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Moving into Management – You’re a People Manager

This week’s bonus article is from guest contributor Craig Utley, a professional technology executive with decades of leadership experience. Connect with Craig at

People in technology are often drawn to it for several reasons, some of which include that technology is logical, challenging, in-demand, and some technical jobs allow creativity. Technology also attracts its fair share of introverts, and some people are drawn to technical jobs because they do not have to deal with people frequently. Many IT jobs have no direct public or customer interaction whatsoever. The job is just you, your computer, your team, and the organization around you.

In my previous article, Moving into Management – “I” Becomes “We”, I talked about you being a rockstar, about being an awesome individual contributor and being picked for management, be it a team lead, manager, director, or whatever title you receive. The idea is that you were the best so you should be in charge.

Unfortunately, many companies make a mistake here. They see that Thomas is the most knowledgeable, fastest, just all-around awesome developer on the team and promote him to team lead. They never once consider if Thomas has the talent to successfully manage a team.

Similarly, I have seen the opposite. In a previous role, I had two developers approach me at different times and ask to be made team leads. Gutsy moves, given that there were already team leads in place. Both argued that they were better developers and worked faster than the current team leads. I said no to both, but I said it in this way: “I appreciate your desire to manage and I want to foster that. You aren’t ready, but let’s work together and I’ll help you acquire the skills you need to be a successful manager.” One quit shortly thereafter, but the other took me up on that and started reading the materials I recommended and we began building the skills he needed before he could take over a team.

What are those skills? What were these otherwise competent developers lacking? Management is about people. You need people skills to be an effective manager.

“No, no, I want to be a manager in technology. I want to set direction on the tools we use, determine how we do deployments, dictate how we set up the infrastructure, choose what JavaScript libraries we use, and….” This is a big misunderstanding many new managers have. They think managing is about making decisions. I tell new managers that sitting around making decisions is at most 5% of the job. Some jobs involve managing a budget, and I tell everyone that you can almost certainly be successful there; after all, like technology, managing budgets is logical and the numbers don’t lie. I tell new managers that where you spend your time in management is managing people. Non-logical, squishy humans.

Managing people is the heart of all management. People are inherently complex. The people on your team are motivated by different things. They have different goals and dreams. They certainly have varied personalities. Some have outside stresses that bleed over into work. Some have addictions, mental issues, physical limitations, and so forth. Mixing people with such varied backgrounds onto a team will inevitably lead to issues. Most people are professional enough that many issues do not rise to the level of needing management to address them, but enough will require your input that this is where you, the new manager, will spend much of your time.

Managing a team will involve doling out tasks as effectively as you can based on skills. That sounds easy, but what happens when you hand someone a task and they say they don’t want to do it? They are capable, they just dislike it and ask that you give it to others? What happens when Emma tells you she would rather not work with Maria on a certain task? I often tell new managers that at some point you will want to yell, “Just do your job!” but you can’t. You have to learn how to handle people and conflicts. The good news is that you can learn how to do it, through reading, taking courses, and yes, making mistakes.

For new managers, I recommend several books. One is The New One Minute Manager, the updated version of the classic book. Another is Managing Humans, which is specifically about managing technical people, with a focus on software developers. Be the Boss Everyone Wants to Work For: A Guide for New Leaders is another excellent book. To build one of the most critical skills you need, emotional intelligence, check out Emotional Intelligence 2.0. Finally, find a good online course in conflict management, such as Conflict Resolution in the Workplace at Pluralsight.

People are motivated by different things. Money is one, but limited in its motivational powers. While people want to be paid well, they also want to be treated well and feel that their work is both appreciated and makes a meaningful contribution to the organization.

Treating people well is a challenge for many technical people. “Don’t flip the Bozo bit” is a saying in technology that means technical people tend to dismiss anyone that doesn’t understand something technical. This is where emotional intelligence comes into play, and learning how to deal with people is crucial to your success as a manager.

In addition to treating people with dignity and respect, helping them see the importance of their work is critical. I once worked with a group whose application had major problems; errors in the system required the company to pay penalties back to customers, and the annual penalty was in the seven-figure range. I sat down with the team, explained the problem, showed them how much it was costing (because no one had explained the magnitude of the problem to them before) and began a discussion on how we could fix the problems. Nine months later, the penalties dropped to zero and stayed there for every subsequent quarter. The team was thrilled because everyone was happy: customers, coworkers, upper management, and so forth. A pizza party and movie tickets were nice, as was the recognition they received in numerous meetings, town halls, and so forth. After that, the quality of their work improved because of the pride they took in their work and their understanding of the impact their work had on the business. More about sharing information with the teams will be said in an upcoming article.

In summary, being a manager in any area, including technology, means you are a people manager. Understanding how to best work with different personality types, how best to diffuse conflicts, and how to motivate people are skills that will determine your success or failure as a manager. You may maintain your individual contributor skills as a manager, but without being able to effectively work with people, your tenure will be stressful, short, and ultimately disappointing.

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