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Program Management

5 traps that technical managers can fall into

Nothing in life is always a bed of roses and even seasoned technical managers make basic mistakes that impact their teams’ performance. In my previous articles (If you‚Äôre a manager, invest more time in your tech skills and For Managers: How to develop your tech skills) I covered the importance of that set of skills and how managers can develop them to help on their day-to-day work. Let’s now talk about the common pitfalls that I’ve seen experienced managers face mostly because they have (or believe they have) a solid technical background. I have to be honest and confess that I’ve caught myself making these mistakes on several occasions.

#1: Fire-fighter mode is ON

Quite often team members reach out to managers to discuss a problem, but they are not actually looking for a solution. All they want is to vent, bring awareness or have a fresh pair of eyes looking into it.

However, it’s tempting for managers – whose common traits include assertiveness and decisiveness – to think they are expected to provide solutions. If the problem is related to an area where the manager has worked in the past, it’s almost certain that a ‘suggestion’ will come up, either due to an unconscious need to show that he/she is still sharp or due to a genuine willingness to help.

The problem with this fire-fighter approach of jumping in and trying to fix the problem is that it can easily kill team ownership and empowerment if not applied in small doses. Coaching techniques [1] could be helpful to suppress that impulse to always address the problem.

#2: Directions instead of suggestions

As a manager, you need to recognize that no matter how flat, small or open your organization/team is, you’ll have power over your subordinates and they will not see you as a peer. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a fruitful and open relationship with your team members.

Once you provide technical suggestions – even in areas where you are the most experienced in the room – the team will receive them differently if they were hearing them from a peer. Some teams may be more vocal and push back if they disagree with the proposals. Other ones may feel compelled to accept them since they came from their manager.

In those cases, the best way to avoid problems is to assess and build a safe environment where people can share their thoughts. Do a quick test: measure the team participation in Sprint Retros with and without their managers in the room. If the team doesn’t feel comfortable to share certain problems because the manager is present, that’s usually a sign that there is some work to be done to make that environment more psychologically safe.

#3: Tech skills to be able to speak up

Managers can leverage their technical skills to better understand what the team is trying to communicate. Active listening [2][3] is one of the major virtues of an outstanding leader and should be practiced during technical sessions too. However, one may think that the main benefit of having those skills is to able to speak up and contribute to solutions.

As a manager, you should try to hold your natural instinct of speaking more than listening and allow the team to brainstorm before you interject them with your thoughts.

#4: Misinterpreting the level of engagement

If a manager is lucky, he/she will spend 4hs/week developing their technical capabilities. During the same period, a developer will spend at least 10x more time (40+ hours). How can a manager keep up with the technical changes in a project? He/she just can’t and, for everybody’s sanity, that’s intentional and expected.

Therefore, a manager needs to be mindful that his/her solution knowledge is at the same time outdated and at a high level. That should dictate how much technical engagement he/she could have and how his/her comments should be positioned to the team.

#5: Tech skills take precedence to interpersonal skills

Nobody will hire a manager because he/she is an outstanding Java developer or an experienced Senior Architect. One is promoted to a management position due to his/her abilities (or potential) to lead other people to get work done through them.

Technical skills can be your competitive advantage, but you should never lose sight that your job requires developing mainly other areas such as leadership, coaching, people development, and project management. Avoid spending too much time developing technical expertise, even if that seems to be more enjoyable.

Categories
Program Management

For Managers: How to develop your tech skills

In a previous post, I’ve covered the importance of investing time to keep your tech skills up-to-date. In this post, I’d like to share a few ways to achieve that. I’ve tried a few of them in the past and they’ve worked for me. A few other ones seem interesting and worthwhile to give them a chance. I’ve taken into account the time constraints for managers when curating the following list.

Hackathons

More and more companies have been using hackathons as tools to drive innovation, build teamwork, and improve internal processes. Even though the target audience is usually the Software development team, managers should leverage those opportunities to get their hands dirty and brush up those coding skills. Since those events usually last only a few days, managers have a better chance to be able to put aside some of their day-to-day tasks to focus on those hackathons.

Lunch & Learn

Knowledge sharing is continuously happening among the team members, but managers quite often are not involved in those discussions. Lunch & Learn sessions are effective methods to share knowledge across different functional areas. If you’re a manager and that’s not a common practice in your company, that’s an opportunity for you to develop your team and, as a side-effect, to get to know what the team has been working on from a technical perspective.

Meetups

Meetup.com provides an amazing and free platform to know what’s going on in your area. Since I moved to the US in 2014, I’ve been a big fan of Meetups, but I have been participating only in project management or Agile groups. Recently I’ve given a chance to DevOps meetups and they turned out to be quite handy. In addition, those Meetups can be a useful channel to share open positions, if you’re hiring people.

Local Conferences

As a manager, you may be challenged to justify why you should attend a development/DevOps/… conference that can easily costs $2-3k when including registration, flights, and hotel. In addition, if you need to travel, the amount of out-of-office time can impact your other management tasks.

As an alternative, if you find a local conference that costs only a few hundred dollars, you have a better chance to convince your organization that a couple of days per year are worthwhile and will not impact much your other duties.

Online courses

E-learning platforms like Coursera or Udemy are the go-to options for many people since they can pace their courses as they prefer. However, online course incompletion rates can be as high as 85+%. I’d recommend not to enroll in more than one course at a time to improve your chance to actually complete them.

Certifications

My opinion about certifications may seem a bit contradictory. Even though I have several certifications, I really don’t care about the actual certifications. The most important outcome of any certification is learning during the process. A certification is just a clear finish line that helps me to get organized and commit to studying. Even better if the certification exam voucher has an expiration date. ūüôā

If you take major cloud providers as examples, they provide entry-level certifications (foundational or associate) that cover enough technical fundaments for a manager. Google Cloud Associate certifications are recommended for people with 6+ months of experience, while AWS certifications have foundational (~6 months of experience) and associate (~1 year of experience) paths.

