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Following on from this question, I'm interested how people effectively transition from being purely technical to taking on more management duties.

This has been covered in great books such as Limoncelli & Hogan, so I'm interested in what the SF community has to say.

I have personally been given more management responsibility in my current job, but without the resources to be able to build a team beneath me, so I've been both a technical implementer and a manager, which I've found impossible.


I've found some great stuff around the net on this topic, the main one I'll mention is Michael Lopp - this guy is a genius.

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I went down a similar path for a while and I share your view for the most part. I got pressured into taking on a management role but abandoned it eventually because I was (in my view) nowhere near as good at being a manager than I was at being technical.

In hindsight though some of the best work that I ever did (from the company's perspective) was when I was a manager. The key thing was that despite all of the annoyances, mind numbingly boring procedural housekeeping, ego massaging, babysitting, confrontation and all out wars that were a necessary part of managing a group of high-output-but-socially-challenged engineers the end result was that the group did produce some really fantastic output. Everyone benefited, even me, although it didn't feel like it at the time. Things got done that I know would never have been successful had we had a better manager who did not have my technical expertise and that I know none of us could have done on our own. The point is that as a manager you can leverage the capabilities of multiple people and achieve things that are simply not possible as an individual. It's not just simply that some projects need lots of people in order to be completed - it's that some projects don't even get considered unless you have someone with a particular type of ambition in the driving seat. In some organisations there are technical lead roles that give you some of that resource-multiplying ability without the headaches but having done that too I now think that you can only really add the magic pixie-dust that turns a bunch of ego's into a killer team if you are fully responsible for both the team and its people.

The problem for me was that it was not enough to overcome the day to day managerial drudgery and I abandoned the management track after about three years. I'd found it exhausting because I never abandoned my technical interests so I was putting in insane hours and there are parts of being a manager that are never easy - firing good people because of cuts, handling discipline issues, pushing people to make hard personal choices are the sort of things that make you think hard about whether you are cut out for being a manager or not.

On the other side there is a limit to how far you can go as a purely technical IT specialist in most organisations. If that matters to you it is easier (or at least possible) to be more successful (in the sense of getting paid more) by going down the management track if you are good at it. In my case I'm personally much happier right now at being recognized as a technical expert and believing that I can be really good at it rather than as an OK manager who might or might not be good at it.

As to some of your other points - I've found that in any large organisation once you become senior enough you will be dealing at some level with company politics, bureaucracy, budgets, planning, interviews and reviews even if you are a strictly defined technical specialist. There are some things you can't avoid completely.

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+1 - it's scary how much of that resonates with my own career and experiences. In the end I left being a manager for someone else's company and started my own - which I have found to be a better mix of management and technical skills, mostly because I have less day-to-day people management to deal with (and that was the area I found hardest to do). Managing programmers is most definitely like herding cats. But looking back, we got stuff done that wouldn't have got done with a 'regular' manager and difficult though it was, most of the people involved at the time would agree with that now. – robsoft Jul 26 '09 at 11:50
+1. Really interesting perspective. Especially the bit about being able to achieve more through a team. Typically as a techie I could be guilty of only thinking in terms of doing things myself :) – Cawflands Jul 26 '09 at 12:07

Frankly, I find it tedious in the extreme to administer the lives of my colleagues - reviews, holidays, monitoring them and disciplining them if necessary, handling budgets, dealing with upper management and company politics

I agree, that sounds very tedious. But I think that's part of the difference between being a manager and a leader. Just because your title says "Manager," doesn't mean you can't be a leader instead.

What this means to me is that instead of focusing on internal and HR issues, you drive the focus toward an external goal or goals.

For example, instead of "managing" the status quo, spend some time to understand the larger business issues facing your company. What type of market are you in? Who are your customers and what do they want? What goals has the executive team laid out? What is the bigger plan? If you are in a very large organization, think about your customers as internal customers such as other divisions.

Once you've identified the issues and larger organizational goals, think about what opportunities you and your team has to make a real impact. What can you do that could directly affect the organization?

