Transitioning from Technical Professional to Manager
Transitioning from a technical role into a managerial position is a query I encounter repeatedly. I felt the best way to get some deep-rooted answers, was to go to the source and put the question to some well-respected and reputable individuals working within the industry. For the purpose of this post, I specifically targeted those that commenced their careers in hands-on technical positions before transitioning into management.
Anonymous, IT Director, Dublin
Gavin Hand, Head of IT Infrastructure, Dublin
Ronan Murray, Infrastructure Manager, Dublin
Olivier Beyssac, Site Reliability Manager, Dublin
Q & A
- What motivated you to move from being technically hands-on to a management position?
- “I was looking for a new challenge and wanted to progress my career.” (Anon)
- “Coming from an operations background, I wanted the opportunity to influence and shape the technologies from an early stage.” (G, Hand).
- “I’ve always gotten the most satisfaction from delivering something new or improving how things are done, that’s what really motivates me. I was a Senior Systems Administrator with JP Morgan and started spending more time implementing local projects and working with the EMEA project teams. I really enjoyed completing a discrete piece of work and moving on to a new challenge. From there, I was outsourced to IBM and became a professional project manager. While it was a natural evolution, it really suited me. People management came when I joined LeasePlan Information Services and was a completely new challenge but even more rewarding. Today, the most rewarding part of the job is seeing engineers and managers develop and grow, becoming more technical or moving into management positions themselves.” (R, Murray).
- “So, first of all, switching to management at Google doesn’t mean that you stop being technical. It can be quite hard to mix people management and technical projects, but I don’t think you can manage an effective team in Tech if your engineers don’t think that at least your technical background is legitimate.The main reasons were:
- I was offered the opportunity to manage people who I knew extremely well and that I trusted: at the time, all of them had been my peers for several years.
- A few people seemed to think I had potential in this area.
- It was exciting to figure out a new role.
- I noticed that people laugh at your jokes when you’re a manager, even if they’re not funny, and that’s really important to me.” (O, Beyssac).
2. Is your management position reflective of what you thought it would be?
- “Yes. I did expect that holding a manager position would require a different approach to being a technical hands-on system administrator. For example a manager needs to be able to delegate work and depend and trust others to do the work. That is the most fundamental change, the shift from doing a task and knowing when it is completed to handing that responsibility to a team member.” (Anon).
- “Mostly, yes.” (G, Hand).
- “Yes, but it’s harder than I imagined when I was in college studying Business! As a Project Manager I was focused completely on the task and didn’t have the same level of focus on people. Now I know it’s all about the people, focus on the people and the tasks will get done better and faster than if you focus solely on the task. You also need really strong communication skills to translate what you need into something others completely understand and can deliver. It’s also more fun than I thought it would be.” (R, Murray).
- “Absolutely not. I understood it would be a different job, but I didn’t think it would be such a radical difference. When you’re working on a team you’re not managing, the way I build and maintain trust is primarily through cooperation, while taking individuals into account. As a manager, I think the people aspect is predominant, combined with team dynamics. Moreover, your teammates expect you to take the right decisions on projects, while your reports need you to take the right decisions about them.” (O, Beyssac).
3. Are you still technically hands on or solely managing a team/department?
- “Occasionally when it was required due to workload/time commitments on meeting a completion date for a project and also when it was required to impart skills to a team or team member.” (Anon)
- “Yes, occasionally. It’s important to remain sharp and capable of being hands on when required, simply to make informed decisions quickly at critical times. If you don’t have a good understanding of what your teams actually do, you can become a bottleneck when dealing with major incidents or projects.” (G, Hand).
- “I have some technical know-how and can usually hold my own in a conversation but it’s a long time since anyone allowed me administrative access to systems! Engineers have to be given the space to do their job, my role is to steer and set overall direction for my department giving people the credit when things go well and taking responsibility when we experience issues.” (R, Murray).
- “Both. The balance varies depending on the needs. You can’t plan precisely how much time will be spent on people management, so it definitely impacts the kind of projects I can take on and my ability to deliver. Sometimes I’m able to be hands on, sometimes not. The ratio week-over-week is very often a complete surprise.” (O, Beyssac).
4. What are the top 3 skills you use in your day-to-day activities?
- “Communication, delegation and organisation skills.” (Anon).
- “Communication, people skills, technology skills.” (G, Hand).
- “Listening, communicating and delegating.
- Active listening is hard and I’m constantly trying to improve.
- Strong written and verbal communications are essential for letting people know what you are doing and why and for translating your needs into something others can deliver.
- By Delegating, I mean giving my team leads and engineers the responsibility to make decisions themselves and to know when to bring a decision to me. This makes us more efficient and develops people faster. To do this, you have to be able to accept that errors will occur but over time availability and reliability will improve.” (R, Murray).
