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Non-technical Management

I've been meaning to raise this for a while and the recent discussions on technical CEOs has jogged my memory.

Essentially I'd interested to know peoples' views on non-technical project management - and I'm specifically talking about me!

I have a degree in Computer Science but I have no real commercial programming experience. Straight from university I started my own company with two more technically gifted partners. Basically, I managed the business and the projects and they worked their butts off delivering great stuff.

It was during this time, as I energetically chased more knowledge in the management field, that I came to the conclusion there was a far bigger shortage of great managers in this world than great programmers.

So when we sold, as planned, after two years (it's a long story) I decided that rather than fall back on my degree and do the usual x years programming before making the move upstairs I would focus all my energy and efforts on becoming a great project manager.

Why do this? Well, I figured that the skills required in becoming a great programmer are very different to those that are needed to be a great manager. More importantly, I'm not passionate about programming and I'm madly passionate about management.

What do people think about this?

* Have I made a mistake, got it wrong and because I've never had the experience of programming I'll never make a great PM??

* Have I hit the nail on the head, understood that management is a whole field on it's own and requires just as much effort as programming (or any field) to become a true 'master'.

* Would you mind being managed by someone who's taken this route? Or would you find it hard to respect somebody that hasn't earned their stripes?

I'm really interested to hear what people have to say on this.

Yanwoo
Monday, August 04, 2003

The problem non-technical managers have being non-tech managers is the huge amount of trust you have to put in your people. It can be done, and done well, but you have to be learning as fast as you can, and you have to be willing to trust the people who work for you (while not letting them take you for a ride)

Tricky stuff, but I did it for six years in the Navy.

Philo

Philo
Monday, August 04, 2003

If you have a CS degree, than you are somewhere near 100 miles ahead of the typical non-technical manager.

Non-technical manager typically means someone who is technically illiterate. The fact that they can't program isn't the issue, it is the fact that they can't understand what the programmers are doing.

By having a CS degree, I assume you can at least follow what the programmers are saying without looking like road-kill after a rain storm.

Marc
Monday, August 04, 2003

The short answer is...It depends...

How old are you, Yanwoo? If you dont mind me asking...

HP
Monday, August 04, 2003

You realize, of course, that project management is the next big "IT"? Every technical school is re-gearing for project management, and project management courses and certificates are appearing on the market by the dozens. You say that great programmers are easy to find, yet great project managers aren't? Maybe 5 years ago. Nowadays most organizations get by with mediocre programmers/"technicians", yet they have loads of qualified, highly certified and capable project managers.

Anonymizer.
Monday, August 04, 2003


HP - I'm 25. 

Just for a bit more info I've been working as a Project Manager (on both technical and business projects) in a large Investment Bank for the last 18 months.

>>Nowadays most organizations get by with mediocre programmers/"technicians", yet they have loads of qualified, highly certified and capable project managers.

I disagree and I think a lot of other people on this board will to. I'll agree that qualifications may have become more fashionable and there is a more concerted focus on PM - but the bottom line is management is still generally very poor; too many people are disillusioned by work and too many projects fail.

Also, I don't think great programmers are easy to come by -  just easier than great managers. Considering the impact a poor manager can have on great programmers, for me, it's something which has to be addressed with haste.

Yanwoo
Monday, August 04, 2003

>> you have to be willing to trust the people who work for you

Good point. I've been lucky enough to always have a programmer on the team who I've trusted implicitly with technical decisions and has often informally taken a technical lead role on the project.

My natural management style is very hands-off anyway, I've always managed projects where the people on the team have been far more knowledgable and skilled than me in the domain. This generally works well, each member of the team focuses on what they do best - and for me that's the co-orindation of the overall project.

Taking this approach leads me to the conclusion that I have no problem with anybody in the team earning much more than me - we're all specialists at the end of the day. If somebody in the team has 20 yrs programming experience and I have 4 years management experience then it's only right that the (quality) experience is rewarded more - that's how it should be.

Yanwoo
Monday, August 04, 2003

Hmmm....

I respect managers with an engineering education.  It's a rare one that has engineering savy and management skills enough to be a high-up in a software company, but it happens sometimes.

What an engineering education gets a manager is that you probably understand the iceberg problem.  You may not actively code, but you probably understand the difference between "Programming" a webpage in FrontPage Express and building a database driven site.  You know that some things can't be fixed in an hour or less.

Flamebait Sr.
Monday, August 04, 2003

Yanwoo,

This sounds like a great route to take. I have no problem developing further technical competence. I can learn how to program in a new language very quickly, or use a new technology.

I'm not nearly so good at management. The skills that make a good manager are harder to learn, as well.  If you have the ability to manage projects well, open up a spot for somebody who likes to program and take the job that most programmers don't want.

