The Nerd Whisperer: Learn to Manage IT Staff

The suit/geek communications gap is storied in enterprise IT. It doesn't have to be that way.

By Charlie Schluting | Posted Apr 23, 2007
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Why is managing technical people difficult? Some would say techies are socially inept, and simply can't communicate well. While that may be true in some cases, saying so doesn't help managers deal with techies any better: It just defers the problem. Here are two pieces of advice for bridging the communications gap.

First, managers must be open, honest, blunt and candid with their subordinates. Every employee wants to know what's going on, but that especially applies to technical people. They also want to know that they're being given accurate information. Second, managers must be humble. There's nothing worse to a techie than a manager who just _pretends_ to know something—techies see right through that.

That first point covers a wide variety of topics. Let's break it down.

"Open and honest," and to a certain extent "bluntness," refer to dissemination of information. Management should be honest about what's happening in the company, and managers should feel comfortable sharing the real reasons behind a decision. Everything from organizational changes to the company's financial standing is important and relevant information for all employees. In the IT world, people are frequently asked to implement some vague technology and they're given no reason at all besides "someone requested it, without really knowing what it is."

When technical staff are given information about the real reasons behind a change, they can often provide valuable insight. Assuming someone is willing to listen. More than listen, actually: The manager needs to be able to parse the argument for what it's worth. In a situation where IT staff are simply complaining about having to implement something new, their arguments against the change will likely be 90 percent complaint and 10 percent valid arguments. An effective manager ignores the complaints and ponders the valid points, as opposed to getting upset and simply saying "because we told you to."

The other half of our first point claimed that bluntness and candid discussions are beneficial. In many situations this is true, but it's most important in performance reviews. There's nothing worse than having to "lay off" an employee when he had no idea that his performance was sub-par.

When someone makes an avoidable mistake, confront him about it. Make it known that the mistake was unacceptable. Conversely, when someone does something well, parade that fact around the office as if president just got impeached. Employees who know exactly where they stand are able to either correct their actions, or settle into their rut, realizing they'll never be promoted. When it comes time to let the latter go, there are really no hard feelings at all.

Finally the second point: managers must be humble. This goes far beyond simply admitting when you don't know something. Being an effective manager sometimes means playing dumb.

It is almost unbelievable how much friction a manager who pretends to know technical details can cause. During a secret project a few years back, where an outsider was forced to work within my group, it became clear very early on that the outsider didn't know what we were doing. Instead of admitting it, she attended every meeting and pretended to be a productive member. In the end, when it came time for reviews, everyone called her out for claiming to contribute equally. When it was all said and done, she said, "I've heard stories about dealing with techies before, but I didn't think they were really true."

The stories are all true. Technical people will be hell to work with if you undermine their hard work and years of study by making uninformed decisions or by claiming to know something better than them. Have you ever noticed experienced managers asking their employees to explain something that you thought the manager already knew? There's a reason for that.

When employees are forced to explain the way something works, they often come to new realizations during the discussion. Putting a plan into words, so that someone less technical can understand it, forces the implementer to think about it from many new angles. This works much the same way that writing a speech doesn't prepare you nearly as well as practicing it out loud.

So how does asking someone to explain what they're doing translate into "playing dumb?" Well if they already assume you know something, they will skip the gory details. The details are what truly matter, though.

It may seem counterintuitive to think that technical people want to talk to a manager who doesn't know much. Employees may even seem to get annoyed when they have to explain things. This is where your technical skill can sneak in and cause something wonderful to happen. Often, the techie won't realize the error of his way, and you can easily point it out after he's described the plan. It doesn't even take much preexisting technical knowledge, just the ability to ... manage. Technical staff certainly won't think less of their manager for asking tons of questions—they actually enjoy teaching, most of the time.

It also pays to realize that the technical staff have put years of work into developing their skills, and they really can't imagine that any manager has done the same. They seek continual improvement and refinement of their skills, so much so that they'd probably be just as happy with a raise as with an all-expense paid trip to a conference.

The moral of the story is to treat technical people the same as you'd treat everyone else. They will however respond better to certain styles of management, and they will never respond well to a manager who claims to know more than he really does. A thick skin and strong attitude are required to deal with technical staff effectively, but once you understand what makes them tick, a whole new level of efficiency can be obtained.

Charlie will return next week with the other side of the coin: How technical staff can sharpen up their communications with management.

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