Manager: a professional who achieves set objectives by organizing other people’s work.
Recently, I had an interesting conversation about management with my good friend, Matteo. Specifically, we discussed the role of the technical manager in modern companies.
Matteo has a deep technical background and is a great engineer. Currently, he is experiencing a stage of his professional career in which he has to take care of managerial duties as well. Combining engineering tasks and management work is not a joke, as the nature of the two jobs is so different. I know from experience how difficult it is and I think that focusing on these two sides at the same time is one of the most challenging assignments for a technical manager.
Dealing with these two duties gives managers a clear advantage, however. When you fill a management role in a tech company, you just need to know what your engineers’ job is about. If you have a poor technical background you can’t be effective in guiding and developing the members of the team you are in charge of. Even worse, if they feel you don’t master enough of what they deal with on a daily basis, they will disown you as a team leader. You will end up keeping your formal role but your leadership will be compromised irreparably. That’s why maintaining an operational role is so helpful: it allows you to keep abreast of the latest technologies, especially in the fields of electronics and computer science where the following statement is pretty darn true:
I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.
Of course, you can’t know everything. Modern technological evolution is so tumultuous that disruptive innovations can happen any minute. Nobody can fully keep up with this crazy pace. Nevertheless, if you still get your hands dirty, you’ll be able to follow the main trends of such an evolution in your field and you won’t have to worry about losing your leadership. In other words, taking care of practical tasks prevents you from “losing the edge,” as Matteo defined competently.
In my opinion, following this approach has other subtle effects on the team, the most notable one of which is to reinforce your leadership position. I often repeat to myself that leadership is not given but taken. And the best thing to lead is by example. If you keep working side by side with the members of your team on an operational level, you will be an example to them on a daily basis. On the one hand, this will work as an effective training for them—provided that your technical skills are good if not great, as it should be for a technical manager. On the other hand, this approach will also ensure that your coworkers will hardly look at you as their “boss” only. Rather, with all due respect to the roles within the team, they will see you as a collague with whom they share problems and difficulties.
That being said, as time passes by, management duties will overwhelm the operational tasks because you will gradually lose the ability to cope with ever-changing technology. But you will improve your ability to manage projects and people thanks to your experience. All this is almost always inevitable. So, what are you supposed to do, taking into account that you work in a field for which the aforementioned aphorism is so true? I think that when your management tasks become by far your primary activity, it is time to move to the next level. You need to improve significantly your own time management: the small fraction of your time you can devote to professional training has to be enough to avoid losing the edge. It is easy to say, but harder to do as you are called upon to defeat “Confucious’ law.” How are you to do this given that you won’t get your hands dirty any longer? I think that you should exploit at best what your original nature—engineering—is all about: the art of trading off. For example, you can attend carefully selected webinars talking about newer technologies. If they are well made, they’ll be very efficient because they’ll provide a lot of precious and useful information in a short time. Another useful thing you can do is to grasp concepts from the experiences of your colleagues themselves. As a manager, you are supposed to communicate constantly with your team. No matter if you have individual chats or team meetings, I think you should try to have an osmotic exchange with your coworkers. It’s just like the coach/athlete relationship on a sports team. After retiring, great coaches are used to recalling that they learned from their players as much as their players learned from them. This is so true in the context of a tech company too, as engineers are those who get their hands dirty every day. Often, your team members ask to speak with you about an issue they are facing and they are struggling to sort out. These are great opportunities to learn a lot of new things. To provide a useful opinion, try to understand as much as possible about the problem they have submitted. Ask them to describe it in detail and to report precisely what they have tried so fart. Collecting and processing such information is indispensable to help them out. But it is also an extremely powerful tool for you to avoid losing the edge.
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