Before you go further, you need to do some people cleanup. You will be infinitely frustrated if these people are not smarter than you (in one way or another) or if there are real duds. You also won't be able to do anything useful if the people are just interested in the "day-to-day" (other higher priorities).

You probably already know who the duds are, but for the rest, talk to them individually and float the idea of doing something interesting by them and see if they bite or if they couldn't care less, and just want to clock out at 5. It's not that these "uninterested" people are bad people, they just have other higher priorities and belong on teams that aren't doing anything, with managers that like tedium.

When you bring on replacements, hire people that are smarter than you (again, it could be a different kind of smarts), and don't settle (just pass altogether on a round of applicants instead of hiring a 80% candidate).

Once you have your solid team, bring everyone together to talk about the issues you identified earlier.

Come up with a few goals for your team that will help affect the impact you guys want to have, and let team members self-assign themselves pieces of the responsibility toward achieving those goals.

Then, manage your team based on achieving those goals rather than worrying about "administering their lives". When people don't have anything external and interesting to focus on, they become self absorbed and difficult to manage.

When you actually achieve the goals, you'll find that not only are you happy, the people you manage are happy, and you've actually contributed something that adds value.

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Great advice Adam, thanks. Plenty of food for thought there. – Cawflands Jul 27 '09 at 23:05
+1 leadership > management – Warner Mar 31 '10 at 18:54
+1 for external goals instead of managing peoples' lives – Zlatko Aug 6 '12 at 12:11

A good introductory book is The IT Manager's survival guide written by an aussie, it's probably more relevant then US books. It does read like a text book, but gives you introduction to the soft skills you'll need.

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This is an interesting one. I'm in the transition between the two (have been for quite some time too) and I have a theory that the skills that make you a good techie can tend to be factors that make you a bad manager.

For me the single biggest thing is letting go of the direct hands on involvement. You have to trust that your staff will do the job right, and you have to let them be the ones to do it, even if you know that you can do it quickly and easily yourself. You also really need to realise that if the way someone does something isn't necessarily the same as the way you would, that doesn't make it wrong by default.

The best thing you can do as a manager of techies is to get out of their faces and let them get on with the job. You also need to work to remove obstacles so that they're able to do this. A brief 5 minute check-in with them at the end of the day can be enough sometimes.

Personally I've found it very rewarding when a team I've organized has done a good job, and that handing out praise to good team members is a great feeling. When they haven't I've found it more long-term productive to focus on motivating them to do better next time rather than just bawling them out (which can just lead to wasted energy and resentment).

For the OP, I think being put in a position where you're expected to do both is really a no-win, and a sure sign of something or someone being dysfunctional further up the food chain.

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You're dead-on here. I find it near impossible to not blurt out the solution to something, or a potential pitfall if I see it. A wise man once said something along the lines of, a great manager tries to coax the right approach out of people while allowing them to think it was their idea. Geeks tend to be the kind of people who like to put their hands up first in class :) – Cawflands Jul 26 '09 at 13:09
Joel on Software has a LOT to say about this. He's talking about programmers who have been promoted to managers, but the concepts are the same. – Mark Henderson Jul 26 '09 at 22:49

Helvik's answer mirrors my experiences as well. I think I'm a pretty good manager although I also found it so mind numbingly tedious that I'd rather take the paycut than do it again. I think anyone that wants to, can be a good manager; but it takes a certain aptitude to have true technical expertise, and a different and sometimes contradictory set of skills to be a good manager. Aptitude, like talent, is something you have. Skills you can learn. Rarely have I seen someone with technical aptitude become a great manager simply because they have no drive to learn those skills. Worse yet technical folks that become managers for too long suddenly realize that they are trapped in the manager world since all the technical knowledge they have is no longer relevent. This is what somethies makes them the worst managers because the built in drive to be technically savvy sometimes causes them to jump in and make horrible decisions.

The biggest thing I'd say to remember is that if you decide to go the manager route- it's possible you won't be going back to the technical life, so think before you jump.

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