How does one become a manager in an IT field such as information security? And what makes a manager of a technical team good? The common career path followed by IT professional rarely provides the types of skills and knowledge that would turn them into good managers.
Career Path Towards Management
A common career path for information technologists seems to be:
- Earn a IT-oriented degree or gain relevant beginner knowledge on your own.
- Get an entry-level job in IT to begin practicing the profession.
- Through practice, obtain expertise in one or more aspects of IT.
- Become a manager of people who are still in phase #2 or #3.
- Manage more people.
The jump from phase #3 (practice IT) into management isn’t obligatory, of course. A valid alternative is to stay at phase #3 till retirement. The most difficult option is to move from #3 to the point where you become a true expert in one or more domains, deciding to grow your career as a technologist and foregoing the management track.
In this note, I’d like to focus on the individuals who decide to follow the career path towards management.
Must the Manager Be an IT Guru?
According to the career path outlined above, when the person becomes a manager, he or she has attained some technological expertise. In fact, the reason for the person’s promotion to management might be the mastery of a technical domain of knowledge relevant to the company. Unfortunately, such skills have no relation to the individual’s ability to lead the team that he or she now has to manage.
An article in the New York Times described the research that Google conducted in its “quest to build a better boss.” Google has historically expected its managers to better technical skills than the people on their team. It turns out, this trait didn’t actually help them be good managers. According to the study,
“What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.”
This seems obvious: Being a good manager means paying attention to the people on your team and providing guidance that allows them to arrive at the right conclusions and progress in their careers. These characteristics seem relatively uncommon among managers because many of them followed a technology-centric career path that didn’t teach them how to actually manage people.
Organizations won’t have good managers if they assume that their senior employees will obtain management skills organically through IT-focused experience. As outlined in the New York Times article, companies should put less effort into extolling managers to be great, and more energy into teaching them how to become good managers. Would-be managers, too, need to take the initiative to learn the necessary skills, perhaps through mentors, books and training.