In the tech world, management is not a promotion

Posted by on Feb 29, 2012 in Blog, Computerworld Columns | 1 comment

Whenever I hear a technical person say, “I just got promoted into management,” I know he’s in for a rough ride. Because chances are he doesn’t understand what he’s gotten himself into, and whoever gave him the job hasn’t prepared him well. Very rarely do they realize that in technical work, this new role isn’t a promotion — it’s a career change.

To get a promotion is generally to receive added responsibilities. There is a sense of continuity: What came before is a part of what is to come. But for technical people, nothing could be further from the truth.

Engineering and management are entirely different careers, with no overlap in required skills, knowledge and behaviors. Technical managers don’t need to be great engineers. They need to be skilled at creating the conditions under which others can become great engineers. To move from a technical role to management is to abandon one career for another.

Selecting and growing successful technical managers requires a keen appreciation of both the differences between the roles and the dynamics of the transition, because the shift from one career to another can be rather traumatic. Here are some things you can do to help avoid that trauma.

Try before you buy. A large percentage of engineers who try management don’t like it. Too often, they choose to leave the organization rather than suffer the public humiliation of a “demotion” or perceived failure. So the organization loses some of its best engineering talent because it tries to “promote” engineers to jobs they ultimately don’t want.

To avoid this, give engineers an opportunity to dabble in management without making any public declarations that are hard to back away from. They need a chance to try on the managerial hat before committing to a major career change.

Use rites of passage. Once a managerial candidate decides to commit to the new career, it’s important to make a public statement that symbolizes that he has transitioned to a new career path. This helps the manager recognize the profundity of the shift. It can be classic, like an office party — but it can be fun too. Maybe you can organize a ceremonial surrendering of the pocket protector.

Expect grief and insecurity. Most new managers resist the idea that they’ll have to abandon their former glory to embrace the new role. They try hard to be both technical and managerial but eventually realize that it’s not possible. When they recognize that there is no going back to being purely technical, you need to account for the accompanying sadness of loss. They are not only losing the work that they love, but also embracing something so totally new that they will inevitably feel incompetent and insecure for a while.

Offer training and support. Training can be helpful, but it’s rarely enough. Becoming a manager is about a lot more than just acquiring new skills. It’s about mastering a new way of work and a new understanding of self. Managers need coaching to make the change.

Allow indulgences. New managers need the opportunity to occasionally dabble in their former work. Let them code just a little. But make sure they recognize that such things are indulgences that let them revisit the glory days but don’t provide significant value to the organization.

With a few relatively easy adjustments in language and approach, you can create an environment in which new technical managers grow and your team gets the leadership it needs.

Copyright 2012 by Computerworld Inc., One Speen Street, Framingham, MA, 01701.  Reprinted by permission of Computerworld.  All Rights Reserved.

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One Comment

  1. In my experience, 80% of the companies in America — probably more actually, but I’ll go conservative — still believe that the path way “up” is to put one in charge of people. In the IT and Engineering space, as you’ve pointed out, nothing could be farther from what is actually needed.

    In the Army, you have “privates,” who do the dirty work, and the “officiers,” who do the directing. “Privates” in the IT space, who do the deep down dirty technical work, all over America will tell you, this model is NOT working. Yet again, my experience shows that 80% or more of companies still follow this model of promotion.

    I believe your article describes actually some of the better cases. In many cases, this model actually turns out far worse. In the worst cases, newly promoted engineers (many INTP types), EMBRACE the change (without realizing the shift, I agree here), and actually think they are GOOD at managing IT people. Tom Peters promotion principles truly seem to apply in a lot of these IT situations. (Aside from the fact that I believe a small percentage of individuals overall in ANY department are truly cut out inherently to manage other people — another issue that I don’t have time for here.)

    My belief is that technology as a pervasive tool and an essential element for business success across the board has created day to day and organizational issues which we’ve not even had the foresight to address. New wine requires new wineskins or else the old ones will burst. Some companies at least seem keen to the issue and provide pathways for promotion that leave one in a heavily technical space (some even all the way up to the SVP level), but these companies are rare and there certainly aren’t enough of these kinds of organizations to go around for every technical person employed.

    I for one believe it’s an organizational issue and even a cultural driver that hasn’t been fully analyzed and resolved yet on the whole.

    I like your site and your mission. It’s much needed and very valuable.


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