When I first became a tech manager it was an exciting time, I knew it would be a challenge and was ready to go! I quickly realized management is not something a two-day training course can really prepare you for but I had one thing going for me, I knew I wanted to be a manager. I made mistakes and was certainly naive in situations but I was learning and gaining experience at every opportunity. Looking back over the years certain areas stand out that I believe are needed to be a successful tech manager.
We’re not short on articles listing the attributes of a good manager/leader, each has similar themes including communication, honesty, transparency, humility, etc. Nothing wrong with these and I believe they are essential to the success of any manager. I want to look at a few others, some are personal traits while others are more practical that relate closely to tech teams. One thing first though which cannot be emphasized enough, everything is based on trust. Trust is your cornerstone that holds everything together. Building trust throughout the teams is any manager’s top priority, without it respect, accountability and commitment are merely a pipe dream.
So, what does it take to be a tech manager…
It takes empathy
Managers need to be able to bring the best out of people, having empathy is vital to understanding situations from the other person’s point of view. When people know that their manager puts effort into understanding their perspective it helps them feel valued which leads to greater respect and builds an environment where people feel safe to be themselves. It is a challenge though and mistakes will be made along the way but by continuing to practise and taking time to know each person decisions can be made for the person’s benefit not the manager’s. It starts with being a good listener, caring about each person and acting on any commitments.
It takes self-awareness
A manager has to know that they don’t know everything. There is an air of arrogance over people who think they have all the answers, not only is this a problem in itself but it’s a problem for the team too. Instead of building bonds with the teams this sends the wrong signals and actually distances managers from the people doing the work. A self-aware manager knows their own strengths and is able to use the team with their weaknesses. The self-aware manager will have a desire to learn which will be visible to the teams and ideally spread to them so growth can be achieved together. It takes a self-aware manager to recognize the needs that build strong teams and selflessness to act on them.
It takes the ability to define a purpose with teams
Why are we doing what we’re doing? Teams can get into what feels like an endless cycle of iterations with their heads down and lose sight of the bigger picture. Having a team purpose or mission is important to keep focus, this means all work and discussions should be in line with that purpose. It can be a good team exercise to create this, allowing each person to be part of commitment and the overall mission together. The purpose should answer the Why? question and allow people outside of the team to know what a team stands for (make it visible somewhere!). Like anything, over time it can lose its significance so it’s important managers share feedback/results/stats with the team to show their work in being used by customers (and hopefully making a difference) to keep the momentum going. Of course, the purpose can and should evolve over time as needed.
It takes knowledge of development practices
We are not short of software development methodologies to choose from, all offering different ways to produce and deliver software. A manager should have a good understanding of the different practices and be able to decide or influence on the suitable approach for a particular team/project. We should never choose, say Scrum, because we’ve always used it and think it can work in every situation. The manager has to consider the objectives of the project, how delivery will happen, the team and their past experience, goals for adoption of new practices. There are numerous considerations so a manager shouldn’t blindly pick a methodology. Maybe adopting practices from different methodologies would suit the team at a particular time so having a broad knowledge of development practices is needed. Whichever practices are chosen, continuous improvement is key. Observe what works and what doesn’t, listen to the teams and evolve together to a better place.
It takes technical knowledge
Competence is an enabler of respect and trust in tech teams. Technical discussions are a daily activity whether they are in meetings or more spontaneous. Managers don’t have to be experts in every technology but being able to understand the essence of technical conversations is important. A manager will need to ask deeper questions if there are problems to solve and help find a solution. Having only a superficial knowledge could create more effort from the team to explain issues and even divert thinking away from the actual problem at hand. A solid coding background in the related languages will help the manager be more authentic and respected. And, given the opportunity, a manager should be able to get their hands dirty in the code if the team needs help.
It takes good presenter skills
Good communication skills are mentioned every list of skills, and rightly so, but I want to focus on the ability to present. A big part of the manager’s role is to share ideas or plans to groups of people. It doesn’t have to be conference speaking but a manager needs to be able to articulate ideas clearly to others, especially their teams and stakeholders. They should be comfortable talking in front of people and come across as confident and knowledgeable in the topic. Being able to interact with the group is important, welcoming questions or feedback, and being able to respond even when you don’t know the answer. Openness and honesty are key.
It takes courage
Teams look to their manager for support, they put faith in the manager that they’re making the best decisions for them and the organization. The manager has to make decisions, change things that aren’t working, roll out new practices – this takes courage! It’s not easy stepping into the unknown and there is a real fear of being wrong so courage is what enables managers to fight against the imposter syndrome to move towards a goal. Most of the time there will be people that don’t agree with you (which is a good thing), the manager has to negotiate around these disagreements to find a way forwards. Remember, you’re more likely to find the treasure at the end of a rainbow than to get consensus. I’ve always found if you are clear about the reasons for any change/decision then if it goes wrong your team knows your true intent was for something better. It’s ok to fail as long as you learn from it, it’s also ok to be open about things that didn’t go according to plan, this takes courage but the teams appreciate this.
It takes ability to create a fun work environment
Do you look forward to going to work each day or is it a chore? With the number of hours that we spend at work having a healthy dose of fun is essential in any environment. I don’t mean that managers have to be stand-up comedians, only that they should have some character and be able to display it. Show a sense of humour, maybe even poke fun at yourself sometimes, showing that it’s ok to joke and laugh in a work environment. A manager should be able to make people feel relaxed and show that it is safe to let guards down. Any ego or arrogance should be left a home, they are not wanted in the office. Go to lunch together, make meetings more interesting, do whatever it takes to make days enjoyable. Of course, there are always limits, a manager should ensure no one is the object of distasteful jokes and any banter is respectful. There are many ingredients to a fun environment and they mostly begin with the manager’s actions, be gracious, be likeable, show you’re vulnerable, show you’re human.
There are only eight points covered here, it’s not exhaustive, I could have continued with more like: a good negotiator, a role model, an ability to praise people, common sense, thick skin, and an eye to spot and hire talent. To succeed and stand out as a tech manager takes effort, complacency is simply not an option. Ultimately it comes down to the manager’s desire to want the best for their teams which should ignite the zeal inside to be better.
To finish, I will attempt the impossible, to sum this up in one sentence:
To be a tech manager it takes a person who people want to work with, who will get the best out of each person in a humble way while providing the security and safety for the teams to succeed together.