major.io words of wisdom from a systems engineer

How to survive as a technical manager

Anyone who says management is easy obviously hasn’t done it for very long or they’re not doing their job very well. Coordinating the activities and personal development of each person on the team is always a challenge and it introduces an unbelievable number of variables into an already difficult job. However, watching members of the team grow and succeed in their work is tremendously rewarding.

Taking on the job of a technical manager presents its own unique challenges. It’s easy for a technical manager to lose focus and get down in the weeds of daily work. It’s also very difficult to let go of the reins and resign to the fact that the direct involvement in technical work will have to be reduced.

These problems resonate with me as I’ve recently taken on another technical management role at Rackspace. My previous experience involved managing a team of technicians at various skill levels who were working on customer environments made up of dedicated servers and network equipment. The current position has quite a few differences. I’m now managing a small group of highly technical and extremely dedicated Linux engineers and we’re responsible for maintaining the systems and networks which run the Cloud Servers product.

One of my goals of this blog is to help others learn things much more easily than I have. Here are some things I’ve had to learn the hard way while working as a technical manager:

Get out of the mindset of an individual contributor

When you’re a system administrator on a team (or by yourself), you’re often judged on your personal job performance. Team interaction is important for some companies (especially at Rackspace), but not for others. Breaking the mindset of being an individual contributor was extremely difficult for me to do.

Managers are judged on the success of the team as a whole. Encouraging your team members to succeed and playing an active role in their personal and professional development is key. Each time you find yourself buried in the weeds of a problem rather than facilitating your team’s work on the problem is when your performance as a manager will drop. If you do it more often, you may find that your team members aren’t getting the support they need.

Don’t be afraid of your team becoming smarter than you

One of the biggest things I’ve heard from my team is: “Aren’t you worried about losing your technical skills when you’re a manager?” My answer: “Of course.” Anyone who has technical abilities will always be afraid of watching those abilities wane over time. However, as your team becomes stronger, you should be able to continue learning not through your own work, but through theirs. When your team members see that you’re still interested in learning and you’re now able to learn from them, they’ll become more energized about their own work.

If you find yourself thinking negatively about a potential job candidate because they’re smarter than you, step back and think for a moment. Put your own ego aside and consider what’s best for you, your team, and your company. Your goal is to build a strong and successful team, not to pad your own ego. If your managers are judging you (as a technical manager) on your technical ability, then you need to solve that problem first.

Inspire instead of direct

Every manager faces the challenge of working with team members who disagree with a particular company policy or with the direction of their particular infrastructure. Keep in mind that your team members are probably not intending to be insubordinate and they might have something useful to contribute.

When you find yourself locking horns with your team members, inspire a discussion about the problem. Break out the disagreement onto a whiteboard and let the team make suggestions for improvements. Even if the entire discussion leads back to the fact that the original problem is inevitable, fostering that feedback loop is critical. You’ll learn more about your team while they find ways to express their opinions and feel empowered.

The really tough part is when your team comes up with an alternative plan and you find yourself presenting to your leadership team. Always remember to take it seriously and know that you may need to refine the plan many times over before you find something acceptable for your team and the business.

De-stress by staying on task

If you’re anything like me, you need some way to keep tabs on action items coming from meetings, e-mails, phone calls, and walk-ups. I’ve heard great things about applications like OmniFocus and Things, but I settled on 2Do. I really enjoy a strong to-do list which allows me to set priorities, due dates, and write extended notes about a particular task.

The best way to tackle a wall of tasks is to keep them organized into a concise list. Even if it’s a small task, get it into your list so it’s on your radar and you won’t forget it. Work through the simple tasks and the high priority ones first but watch out for tasks with due dates.

Conclusion

All of these processes get easier over time and although your job will surely have challenges and pitfalls, the enjoyment will greatly increase. I feel privileged to lead a team of talented people who work on a complex and ever-expanding product.

Also, I’d like to mention that I’m not an expert on management! There are probably much better ways to do much of this than I’ve outlined in this post. Be sure to share your ideas in the comments section below.