Backroom HR: How to relate to techies How is managing a team of techies different from managing other kinds of office workers?

Judy McKay: Technical people are motivated by interesting work. They will put up with abominable working conditions if they get to work on something that interests them. I’ve managed people who had to be sent home at night. But technical people without interesting work are very difficult to manage. Their active minds tend to get them into trouble. A happy team is a group that is busy and too intrigued with their project to get mired down with internal politics. In contrast, I find office workers to be more interested in the overall job than the task at hand. Environment, recognition and security are more important to them.
I’ve also found that technical people need to have adequate playtime. Ideas are exchanged and expanded while they play ping-pong or walk around the parking lot. Allowing people the freedom to wander when they need to returns high rewards that far offset the apparent lack of focus. Technical workers work all the time. Their minds are constantly mulling over problems and possible solutions. What looks like slacking off may be the most productive time they spend. Give them the freedom to work.

ITB: Does a manager of techies have to be a techie?

JM: Technical people respect technical people. If you can’t talk the talk, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to gain the respect you need to effectively manage. How can you effectively represent your people in meetings if you don’t understand what they do? This doesn’t mean that you have to know everything they do. In fact, you won’t and you shouldn’t.
I always strive to hire people who are stronger than me in areas where I’m weak so that together we can build the best team possible. When I have to hire someone with expertise I don’t have, I get help with the interview process from other experts. It’s important as a manager to admit what you don’t know. Technical people are quick to spot a fraud. You gain trust by being honest, and your people gain confidence in you when you show you are willing to learn from them. Technical people love to teach — be sure you love to learn.

ITB: We’re always hearing that IT people need to become more like business people. Do you agree?

JM: I guess that would depend on how you define “business people.” At one software company where I worked, the HR department sent out a memo asking everyone to please wear shoes for the next few days because the copier was spewing staples. Our definition of “business casual” didn’t include mandatory shoes. On the other hand, that was one of the finest development/integration/test teams I ever worked with — from the management team through to the night shift computer operators. In appearance, we weren’t very businesslike (hey, we had our shoes in the car!); in productivity, we were.
Some IT jobs require more of a business focus than a technical focus. The most effective IT professionals are able to adapt to the situation at hand; they can behave in a more formal, businesslike fashion when meeting with customers, yet they can still crawl into the ceiling and find the faulty cable when needed. As IT becomes less of a backroom activity, there is more visibility to the IT activities and personnel. As such, shoes probably aren’t optional in most companies. I think there is still significant latitude available for highly technical people not to have the most polished business façade. Should they? Maybe, but not if it negatively affects their primary contribution to the company. If they can’t think with their shoes on, and they’re paid to come up with the next brilliant innovation, then they probably aren’t the best candidates to do the next sales demo.
As managers, it’s our job to be sure people are utilized to the best of their abilities. That doesn’t mean forcing everyone into the same business-proper role. Some people should be kept in the backroom, and they’re happier there!

ITB: How do you decide?

JM: It’s important to know your team. Some people do better in business situations than others. Those are the people you send to the meetings and to the customer sites. Others are most effective when hunkering down over the keyboard and typing like fiends. Let them do it. People do best what they’re comfortable doing. Forcing your most talented technical person to give a PowerPoint presentation may result in an hour of mumbling embarrassment — resulting in an unhappy technical powerhouse and an overall negative impression of your team.
As a manager, it’s your job to be sure your team is always represented in the best possible way. Create business growth opportunities for those who have the desire and ability to expand out into the business arena, but respect those who aren’t interested. As an industry, we’ve finally accepted that not everyone wants to be or should be a manager. We also have to recognize that not everyone wants to be business-facing.

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