If you’re a manager, invest more time in your tech skills

It’s quite common to find people who used to have technical positions earlier in their careers and then moved to management positions. There is nothing wrong with that career path but in some cases, those professionals forget to keep up with the technology evolution and end up missing great opportunities in their careers.

Consider, for instance, a Java developer who started her career 10 years ago. After 4 years she was promoted to manager and hasn’t been involved with Java coding for the last 6 years. You can (safely) assume her Java skills are so outdated that she’s not able to do a code review or design a microservice with Sprint Boot anymore. Fair enough, but when will a manager have to do that?

In a fast-paced industry with new frameworks popping up pretty much every month, the amount of content been produced is at the same time astonishing and impossible to keep up. So, if a manager can’t keep up with the speed technologies evolve, why should she even bother to try? Shouldn’t she just rely on her technical colleagues?

Inefficient communication is one of the main causes of project failures

Credibility is key and a solid background can enable that

Communication issues are usually among the top 5 reasons for project failure or challenging execution. Different elements contribute to inefficient communication, but establishing a common language is crucial for both the sender and the receiver to be on the same page about the topic being discussed.

A manager with technical skills can leverage the appropriate terms when talking to her development team to reduce miscommunication issues. Moreover, people usually get more engaged and receptive when they recognize the other ones have a similar level of understanding about the topic. Have you seen developers rolling their eyes when somebody tries to show off his technical skills and end up stumbling over?

Besides, having technical knowledge helps managers when elicitating requirements, troubleshooting issues, handling critical incidents, bridging the communication between developers and executives, and managing project dependencies. Finally, credibility is key and a solid background can enable that.

Projects are getting more and more complex and specialized

Try to think about Software Development projects you were involved about 10-15 years ago. If you were not a kid at that time, you might have remembered some sort of distributed application consuming a data source (most likely a relational database) and providing results to the user in a somewhat simplistic interface. Now let’s get back to today’s reality.

When you look at the current scenario, it’s hard not to think about integrated solutions that demand data analysis/processing, artificial intelligence, consume difference services, and provide multiple different UIs. Basic client-server DB applications have become commodities and no company can endure unless they embrace very specialized and deep knowledge from areas like machine learning, augmented/virtual reality, data processing, continuous delivery, and statistical analysis.

As a manager you’d be required to know at least at a high level:

  • What those technologies are used for;
  • How they can be incorporated in the business to generate more revenue;
  • How to get started with them;
  • Which alternative approaches exist and their pros/cons.

To get at that level you could 1) read the basics about the technologies, 2) join and actively listen to design sessions, and 3) have fun coding in your ‘spare’ time.

Influential people know their sources

Power is the ability to influence others and it can be identified in 5 forms:

  • Formal: when you’re empowered to take decisions;
  • Reward: when people realize that you’re responsible for rewarding them by deciding salaries, promotions, bonuses, and so on;
  • Penalty: when people perceive you can penalize them if they don’t follow your directions;
  • Expert: when people perceive you possess important functional knowledge;
  • Referent: when people enjoy working with you or in the project you manage.

Formal and Reward types have to be granted and do not depend solely on the manager. Penalty may be effective, but it usually activates the sympathetic system which brings more stress to the relationship. Referent demands time and development of soft-skills which are quite hard to change. Expert power can be your best ally to enhance your ability to influence and lead your team.

Major tech companies look for Technical Managers

Understanding the market demand and how high-performing companies (like FAANG) structure themselves can give you a few hints about the kind of professionals that companies are looking for. If you follow these companies’ news or know people who work for them, you know that they have different flavors of technical management positions:

/Technical(.*|\s) Manager/g.

  • Technical Program Manager
  • Technical Engineering Manager
  • Technical Project Manager

That model is already being used as a reference by other companies. So, career-wise, deepening your tech expertise can help better positioning yourself for high-demanding positions.

Wrapping up

Putting the hours to learn technologies, even when you won’t immediately apply them, will pay off in the short to medium-term. Your team is more likely to value your opinion and feel like you’re one of them. Tech skills can be your competitive advantage if you enjoy getting your hands dirty, but as Uncle Ben says ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ 😉 . There are a few pitfalls that you need to avoid not to backfire your plan, but that’s a subject for another post.