Managing Problems With Technical Expertise
24 September, 2021
In the early days of my career, I thought that being a highly technical person would be an obstacle to becoming successful as a manager. It took me some time to realize that it is a bonus skill set that will help me in my new role. In my opinion, the best managers can equally address the tech and people or process side of the equation. The problem I encountered recently vividly illustrates the benefits of nurturing technical expertise as a manager.
We had a dozen technical teams, all working on what I would call redundant processes. The solutions that were proposed to solve that redundancy and drive more consistency were all people- or process-based. They all focused on either bringing people under one management or aligning release and development processes. However, what was missing was technical consistency between those teams -- how they were developing their components and making them available to customers. As a result, we had ten different analytics systems, all doing slightly different things and serving slightly different customers.
When I was presented with the problem, I was transitioning from a tech lead level to a manager. Perhaps my approach reflected my unique situation, but what I did first was to assess our technical needs. I came up with a solution that, at its core, was a technical change: how we would build things and what technology we would use. I took into account who would be the people using it -- engineers, analysts, data scientists, and technical service individuals were all interacting on the same platform.
We called this solution the Data Operations Platform because it was a meeting place for different functions. At the bottom, it gave engineers a place to build capabilities; at the middle, it gave analysts and data scientists a place to use those capabilities, and on top, it provided technical service individuals opportunities to sell those capabilities.
While the technical aspect was at the core of my solution, technical thinking is never purely technical. It is a reflection of the organizational structure. What engineers often tend to do first is consider a management solution: hire people, build a team, and then change the tech. But as demonstrated above, it is often a combined process, and those different aspects are organically connected, fitting naturally together. My technical expertise enabled me to have this holistic understanding of the problem. As a senior manager, staying technical doesn’t mean delving into code but appreciating and learning about the state of technology that is helping you come up with holistic solutions.
- People think that most problems their organization faces are mutually exclusive: they are either people or technical problems. Having a holistic view of problems helps to solve them. For example, imagine having a skill set gap on your team. Hiring seems like a reasonable solution, but that is not only a people change but also technical. People and technology are not separated.
- Stay updated with the state of the technology of your organization but also across the market. Learn how people are doing things in other places and how technology is evolving in general. Don’t be satisfied with that one data point (your organization) -- get some more data points.
- When you have to implement technical change, communicate that with your team and be empathetic because people will see it from a personal angle of how it would affect them. If we would decide, for example, to switch from Presto to Dremio, one person may be an expert in one and not the other. Identify who in the team will be most impacted by those technical changes. At the end of the day, you will need to have the team’s buy-in for any change to be successfully implemented.
- If you come from an IC background in management, embrace that as a strength. Think of your technical experience as something that should be valued and part of the discussions and decisions made on the managerial level. Most other senior-level managers in my organization are not as technical as I am, which allows me to influence and give a perspective that is closer to the day-to-day view of engineers. My technical perspective enables me to empathize and relate to people who are doing the actual work.
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