Clay Dowling
Monday, August 04, 2003

Yanwoo,
Your going to have to hire really good people, and I think thats going to be the hardest thing for you.  I know many technical managers who have a hard time weeding out the good candidates from the bad ones that interview well.  If you have a good technical lead, I think you'll do fine.  In fact, it probably works out better that way, I'm sure you understand development, but where most non-techinical managers run int to trouble is when they attempt to micromanage their developers. 

vince
Monday, August 04, 2003

Yanwoo wrote, "What do people think about this?"

For the most part, our opinion doesn't count for much.  Imo, you should be talking with other IT project managers and perhaps posting this question on a Human Resources type of BBS as well.

Anyway, to answer your question, I would say that you are in better position than many non-technical project managers I have worked with.  You have a Computer Science degree plus a couple of years of real world work experience under your belt. 

Yanwoo wrote, "Have I made a mistake, got it wrong and because I've never had the experience of programming I'll never make a great PM??"

Who told you that you needed to be a programmer to be a good IT project manager?  Note: Some companies (especially small ones) do require their PMs to write code.

Yanwoo wrote, "Have I hit the nail on the head, understood that management is a whole field on it's own and requires just as much effort as programming (or any field) to become a true 'master'."

Yes, you have.

The biggest problem with being a PM is finding a suitable job and keeping it.  Keep in mind that your mental picture of what a PM does on a day-to-day basis may not jive with the mental picture some potential employers have.

Yanwoo wrote, "Would you mind being managed by someone who's taken this route? Or would you find it hard to respect somebody that hasn't earned their stripes?"

Respect is something you have to earn.  Credentials alone rarely impress me.

One Programmer's Opinion
Monday, August 04, 2003

The best managers are hands off - which essentially means they are glorified project secretaries. I don't really see how anyone can be enthusiastic about that.


Monday, August 04, 2003

In my last job I was treated to the first really competent boss I have ever had.  Until that time I really had no respect for management.

It is reasonable to develop a career in software PM even without a software background.  My boss did not have a programming or engineering background.  He started off in the military, then graduated to a management position at a defence contractor.  His next job, at my former employer, was project management for a circuit design and software outsourcing shop.  Alas, said company almost went tits up and we were both casualties.

To make this work, however, you must continually and actively demonstrate the value of PM, both to your subordinates and your clients. Mentor the programmers/engineers on staff.  Once they see value in what you do (and assuming that you are actually any good), then they will respect you. If you don't have the technical knowledge required to make a decision, then ask those who do, try to learn, and respect your team for what they are.

If you are really good, then this will really work.  Go for it!

David Jones
Monday, August 04, 2003

>>The best managers are hands off - which essentially means they are glorified project secretaries. I don't really see how anyone can be enthusiastic about that.

Strange - this is exactly the attitude so many 'business' people have about programming. I think it's hard for you to expect respect you and your role to be expected if you can't do that same to other people and roles you *may* not fully understand.

Yanwoo
Tuesday, August 05, 2003

try again(!):

I think it's hard for you to expect respect for you and your role  if you can't show that to other people and other roles that you *may* not fully understand.

Yanwoo
Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Anyway thanks for the all the feedback, it's confirmed my strongly held beliefs that developing management skills is the way forward!!

Just need to convince all those companies that advertise for technical PMs now . . .

Thanks!

Yanwoo
Tuesday, August 05, 2003

I think the biggest problem is in convincing the recruitment people that whatever your project management experience is that it fits with the project they need managing.

Its another of these, 'well if you've already managed sausage stuffing then you'll be able to do this, but if you've only ever eaten sausages you might not have the experience we need even if you've managed other projects'.

Other than that caveat, I'd rather have an intelligent project manager that understood nothing about writing code and architecture but did understand resource planning, budgeting, human resource issues, board level reporting and the art of elastic deadlines than one that thought they understood how to code and got in the way of the work being done.

Simon Lucy
Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Yawnoo,

Good teams that are basically capable of running themselves are a great match for a hands off approach.
However, there will come times in your carreer where you will have to take a more direct approach. There will also be times where you will have serious doubts about your teams technical lead. It is in times such as those that knowledge of the trenches will be most valuable.

Just me (Sir to you)
Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Yanwoo,

Go ask the two programmers from your first company (or others you've managed previously) to tell you straight up what kind of manager you are.  What you did well and not so well.  That will tell you a lot more about how to manage in your current and future positions than what the people on this board (brilliant as they are) can tell you.

And no, you don't need any more hands on programming experience than you already have (although working on an open source or proprietary project on your own time will give you more geek cred with your underlings, I suppose).

ps The comment on how a programmer with more experience than you have as a manager should earn more money proves you're gonna make a great manager :).

pps Seriously, one of the frequently stated reasons for MS's success is that BillG and management weren't afraid to hire (and work with) people smarter than they are.

Jim Rankin
Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Heh, the hiring smarter people reminds me of a dilbert:

Good managers hire people smarter than they are.
...
Hey, if that's true, then our CEO is the dumbest person in the company! Or we're got bad managers, either way....

dude
Tuesday, August 05, 2003


Thanks guys, appreciate the feedback.  The open source idea is a good one, I'll have to have a think about that.

Yanwoo
Wednesday, August 06, 2003

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