Tips for Managing Technical People – Don’t Get Caught Up In The Detail


26 June 2014, by


The following is an excerpt from my new book, “Galvanizing the Geeks – Tips for Managing Technical People”. You can buy the full book on my website, here.

If you want a job done properly… teach someone else to do it

I was not the best software developer. This is my key strength as a manager. I’m not being falsely modest here, but part of the reason that I can admit to it so freely (now) is that I’ve learnt that two key management skills have been much easier for me as a result of this deficiency: first, having sympathy and understanding for other developers who are under-performing, and, second, not getting caught up in the detail.

If you, unlike me, were a top techie (and it’s not unlikely because in most organisations this is how promotion works), the biggest pitfall that you’re going to encounter is feeling the need to do it all yourself. This is where I have the advantage. I don’t have that luxury.

One reason why you will be tempted down this track is that you can do the job better than anyone else. You probably have years of experience at doing the job in question. It may well be quicker for you to do the job than to train someone else to do it – or, rather, it may be quicker the first time. If a job needs to be done time and time again (and most do) it will soon be cost-effective for you to have trained someone else.

Don’t forget that, if you can train general learning skills (how to use Google is a good start), techniques learnt on one task can be cross-applicable to others, even if a particular task originally seemed like a one-off. When delegating, you need to remember that delegation is almost always from someone who has a greater ability to someone who has a lesser ability. This is a fact about the world with which you need to come to terms. Sure enough, once your managee has reached the same skill level as you, they will be promoted to manage another team.

Sweat the big stuff

The reason that it is important for you to avoid the detail is that you don’t have time to look at everything. You are employed to manage. It may well be that you would rather work as a developer, getting on with coding in the exciting technology of the day rather than filing reports, dealing with clients and other managers and rolling out initiatives across teams. If you want to be a developer (and are prepared to take the pay cut), then do it! If not, get on with being a manager. That’s what you’re paid for.

A problem that interweaves with that of delegation is prioritisation of longer-term issues. In general the details that will grab your attention and suck you in are the ones that need to be dealt with urgently: an issue is holding up a deadline; the server is down; the build server needs to be fixed so that code can be checked in. But by getting distracted by short-term issues, you may miss the longer-term ones. Do you have a good recruitment plan? Are you retaining your staff? Are there any problems with short-term resource shortfall a few months away that you need to think about now? If you let yourself get behind by spending too much time dealing with details, you’ll find it harder to make longer-term plans and may end up rushing from crisis to crisis.

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