I was initially going to call this article “Why do Great Engineers Often Become Poor Managers” but I decided this was an unfairly negative title for a complex issue with many variables. All industries have their good and bad managers, is IT any different?
Management or Career Stagnation?
Throughout my career I’ve had lots of managers, most of them coming from technical backgrounds. In the majority of the IT industry there’s an unfortunate glass ceiling placed on engineers that, no matter how great the engineer is, there comes a point where the only way to progress your career seems to be to move into management. As a result great engineers make the move into management with often less than stellar results.
Oft times great engineers are promoted to manager simply because the organisation wants to reward and keep their best staff happy. The Peter Principle (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Principle) outlines this very problem which can be summarised thus: “Anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails” or my favourite “managers rise to the level of their incompetence”. What the organisation often fails to consider is that the skills for being a great engineer are quite different to the skills for being a great manager.
IT is a Science. Is Management an Art?
Engineers, by nature, tend to like to work on a problem alone and are compelled to provide solutions. Managers, however, need to be enablers; allowing others to work out the details whilst ensuring their team has the required resources to work effectively. When a good engineer is ‘placed’ into a management role their natural instinct is to micromanage their subordinates which can be interpreted as a lack of confidence in their teams abilities or a “manager always knows best” culture which is destructive to team morale.
A common trait I’ve noticed in the engineer-manager, who has trained and gained many years of experience to become a great engineer, suddenly views training in management, in the so called soft-skills, as less than rewarding and a poor time investment. IT training courses are seen to teach skills in measurable black and white chunks of useful knowledge that add to a skill base whereas management skills are seen as less measurable, the value of which are difficult to quantify.
The debate about whether management is an art or a science has been ongoing for decades and maybe the solution lies in making management training courses available that are more scientific in approach that appeal to an engineer’s natural sensibilities.
Overload and Rewards
That being said, the other issue the engineer turned manager has to overcome is the transition into a whole new role. There are two ways this process normally goes:
The first is being ‘awarded’ a management title whilst the business expects the engineer to continue with their previous role in addition to management duties. This results in overloading the individual who then fails to perform either their management or engineering roles effectively.
The second is that your average engineer really enjoys the daily problem solving challenges of their technical role. When they switch into a full time management position they may struggle to find the same challenge and rewards in the more long term and subtle scheme of things. Constantly looking backwards to the ‘gold old days’ can then lead to disillusionment and a self defeating attitude.
So I don’t think great engineers become poor managers but those who blindly follow the promotion tree without considering what they enjoy doing or those who fail to understand that management is another skill to be learned probably will.