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Managing IT….people

I have just finished carrying out the end of year appraisals for my teams; yet again I come out of them feeling slightly despondent and that I have generally let the people down. Development plans often are not followed through due to the pressures of actually doing a job, training budgets often don’t allow all the training that people need/want and actually finding the opportunities to progress people is hard.

I know that I am not unique and I probably shouldn’t beat myself up about it too much; I look round and see plenty of people struggling with similar issues and at least I was developed in my early management career, given at least some of the skills needed to do the job.

Just calling someone a manager does not make them a manager; too often I see good technicians promoted into management positions with little or no support. Managing people is hard and it is not for everyone but in far too many companies, it is the only way to progress.  Some people do take to it straight away but these people are few and far between, rarely are they your best techies; to be an excellent techie takes a different kind of focus.

Of course, then there are the companies who decide that they need a technical specialist track; so they create a technical career track but then it all goes wrong.

1) The technical career track often tops out before the management track; so people are left high and dry with only way to progress being to move into senior management. But unfortunately, they are ill-equipped to do so because they have skipped out a lot of the management training which comes with middle management.

2) The technical career track often forces people into an architectural/design role and yet again, some of the best hands-on techies make terrible architects and designers. They often find it extremely hard to move out of an implementation/support role and drive those teams mad. Technologies change and unless you actually have experience in supporting them on a day-to-day basis; you have no real basis doing low-level implementation.

So what happens? The only way to progress in most end-user organisations is to leave and take all that organisational knowledge with you. And then we get into the argument, that if I train people, they just leave and so you stop training/developing people; so they leave anyway and even worse, they might stay.

It’s time to stop trying to push people in to career paths which don’t suit; it’s also time to allow people to fail at some things. A couple of years ago, I had a staff member who wanted to try something, I was fairly certain that it was not the right move but I let them anyway, I just made sure that I was around to catch them and had another position to allow them to bounce into. We now have a happy employee who was allowed to fail, learnt a lot and moved into a role which allows them to progress and be happy.

We need more of this; introducing people into roles gradually and allowing them to re-trench if needed. We also need to acknowledge that there many different tracks to progress in IT and we need to value each of the tracks/roles within IT. I’ve seen so many people try to succeed in a specific role and not take the perfect role because they thought that working in change management for example was not a valued role.

If people are our most valued asset; we don’t half have a funny way of showing it at times.


  1. Jason says:

    Kudos to you for speaking publicly about what I feel fairly common yet not always admitted (or cared about in some cases) by managers.

    The type of IT worker I would want as a manager would be the most difficult person of all workers to retain. They would be enthusiastic about the field, taking time outside of work to keep their skills current and learn new skills, always trying to find new ways that they can help out within the organization, and have an ongoing desire to keep their career moving forward. This person may or may not even be interested in management, but I would hope that they have some interest in helping make their team better.

    The problem is how do I keep that person around? If I am a smaller company, which is what most companies are, that person will top out technically at some point. Many of these smaller shops have very few management level IT staff, which means that it is very difficult (resource wise) to put together some sort of program to transition IT workers to IT leaders. In those rare cases where I’ve seen a technical worker given a management role that person typically ended up with 2 jobs (manager and technical worker), not 1 job.

    My frame of reference is a company I previously worked for who had 3000 employees. Good work environment, adequate IT budgets, and good team to build the IT operations/engineering around. I reached a point there where there was really nothing to do for a good 2 to 3 years and I knew that (Exchange 2010 migration aside) it was mostly an operational role until the data center needed upgrading again. Could I afford at 37 to stay somewhere where my career would effectively stagnate for such a long period of time (in “IT time”)? The IT field does not look kindly on those that have not kept themselves within reasonable distance of the bleeding edge of the field.

    Please understand that I make no generalizations; there are some companies out there that retain people even though they might be able to get cheaper labor elsewhere. I commend these companies for showing this loyalty to their staff. Unfortunately the budget (or pressure from higher up) sometimes forces changes and as IT workers we need to keep that in mind and assess whether or not it will affect us one day.

  2. Jesse says:

    A few years ago I was in a position where I was desperately trying to get promoted to management.

    Not sure why, I’ve been a hardcore hands-on techie for 15+ years. For me it probably would have been a disaster. I wouldn’t have been able to manage “people” but would have instead resorted to undermining my employees at every turn by doing the work for them.

    In the end, it turned out to be the right thing for me.

    HOWEVER, I quit that job over the perceived lack of advancement opportunity…went back to consulting full time. If given the opportunity to fail and retreat to hands-on work as the person in your example was, I might have stayed, been happier. (Even though in this case, the company folded two months later)

    Your article is well put. Managers need to do a better job of communicating with their employees. And by communicating I mean listening too.

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  4. ANS says:

    It’s great hearing your perspective on feeling responsible to your staff – too many managers only see this in the other direction and fail.
    I read the book,_Break_All_the_Rules
    some years ago and it helped me enormously – especially to justify upward why certain approaches are better.
    The best organizations are moulded around their people, not with people slotted into roles.

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