Can a Manager Be a Techie and Survive?

The type of thinking that was once left to technologists is now essential for business managers

I've written before about balancing technical and managerial skills, and it's a question I've thought a lot about over my entire career. Back when I was young, inexperienced and terrible at supervising, with very little in the way of technical skills, my primary goal was to "get technical." I was often told in my personnel evaluations that I had some work to do to earn the respect of the technical people I managed. I took that advice to heart.

Years later, I am still managing people, projects and processes, but I am the senior technical person in the group. That doesn't mean that I know everything. No one can. But in the security arena, I know my stuff, down to every bit, byte and command line. Apparently, some people think that's a bad thing. I've heard some people say that good managers should not be technical at all.

I don't agree. My career experiences have led me to believe that those who manage techies must have a blend of managerial skills, business smarts, top-notch technical skills and integrity in order to be effective. I have admired the managers I have had. They were all very good business people who had sharp technical skills. If I was stumped on something, whether it was a technical or managerial matter, I could ask them for help.

Through their examples, I have learned to be a manager of both people and projects while keeping my hands on the technology. Today, in the state agency where I work, I still take charge of some technical projects alongside my management responsibilities.

Can't be done, you think? It can, though it takes practice.

For example, this year I hired a few people and prepared several management reports, including an information security plan, a disaster recovery plan and an information security self-assessment. I prepared the budget forecast, managed 25 projects and a team of IT and security people, and designed and deployed an intrusion-detection system agencywide. Right now, I'm working on the firewall design, including a VPN strategy. And I'm configuring the devices and installing them. I'm not blowing my own horn. I'm just saying that it's possible to both manage and participate in technical projects. Those two things aren't mutually exclusive. Switching Gears

The key is learning to "time-slice," which allows me to smoothly switch gears and focus. Admittedly, there are some days when it can be difficult to do. But a colleague once said to me, "I can't believe the speed at which you can mentally connect and disconnect." That might have been her way of saying that I needed to slow down and pay attention to what she was saying, but to me it meant that I had almost mastered the ability to switch gears.

The downside of being both a manager and a techie is that you have to balance priorities constantly. I recently was burdened with what I considered excessive management chores when all I wanted to do was technical work. I had to delay some projects and focus solely on the management side of things, which was irritating. I had to work more hours to keep projects on schedule. Some deadlines slipped slightly. But, thanks to my time-slicing skills, I was able to quickly recover. The management issues were resolved in the best possible way, and the projects were completed successfully.

The downside is more than offset by the positives.

For example, the ability to understand and be involved in the technical side helps me do root-cause analysis. And how many grand-scale IT or security implementations have failed because the manager didn't understand some basic thing that was as clear as day to the techies?

What's more, being informed about technical matters helps you avoid other problems. I've noticed that IT and security folks will sometimes tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to know. If you don't know the difference between fiction and reality, you've got a problem. By being technically informed while managing people and projects, no one can blow smoke up my skirt. I can tell the difference between a lame excuse for a delay and a legitimate reason why something can't be done. That ability is priceless.

Happy Medium

We need to pull the business and technical sides of organizations closer together. It's certainly true that geeks need to be able to talk business. Technical people need to be able to produce reports, think about the big picture as it relates to technical work and advise business people on how to solve a business problem with a technical solution. But it's a two-way street; business people need to be able to talk geek, too.

I teach business students about technology at the local university. The university's goal is to educate these MBA hopefuls about information systems, technology and e-business. In today's global economy, a company's success or failure may hinge on the ability to implement technology to remain competitive. The business managers of tomorrow must be able to see the big picture while also understanding the nuts and bolts that keep everything running. The type of thinking that was once left to technologists is now essential for business managers.

I wouldn't be happy if I couldn't do all the things I'm doing. I enjoy managing. I enjoy technical work. I enjoy the challenge of helping people work together. I enjoy configuring a security device and watching it spin up exactly as planned. I get bored when I don't have something challenging to work on. I like to do all these things, all at once, and I think that ability is what makes me good at my job.

This article is written by a real security manager, "C.J. Kelly," whose name and employer have been disguised for obvious reasons. Contact her at mscjkelly@yahoo.com.

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