have so often found elsewhere, the IT department consisted largely of technicians. Not just at the coalface, but at several points of the hierarchy, technicians also occupied what should have been managerial positions. And instead of managing, these technicians continued to behave as technicians, very senior technicians perhaps, but still technicians – pretty much because they didn’t know, or in some cases didn’t want any other way of working.
We all need managing. We all need leadership. We all need direction. That means decisions must be made and policies enacted, and the one to do that is the manager. But here in IT, those decisions often involve a technical understanding, so it is apposite to promote to management from within technical ranks. And it is there that IT management all too often comes unstuck – because the attitudes, skills, principles and priorities of a manager are very different from those of a technician, and those huge differences are frequently difficult to grasp. So our industry often finds itself promoting technicians who, despite moving up through the ranks into new responsibilities, may continue to behave as technicians.
Technicians who have been promoted to manager without their making the necessary philosophical adjustment might be tempted to conclude that management is just about “being the boss”. The results can be detrimental. The senior person who has not yet grasped how to fill his day with managerial, rather than technical functions, brings particular risks:
• The technical department ceases to move forward because its manager is still reacting to demands as a technician, rather than becoming a strategist and planner
• The team may harbour resentment, because they see their superior being paid more, but in effect still doing the same job he did as a technician, so his appointment brings no new benefit to them; or perhaps others feel themselves equally qualified for the management job and its higher salary, so fail to respect the appointment
• The department remains distant from the rest of IT management because its head does not comprehend managerial issues and priorities
• The promoted technician may not know how to fill his day with managerial functions, so in order to be seen to do something with his time, he merely issues orders and allocates the most complex technical tasks to himself. Meanwhile, fear of exposure may put him under stress, which can manifest itself negatively in the way he treats his underlings.
The manager who does not manage is more than a mere lost opportunity – it can be a lost department, which has consequences for service, the business as a whole and the reputation of corporate management.
To turn a technician into a manager requires that the promoted technician undergo three fundamental changes. The first is one of perspective and context, a shift from concentration on the detail of the work to be done, to see instead the workgroup as a whole, operating in the wider context of the corporation as a whole – so not so much on what the workgroup does, but on its overall outputs based on its inputs. This is part of an essential shift in horizon.
The second is a functional move from actually doing the work to orchestrating the actions of others to ensure the work gets done. The football manager does not usually take part in the team, but instead considers how his team must cope with the whole of the field, which is so big, it will need several players acting in concert to cover it. He selects players with appropriate skillsets to look after certain parts of the field, then coaches those various components of the machine he has designed, to operate in harmony. Occasionally, he may have to make adjustments to his tactics to deal with shifts in types or quantities of demand. Stop kicking the ball – instead, make decisions on how best you think your players should kick it, to cope with the present circumstances and opposition. OK I mentioned football. I could have mentioned how a conductor must assemble and coach an orchestra in its approach to tackling and mastering the complexities of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony so it can deliver the results to an expectant audience.
The third change is to the daily activities one carries out as a manager when compared to a non-managerial operative such as a technician. Management is an entirely different function to technicianship. It requires a completely new perspective and a daily to-do list that bears no resemblance to that of the job you used to do. In fact, the very concept of a to-do list may be new to some technicians, mainly because of the issue of necessary reactivity. A technician may be part of a fire-fighting workgroup that reacts to an incoming demands for units of work – the telephone rings, an email arrives, a user makes a request – there is a call on the technician’s time and skills, and the technician reacts accordingly, as he has been assigned to do. This reactivity is an integral part of the technician’s daily work priorities. On the other hand, while the manager may also have cause to react as part of his job, that is not the main part of his day. He doesn’t have time to be entirely reactive – he is too busy designing, staffing, resourcing, steering and defending the mechanisms by which those calls arrive and are dealt with. That needs foresight, planning, strategy, negotiating for resources, setting up alliances with consumer and provider departments, measuring the success of those policies and making the adjustments that those measurements suggest are necessary.
It is the manager’s job to ordain what the workgroup does and how it does it. As a result of his decision, he may choose to design processes and procedures to be followed, just to ensure consistency of output. The processes themselves are not management, but just administration. Management is about conceiving of processes in the first place, not just following those imposed by somebody else. Essentially, the manager does not carry out the actual detail of the work. That is the role of the manager’s charges, the other members of the workgroup will then occupy themselves with the detail
Pull the wool
It is not uncommon for managers of technical workgroups to stay technical. Reasons range from the sheer pleasure of the acquisition and exercising of technical knowledge to the rather more worrying “if I don’t stay technical, my staff will be able to pull the wool over my eyes.” The question arising from that second one is of course, why would your staff want to pull the wool over your eyes? What is wrong with the working relationship, that means they get more benefit from confounding you than they do from working to ensure your and their mutual success? I am sure Simon Rattle is a fine musician – but I am also pretty certain that many first violins are better players than he, and he is not concerned by that – for it is his job to foster their musical superiority, and bring the best out of it.
The time you spend ‘keeping your hand in’ on the technical side is time you could have spent improving your management skills and experience. Remember that as a manager, your responsibilities have changed. Think back to those days when you may have worked for a less than ideally competent manager. If his lack of skill as your leader held you back in your job, it may also have caused you some disrespect for him. Use that experience. Determine that you will lead your people as best you can, so that they benefit from your management skills and policies, and so both enjoy and succeed more at their job. Deliberately and actively, seek out the skills, attitudes and philosophies that will enable you to deliver that.
In a nutshell, your move from a technician to a manager means a set of specific changes to your perspective; your shift from doing the work to instead designing and orchestrating it; and the new daily activities you will carry out as a result. I go into this in a lot more detail on my website (address below) and in the books available there, but if what you need is a quick briefing on the shifts to make and the techniques you’ll use, why not join me in Birmingham for a one-day workshop on the topic at the beginning of April 2012?
Noel Bruton is a UK-based consultant and trainer, who assists organisations in a wide range of industries in the practicalities of IT support management and improvement. He is the author of best-selling books on all aspects of IT support service delivery. See more on this topic and others at his Website, www.noelbruton.com.