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 this in future posts and fixes for these common issues.

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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  1. Very well written, you have a skill in expressing your technology know-how with a pinch of social concern. You would make a great manager.
    In my personal opinion, you are correct in saying people are chaotic. But that makes us not only capable of failing despite the input being correct, but as a means of leverage. Many people (teenagers especially) will fail despite our best efforts and guidance. Many people only need a bit of inspiration to become geniuses, artists, or great managers. We should see those leverage points, instead of acting by trial and error. Give the correct inspiration instead of trying to fit an IT Pro into a managing template. Managers wouldn’t find interesting to be sat in front of a screen with a command line either. An example of leveraging interests is the way mothers feed children: turn the spoon into an airplane.

  2. This is a very good article . I find it very difficult to manage even one person , even though i can solve very complex programming problems . Being clever with machines doesnt mean being clever with people .

  3. Thanks for the notes, David and Amr!

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