Personal projects

Another approach that requires more discipline but that’s very effective is to define a personal project and implement it. It could be as simple as a to-do mobile app for you and your spouse to share chores. Addressing a personal problem can be the extra motivation you need to get that going.

As a piece of advice based on previous failed attempts to do this, keep that as simple as possible and work on incremental releases. If you can’t complete that within a week, reduce the scope until it fits in that timespan.

Contribute to existing projects

You can easily find an open-source project that’s interesting, but the most interesting ones are also likely to require a massive ramp-up time even for small contributions (bug fixes, test automation, …). If that’s a path you want to take, shoot for tiny GitHub projects (less than 2k lines of code), look at their backlogs of known issues, fork it and try to get a few bugs fixed. Here’s another neat idea to get started.

Another way is to find new projects looking for collaborators. A convenient platform for that purpose is FindCollabs. You could even bring that platform to your company as the official way to engage people interested in working on side projects.

Final tips

With such a breadth of options to develop your tech skills, the most important thing to keep in mind is that you need to be laser-focused on what you want and avoid biting off more than you can chew. Enjoy your journey and, most importantly, have fun while learning.

Categories
Program Management

If you’re a manager, invest more time in your tech skills

It’s quite common to find people who used to have technical positions¬†earlier in their careers and then moved to management positions. There is nothing wrong with that career path but in some cases, those professionals forget to keep up with the technology¬†evolution and end up¬†missing great opportunities in their careers.

Consider, for instance, a Java developer who started her career 10 years ago. After¬†4 years she was promoted to manager and hasn’t been involved with Java coding for the last 6 years. You can (safely) assume her Java skills are so outdated that she’s not able to do a code review or design a microservice with Sprint Boot anymore.¬†Fair enough, but¬†when will a manager have to do that?

In a fast-paced industry with new frameworks popping up pretty much every month,¬†the amount of¬†content been produced is¬†at the same time astonishing and impossible to keep up. So, if¬†a manager can’t keep up with the speed technologies evolve, why¬†should she even¬†bother to try? Shouldn’t she just rely on¬†her technical colleagues?

Inefficient communication is one of the main causes of project failures

Credibility is key and a solid background can enable that

Communication issues are usually among the top 5 reasons for project failure or challenging execution. Different elements contribute to inefficient communication, but establishing a common language is crucial for both the sender and the receiver to be on the same page about the topic being discussed.

A manager with technical skills can leverage the appropriate terms when talking to her development team to reduce miscommunication issues. Moreover, people usually get more engaged and receptive when they recognize the other ones have a similar level of understanding about the topic. Have you seen developers rolling their eyes when somebody tries to show off his technical skills and end up stumbling over?

Besides, having technical knowledge helps managers when elicitating requirements, troubleshooting issues, handling critical incidents, bridging the communication between developers and executives, and managing project dependencies. Finally, credibility is key and a solid background can enable that.

Projects are getting more and more complex and specialized

Try to think about Software Development projects you were involved about 10-15 years ago. If you were not a kid at that time, you might have remembered¬†some sort of distributed application consuming a data source (most likely a relational database) and providing¬†results to the user in a somewhat simplistic interface. Now let’s get back to today’s reality.

When you look at the current scenario, it’s hard not to think about integrated solutions that demand data analysis/processing, artificial intelligence, consume different services, and provide multiple different UIs. Basic client-server DB applications have become commodities and no company can endure unless they embrace very specialized and deep knowledge from areas like machine learning, augmented/virtual reality, data processing, continuous delivery, and statistical analysis.

As a manager you’d be required to know at least at a high level:

  • What those technologies are used for;
  • How they can be incorporated in the business to generate more revenue;
  • How to get started with them;
  • Which alternative approaches¬†exist and their pros/cons.

To get at that level you could 1) read the basics about the technologies, 2) join and actively listen to design sessions, and 3) have fun coding in your ‘spare’ time.

Influential people know their sources

Power is the ability to influence others and it can be identified in 5 forms:

  • Formal:¬†when you’re empowered to¬†take decisions;
  • Reward: when people realize that you’re responsible for rewarding them by¬†deciding¬†salaries, promotions, bonuses, and so on;
  • Penalty: when people perceive you can penalize them if they don’t follow your directions;
  • Expert: when people perceive you possess¬†important functional knowledge;
  • Referent: when people enjoy working with you or in the project you manage.

Formal and Reward types have to be granted and do not depend solely on the manager. Penalty may be effective, but it usually activates the sympathetic system which brings more stress to the relationship. Referent demands time and development of soft-skills which are quite hard to change. Expert power can be your best ally to enhance your ability to influence and lead your team.

Major tech companies look for Technical Managers

Understanding the market demand and how high-performing companies (like FAANG) structure themselves can give you¬†a few¬†hints about the kind of professionals that companies are looking for. If you follow these companies’ news or know people who work for them, you know that they have different flavors of technical management positions:

/Technical(.*|\s) Manager/g.

  • Technical Program Manager
  • Technical Engineering Manager
  • Technical Project Manager

That model is already being used as a reference by other companies. So, career-wise, deepening your tech expertise can help better positioning yourself for high-demanding positions.

Wrapping up

Putting the¬†hours¬†to¬†learn technologies, even when you won’t immediately apply them, will pay off in the short to medium-term. Your team¬†is more likely¬†to value your opinion and feel like you’re one of them. Tech skills can be your competitive advantage if you enjoy getting your hands dirty, but as Uncle Ben says ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ ūüėČ . There are a few pitfalls that you¬†need to avoid not to¬†backfire your plan, but that’s a subject for another post.