I recently had the privilege of giving a speech at my alma mater, Cornell University, and wandering the campus brought back memories.
Other than a building boom, the nearly 20 years had brought few changes to the campus. It was still clean and beautiful, and the only thing missing was the group of Hacky Sack players on the quad, who had been replaced by the decidedly more violent Society for Creative Anachronism kids, wearing armor and shields and whacking each other (rather hard) with wooden swords.
I'm now at an age when I'm supposed to get nostalgic for my college days, and I was. What if I could go back and be a student again? The learning (and drinking, I suppose) called to me, and it got me thinking about a lot of managers I know.
At one time or another, most technical managers long to do technical work. For most of us, hands-on production dominated our early careers, and just as a yearning for youth reached out to me, technical work sends out a siren's call to managers.
But, as opposed to my consequence-free indulgent fantasy, heeding the call of technical work endangers the careers of managers and the health of their projects.
Why is this desire so common? I've got a few theories:
A yearning to relive your glory days. Management generally doesn't offer the same thrill of many early career successes. It's hard to get the sense of accomplishment that comes with making some bit of technology jump through particularly challenging hoops.
A longing for simpler times and work. Managerial work is often subtle and ambiguous. It's hard to know if things are going well or not. Politics can be messy, and emotions baffling. Technology, while complex, offers a much clearer landscape.
A desire for immediate results. Management successes typically take months or even years to realize. Technology offers quick feedback. There's nothing like seeing that new window pop up for the first time and do exactly what you want it to do.
So, what's the big deal if a manager indulges in a little geeking out? There are a number of dysfunctional behaviors that I associate with this:
Micromanagement. The urge to stay hands-on often results in managers trying to micromanage their technical staffs. This is a bad idea, in part because it's impossible to be up to date on all the minutiae of everyone's work. But, more important, micromanagement conveys a lack of trust of the technical professionals a manager is supposed to be overseeing and nurturing.
Unqualified decision-making. In most cases, managers who engage in technical work are not really as knowledgeable as they think they are. They may have been in the past, but current competency is often an illusion. Wresting technical decision-making away from technical staff often works out badly.
Wasted time. Technical work takes lots of time and concentration. It's easy for managers to lose enormous amounts of time doing things that could be better and more productively done by others.
Abandoned responsibilities. Perhaps worst of all, managers frequently neglect the responsibilities of leadership when they pick up technical work. When they revisit their old comfort zones, no one is fulfilling important management functions.
Since getting their hands back on technology is such a natural wish, how should managers deal with these longings? It seems pointless to suggest that they should just "get over it." Relying solely on willpower is rarely a feasible option. So I'll suggest a couple of other strategies:
Forgive yourself for having these feelings. It's perfectly normal and healthy to reflect on the past and long for the good times. Some days, it's all the joy we're going to get. Management can be a tough job, and one that gets you dang little sympathy. Realize that this does not mean that you shouldn't have gone into managerial work.
Allow yourself a small indulgence. Whether at work or at home, give yourself permission to do one small technical thing. If your team is working on a project, get someone to assign you a little task, preferably one that's off the critical path. Then be a team player and enjoy a small -- and I repeat small -- amount of tech time. Or, if that's not feasible or politically wise, go home and set up a server. Buy yourself a few toys and go into the geek cave for a while. It's much better to play around a little in a contained space than to invade other people's work.
So when you hear the siren's song, lash yourself to a keyboard and hold on tight. You can get through it without leading all your people onto the rocks.
Paul Glen is the director of the Developing Technical Leaders Program and author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology (Jossey-Bass, 2002). Contact him at infoATpaulglenDOTcom.