How to Cross the Technical-Managerial Divide

Top 10 Reasons Why I Want to Be a Manager:

Drum roll please…

  1. I can do a better job than that loser before me
  1. I’ll have more power over people
  1. I have the longest tenure in my group
  1. I’ll get more stock and a bigger pay day when my company exits
  1. I need a raise to help pay my over inflated (Silicon Valley) mortgage
  1. R-E-S-P-E-C-T!
  1. More visibility
  1. I want to make the tough calls
  1. I deserve it based on my excellent Performance Review track record
  1. I’m the most technical/ knowledgeable

Which one resonates most with you? Feeling pretty good about it? Well, there’s one most important reason that is missing from that list…

“What’s the Most Important Job of a Manager?”

In 1993, I was recruited by a competitor which is what brought me to the Mecca of high tech innovation, Silicon Valley! But after only a year, I knew our startup wasn’t going to make it.  I was lucky enough to interview for a 1st level manager position at Oracle. I made it through the first round with the hiring (senior) manager. And after subsequent rounds with his boss (Director) and his bosses’ boss (VP) you’d think they’d be able to make the “go/ no go” decision. Well, I was both surprised and frustrated that I had to come back yet a 4th time to meet with the EVP, Randy Baker!

When I met with Randy (I’ll never forget that moment I walked into his office), he only asked me one question “What’s the most important job of a manager?” Without any hesitation, I said emphatically “Fight for my people!” So what do you think his reaction was?

Why Technical Experts Have a Harder Time Crossing the Divide…

Here’s a common path for many Silicon Valley professionals.

  1. Straight As in high school and ace the SAT/ ACT
  2. Get into a top University and get more straight As on the way to your Bachelor’s degree
  3. Get a Master’s degree, sure maybe even a PhD.
  4. Now, time to work and make some money to pay off your college debt!

Whether you choose the engineering, finance, marketing or general business path, you’ve likely spent many years collecting knowledge and technical skills. It’s reasonable that applying all that academic training results in early success – congratulations, you’ve made the transition successfully from academia into the “real world!” After earning top ratings in performance reviews and even a promotion or two, you may be at a crossroads – deciding whether or not you should make the jump over to the management track.

Here’s the problem: what “management training” have you had in any of your college courses, undergraduate or graduate? Do you understand how to motivate people? Are you comfortable relinquishing your technical skills and allowing your staff to be even “more technical” than you are? This is a major paradigm shift.

After running the interview gauntlet, I joined Oracle as a first-time manager. I learned that the previous regime in Worldwide Support had promoted many of the best technical people into management positions. One reason was because there was no clear career path for them so they believed that becoming a manager was more prestigious and that managers got more pay. Well, it turned out that because they became a manager for the wrong reasons, they were really bad at it. They had poor people and leadership skills. Subsequently, by mismanaging their staff, they created an attrition problem. Eventually, they too got frustrated with being a manager and left! The result was a very serious “brain drain” problem on top of a terrible leadership sub-culture. Naturally, this led to degradation in customer service which had a very tangible and negative impact on the business.

THAT is why Randy Baker needed to interview every single manager candidate. He wanted to make sure that before anyone got an offer, they clearly understood that managers are responsible to “fight for their people,” e.g. protecting and grooming their staff. In other words, solid businesses are built upon strong leaders. The problem with the Top 10 List above is that it’s all “me-focused” and makes no mention of the rank and file. Great managers naturally think about the well-being of their staff BEFORE themselves. Technical experts have difficulty with this mindset shift because their analytical brain fools them into thinking they are the most “qualified” to be a manager. Randy didn’t ask me any questions about how to install Oracle software or recover from a corrupted database. You see, having all the right answers and telling people what to do – promoting them when they do a great job and then firing them when they don’t – is not what management is all about.

This excerpt from the NY Times’ interview with Laszlo Bock, Google’s VP of People Ops (aka HR) sums this up perfectly:

For much of its 13-year history, particularly the early years, Google has taken a pretty simple approach to management: Leave people alone. Let the engineers do their stuff. If they become stuck, they’ll ask their bosses, whose deep technical expertise propelled them into management in the first place.

But Mr. Bock’s group found that technical expertise — the ability, say, to write computercode in your sleep — ranked dead last among Google’s big eight [aka “8-Point Plan to Help Managers Improve”]. What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.

“In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you,” Mr. Bock says. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”

Learn from “Bad” Managers

You don’t need a degree or even a certificate to become a good manager – those have very little to do with it. Although I’d never been a manager before I joined Oracle, I had a lot of experience learning from “bad” managers. For example, my first manager (we’ll call him Rich) would take off for days at a time but wouldn’t tell everyone on the team. When I’d come into the office, I’d ask “Where’s Rich?” And one colleague would respond “He’s on vacation.” I’d say to myself “Boy, that’s pretty rude to take off on vacation and not tell your staff.” Then I’d asked “So why does that bother me?” Well, because managers should communicate and keep their staff informed about all things from company happenings and of course disappearing acts too. So I made a mental note that when I become a manager, I won’t be like Rich! Instead I would be an open communicator, make sure I have regular team meetings and 1-1s to ensure that I’m doing my best to pass on what I know so everyone on my team feels connected.

How many “Riches” have you had in your career? There’s a case to be made that you can shape your management and leadership style by developing strong opinions about the do’s and don’ts.

Get in the 5-Step Manager Self-Help Program

  1. Choose one “Rich” learning and apply that with your directs today!
  2. Pay it forward and share that with another colleague (and in the comments box below).
  3. Take courage and ask your directs how you can improve as a manager (zip your mouth and refrain from getting defensive).
  4. Think higher up the management chain and make a list of things executives do that inspire/ demoralize you.
  5. Repeat #1 above.

What have you done to successfully cross the technical-managerial divide? Please share your experience. If you found this interesting, please use the click “like” and “share” so your network can see this blog post too.

Written by

The ExecCatalyst blog covers topics related to leadership, career advancement, hiring, finding the right job, company cultures and office politics, and general management. The authors have extensive experience in high-tech in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and have gained experience at small, fast-moving startups as well as large, global technology firms.

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