- “Coaching, Negotiation & Industry experience.” (O, Beyssac).
5. What are the top 3 skills you look for when hiring a manager with a technical background?
- “Communication, organisation, delegation.” (Anon)
- “Common sense, communication, wide spectrum of tech skills.” (G, Hand).
- “The ability to lead a team, the ability to fit into the organisation and the ability to learn.” (R, Murray).
- “Social skills, ability to listen to feedback & technical expertise.” (O, Beyssac).
6. Why do you look for these skills? If they differ from your core top 3, why?
- “Communication – very important as managing a team and the work of a team requires a manager to be able to lead by giving good instruction and information, a manager needs to be a good listener. Managing a team involves constant two-way communication so I see this skill as key.
- Organisation – this is key as a manager in constantly trying to balance needs from different people they work with. The team activities, working with peers, senior management, internal and external customers, so prioritising and organising your day is very important and knowing what the priorities are.
- Delegation – a manager needs to be confident enough to be able to delegate and to learn to trust others to do work, whether that is the day-to-day operational work or assigned project tasks.” (Anon).
- “Some skills can be taught or picked up through mentoring at management level, some you need to bring to management.” (G, Hand).
- “I get a kick out of seeing people move into management roles so I’m willing to give people the opportunity to lead without a huge amount of experience. However, they need to have the right personality, be focused and want the chance to show they can do it. LeasePlan has a great familial culture. We work hard and the pace is not for everyone, managers need to be able to fit in, to respect people and be able to operate in a fast-moving environment where it’s sometimes necessary to make decisions based on incomplete information. I want people who see the role as a challenge, it’s a step up for them and they have areas they need to improve on. They are still hungry and the most enjoyable to work with. This year I setup a new projects team within my department where we bring in a team lead from another team and some specialists for a 6 month secondment. This is great as it creates a vacuum in another team and gives engineers the opportunity to step into an interim team lead role and try it out in a safe environment. It’s already helped turn one engineer into a permanent team lead.” (R, Murray).
- “When I interview people, I want to gauge potential more than what they already know how to do. The 3 skills I picked for hiring are normally symptoms of candidates who can deal with people, are able to learn and have the right technical profile to work in my company. Just the last 2 mean that you’re curious, which is also crucial.” (O, Beyssac)
7. What advice can you give or do you have any recommendations/suggestions for someone who wishes to transition from being a technical professional to management?
- “Trusting yourself that you have the skills to manage and to understand what that entails. It is a difficult transition to move from being in total control to do work and complete work and then to learn to hand that over to others. One thing I did to help me transition to managing people, delegating work, and communicating with senior management was, a Supervisory Management course with the IMI. I found that very helpful and it increased my confidence as it covered the areas of supervising people, how you perform staff appraisals, recruitment, deal with conflict, team and organisation change. It helped put a lot of things into perspective being a manager and provided me with the skills that are necessary to have when managing people. It is not instinctive and it is a skill which needs to be learned.” (Anon).
- “For me, being a technical professional can put you on a defensive footing. You regularly have to defend and stand over your actions to demonstrate success and advance. Management requires a greater level of acceptance in order to succeed; acceptance of criticism, constraints, responsibility for others actions, even if this doesn’t sit well with you. The move from one position to another can be frustrating, but the sooner your mind-set changes, the better.” (G. Hand).
- “Go for it. If you move into a management role and it doesn’t work out, you can always try something else. Your technical skills are portable and will always be there for you. Project Management is a great interim step as you can work on technical projects and get people experience without having to formally manage people. Finally, whatever you do, treat people with respect and the way you would like to be treated. People are a company’s greatest resource, look after them.” (R, Murray).
- “Don’t confuse management, leadership and authority. Don’t confuse mentoring and coaching. Know how to manage your energy.” (O, Beyssac).
I wish to thank the respondents for their participation, time and efforts in answering the questions.
I hope you find their answers and sharing of their personal experiences insightful and helpful in addressing what skills and experience is sought and required to manage.
- All respondents felt they had expectations in moving into management that rang true in their roles. The greatest change highlighted was the shift from ‘doing’ to delegating and the acknowledgement that it is “all about the people”.
- Having the ability to continue with technical activities varies depending on the position.
- Strong consistency in core skill requirements – Communication and delegation being the front-runners, followed by listening and organisational skills. What is interesting is that all are soft skills and people focused. These are the core focus of daily activities and highlight the requirement for exceptional ability in these areas rather than the technical acumen from a previous position.
- Again, soft skills are the primary consideration when hiring a manager. Communication and organisational skills as essential with common sense, delegation, organisational fit, ability to learn and technical knowledge also being listed. Here the ‘right personality’ is key, and clearly company culture has a strong impact on what skills are sought.
Do the skills align to what you thought would be required when moving into management?