The Case against Non-Technical Managers

Software development has an image of nerdy people with poor people skills. Whilst luckily not true in most cases, the stereotype probably contributes to companies often appointing non-technical managers to run IT departments.

Think about this in terms of your accounting department. Let’s say that you had a great manager, who has come up through the ranks from some discipline other than accounting. You decide to make them Chief Financial Officer. This person must now lead a function where a mistake can cost your company a lot of money.

They don’t really understand double-entry book-keeping, or the tax laws, or doing audits. Well, very few companies would make a hiring decision like this, because there will be enough leaders in the organization who know that accounting and finances have a lot of subtleties and require a leader with a good background in those skills.

Back to IT, and we have a critical company function that can also cost an organization a lot of money if it goes wrong. Software can go wrong in so many ways, and being over budget is almost the least of your worries.

How about data privacy – would you like your company to be getting the press that Ashley Madison is right now? Would your company survive a major hack of all your customers’ personal details?

IT is a very technical field, with a very broad range of required skills. A company’s IT department could be responsible for bespoke software, their web presence, possible online shopping carts, a call centre, customer billing, customer support, and a bunch of internal systems like email, payroll, and document storage, amongst others.

Within the bespoke software arena, we find software developers, database administrators, business analysts, and various managers such as Project Managers and Development Managers, and all the way up to the CIO.

At the bottom, are the nerdy guys and gals working overtime to meet the organization’s deadlines. Their problems seldom make it to the boardroom table. They are dealing with a myriad of issues, such as poor or incomplete specifications, legacy code which has become unmaintainable, and a fast-shifting technical landscape where the teams’ skills often lag behind what business has decided to implement.

Technical Training for Management Pays Dividends

One of the ways to solve this, is to bring your managers closer to this coal face. Technical training programmes are critical for your development team to keep apace with change, and investing the time for IT management to do the training too can pay dividends. I’ll expand on this idea, as it flies in the face of most management thinking.

The first thing to understand is that most short-course IT training only introduces a concept. Your developers will need to practice their new skills back on the job to become proficient. I firmly believe that management should also undergo the type of training that introduces concepts, when there is a shift in direction for a company.

Don’t send your developers off into new waters without engaged and informed leaders! Too many technical decisions are made because a sales pitch was awesome, and not from a deep understanding of the technology. So if you’re an IT manager or leader, go and get a deeper understanding by learning the details of the new tech with your team.

Invest the two or three days, or even a week, to experience the challenges of the new tech in the class room. Know more than what the sales brochure says. This will assist in so many ways, from having a more realistic idea of what time will be needed for a project, to even deciding to drop the tech once you have seen its limitations.

All technology has limitations, but it’s hard to admit that when you have invested a lot in the decision process. This is the best risk mitigation strategy you can possible implement! If you’re not sure if you, as manager, have enough time to get that close to the detail of what your department does, think again about whether you would appoint a non-financial manager to handle your money.

Our own experience of asking our Directors to do a one-week Bootcamp in new web development technology, was that while they thoroughly enjoyed the glimpse back at the coal face, it didn’t not cause anyone to lose their strategic focus. It did cause a quantum shift in the quality and productivity of the teams, both because the teams had been well trained and because our leaders were now aligned with what the development teams needed to do their jobs.

Even when you have hired IT leaders with great technical skills, they will become non-technical managers over time as their specific skills are overtaken by newer technology, and they move further and further away from the development coal face. Just like your Chartered Accountant has to do Continuing Professional Development (CPD) courses, so should your IT leadership.

Don’t have technically blind leadership running one of the most critical functions in your organization!