Managing the climb

When IT professionals move from a technical role into management it can be a huge culture shock. David Mascord looks at how to...

When IT professionals move from a technical role into management it can be a huge culture shock. David Mascord looks at how to make the move and survive it

Ever tried herding ducks across a field? Managing people and projects is a bit like that: get distracted and they all end up heading in the wrong direction.

IT professionals who want to move up the ladder already have the technical knowledge. What they need is to focus increasingly on people and processes and less on the day-to-day details of the tasks they used to do.

This can be quite a wrench for some new managers, says Chris Payne, head of sales and marketing at the Chartered Institute of Management's centre for management development.
"Where you get an industry that is technically driven anyone who moves into management puts themselves into a whole new world of managing people, tasks and activities."

This view is echoed by Hannah Robson, IT manager at Anaco Systems, a supplier to the construction industry.

"It really is a whole different ball game. It's all very well sitting coding but the hardest part for me was the transition from being responsible for your own work to thinking about other people and looking at work from their point of view.

Robson received no training for her first management roles but is planning to have some formal training over the next few years.

"When I started out as a manager I went to the library and got out loads of books. Now I would like to get a theoretical overview. It's definitely worth getting some training, especially if you're a techie who's used to pulling computers apart.

"It also gives you a chance to think things through. You don't get time to do that at work because you're so busy chasing your tail every day," she says.

Robson's example is not unusual in industry in general. A Chartered Institute of Management survey found that of organisations employing more than 100 people less than half allocate a specific budget to management development.

So how do you ensure you get the chance to learn to be a manager?

The advice from IT managers and training experts is: don't sit back, get noticed.

Mark Hillary is UK programme manager in charge of 20 IT staff at major equity trading house Sanford C Bernstein. He created his own opportunities to learn and practise his management skills.

"For an analyst or programmer it's very easy to continue with technical training because you can read a book or do it via the Web. Learning to manage means pushing your boss to organise some hands-on training on interpersonal skills."

Hillary recommends new and potential managers focus on communication, presentation techniques, conflict resolution and influencing skills.

He has attended management courses alongside IT managers from other industry sectors. He found that course attendees learnt a great deal from sharing experiences and issues. For example, they exchanged ideas on the challenges of managing and motivating a team made up of both permanent staff and contractors.

Hillary got into management by a combination of luck and seizing the moment. He was an analyst at French-owned investment bank Société Général when a new part of the business was being launched.

"I piped up in a planning meeting with a few ideas and the next thing I knew I had a budget and was managing a project. I built my management career from there," explains Hillary.

It is grabbing hold of this kind of opportunity that allows ambitious newcomers to demonstrate their management potential, says Terry Watts, chief operating officer at IT industry training standards body E-Skills UK.

In his experience as a manager at organisations such as IBM, Watts says he always looked for one key factor.

"It's about attitude. Some people really take ownership and responsibility and will see a task or project through to the end. Others say, 'I've done my bit all right' and that's as far as they go," explains Watts.

Once supportive managers have spotted some potential they will happily give someone extra responsibility and give them a chance to try things out.

So, if becoming a manager is a useful way to further your career, can good management skills really be learnt or are you born with the basic aptitude?

Stanley Wallace, business development manager at Parity Training, which runs management development courses for IT staff at companies including Consignia, Syntegra and Barclays, believes anyone can be a manager if they put their mind to it.

"Anyone can learn the basic skills and at least be competent if not excellent," says Wallace.

He tells IT professionals to bear in mind that management provides a different variety of challenges over and above their technical role because it is less precise.

"It's not black and white. It's more of an art than a science. As a manager you can only go so far with the information you have and then you've got to make decisions. That can be uncomfortable for some technical people."

Being a manager is about thinking around the subject, getting the best out of people, making decisions based on limited available information and, importantly, effective communication.

Few of us are born with all those abilities and not all jobs require them. For managers in IT, who have built their careers on technical expertise, learning or developing so many new areas at once can feel like starting a new occupation. However, the experts offer encouraging words to anyone taking their first steps.

Payne urges new managers not to worry. He agrees that taking on a leadership role takes some getting used to and actively recommends that individuals view it as a new direction.

He says, "It's best to think of management as a profession rather than just a promotion, because it is almost a career change.

"There's a lot to it, and the people who recognise that they are moving their career into leading people and managing budgets will get on well."

Seven steps to good people management
The Chartered Institute of Management's new Chartered Manager qualification identifies seven areas that a good people manager should concentrate on:
  • Communicate clearly and succinctly

  • Provide clear direction for team members and ensure they understand the purpose of the tasks they do

  • Demonstrate and inspire trust and respect for others

  • Develop and support individuals

  • Resolve problems and conflicts with positive outcomes

  • Think strategically

  • Be flexible. Adapt your leadership style to different situations.

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