Does a Manager Need to be Technical?

There’s two trains of thought in the business world: that the manager needs to be technical and understand what’s happening on the team, or that the manager doesn’t need to be technical and it’s really just about process and metrics and general management skills.  I can see the validity to both sides, but I think some of the confusion comes from understanding that there’s different types of management that does different things.

There’s project management, which is about understanding the schedule, understanding and finding the resources to help do the work, managing the budget and resources, and doing the reporting upwards to management.  Then there’s program or portfolio management, which is about somebody who manages a set of projects, usually related to one another in a portfolio. This has a totally different mindset and skillset. The higher up you are in the organization, the more strategic your vision and management skills have to become, but it also means that you see less and less of the day-to-day alignment with strategic goals.  Which makes sense if you think about it. A lower level manager, say a scrum master, can see every day exactly what’s going on. Whereas a project manager may only see once a sprint. An area or division manager over a group of projects probably only sees once a month, at a monthly project review and status meeting. And then at the highest level, like a Director or CTO, it might be a year until they see whether not everything is going fine.

These different kinds of management have different requirements as to whether or not they deeply understand the work is going on underneath them. The CTO, for example, has to know strategically what is going on but doesn’t necessarily need to know the ins and outs of coding. They just need to get honest reporting and feedback from their program managers and project managers, to make sure that the projects are moving in the right direction in terms of features and schedule, so that it aligns with the CTO vision. But that lower level technical manager, I think they absolutely must know what is going on at a technical level.

Think of it this way. If you run a chain of auto parts store do you need to know all about auto parts? If you’re getting good honest reporting from all your store managers, then really it’s just about managing real estate, managing supply chains, and managing finances. But if you’re managing a shift of people working at an auto parts store, then you absolutely have to know about all those auto parts. Most of you job is coaching and mentoring the team in working with the auto parts. Plus it’s about being able to transparently and accurately report upwards. If your team isn’t reporting truthfully to you, you have to know the technical details to be able to communicate with them and understand what the real situation is.

But does that mean those senior managers don’t need to know ANYTHING about what goes on, but just read numbers from a spreadsheet and give motivational speeches?  Actually, that’s untrue as well. Here’s the reason why: let’s say you’re a senior VP of an engineering product division with direct profit-and-loss responsibility.  Here’s your quarterly financials. Your margin is 12%. So tell me, Mr. Manager-who-doesn’t-know-anything-about-the-business. Is that good?

There are certainly specific roles where a manager does need to have significant technical understanding, but even in the roles that don’t require deep technical knowledge there is still a strong need to understand the industry and the work being done.

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