Monday, February 23, 2009

non-technical managers...

I recently read Sid Savara's article about how engineers can more effectively communicate with non-technical managers. I think Sid does a great job on the engineer's side with some really good insights as to how engineers think of communication. It's a great article that brings an honest (if somewhat naive) assumption that people simply want to communicate.

But it takes two to tango, and I'd like to challenge the assumption that a non-technical* manager can be an effective manager of a technology group with the right communication.

Let's use some simple logic first: Say it is possible to manage a technical group without being "technical". Then you are implying that management decisions essentially have nothing to do with technology; management is management - maybe it's about people, maybe it's about process, but it has nothing to do with technology in any fundamental way.

This leads to two supporting fallacious assumptions (which are very common in business):
  1. ideally all management decisions in a technology group can be translated into non-technical terms. Any failures in this communication are ultimately the responsibility of your technical team to address (otherwise you'd have to learn something about technology, which you've already decided is essentially irrelevant to management concerns).

  2. management issues are essentially simple and easy to act upon unless someone is making them needlessly complex and/or resisting doing any real work (i.e. your technical team).
Let's put it another way: Would you say that a non-sailor Captain could be an effective manager of a ship? Would you say that a non-diplomat could be an effective manager of an embassy? Would you trust a non-mechanic crew chief as an effective manager of a NASCAR race car team? Would you say that an untrained civilian could be an effective manager of a military unit?

Would you say that you can be an effective owner of a sports team without knowing anything about sports or the sports business?

No, because in each of these areas a knowledge of the specific problems and solutions is a requirement of the role of leader. Yet popular business philosophy has started with the assumption that all manager positions are essentially identical in their demands and execution.

It's time to start recognizing that technology isn't always simple and that effective technology managers have to be at least somewhat technical -- it's a requirement of the job.

* I'd like to point out that some managers consider themselves "non-technical" because they lack the domain-specific jargon or experience in a technology group. Maybe they were a biologist, instead of a computer scientist or at least they have some appreciation or experience with science issues. I consider these managers "technically capable" -- they are capable of understanding the arguments with some effort in learning or developing common terminology. This is a more amenable situation because these kind of managers don't make the fallacious assumptions noted above. They are eager to think through problems and find solutions even if they don't have the specific vocabulary. Given Sid's points of effective communication, they will rise to the very technical challenge of running a technology group.

1 comment:

Larry Kyrala said...

There's a lively followup over on Sid's blog (see the article link above). I'm cross posting my reply here as well:

"I think the essential issue between a worker and their manager is one of trust. Many times a non-technical manager feels like a non-car person taking their car to the mechanic... it's pretty hard to develop trust when the cost and time estimates are exceeded. Maybe this is because the driver never changed their oil, OR maybe it's because the mechanic is a crook. Trying to figure out which is which isn't easy. I don't think the manager necessarily needs to understand all the "moving parts" -- but they do need to understand the basics in order to be able to trust their team."