There is an old adage that says “Managing technical people is like herding cats“. While quirky in it’s management implications, it doesn’t paint the whole picture. Leading technical people is more akin to invoking Splinter from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
If you didn’t get that reference…and immediately achieve the synaptically pure “Aha” moment…then this article may be a stretch for you.
If you did get the reference, we have a connection, you and I, and I call you to help inform the world of this important function.
For leading technical people requires the leader to be 2 parts Alpha Wolf, 3 parts Psychologist and 4 parts Sensei. Let me break it down.
The Alpha Wolf:
A leader of technical people must immediately and consistently demonstrate, maintain, and promote the centrality that they understand the needs of the business and how to make ridiculous bets for the future come through with not enough time, not enough budget, and not enough knowledge. The Alpha Wolf leads a pack that vacillates between unqualified arrogance and palpable panic. The individual developers, sysadmins, or miscellaneous IT people will typically NOT know how they get paid, yet have an unerring sense that that what they do is core to the business’ future. However, there is typically not a direct correlation between their paychecks and the code they write. Without having the important context of why what they do is important, these technical people usually develop internal rules that govern the direction, behaviors, and maintenance of their co-workers – their wolf pack. They know when someone has crossed an invisible line in their internal code. This is where the Alpha Wolf must enter. It is his or her job to bite a pack member when they get out of line, to nudge the confidence of the young ones, and snarl at anyone who might threaten the pack (and their productivity). The pack must have an unswerving loyalty to this leader. And if the leader does not have that loyalty, or it that loyalty ever comes into question, the Alpha must demonstrate Alpha behavior. When done well, the errant behavior is quickly taken care of. When a technical leader is not truly the Alpha, then the pack may suffer and that leader may find themselves in a tough environment. This is a sobering reality of managing technical people – active leadership is essential – passive leadership tends to reduce the strength of the pack, which in turn reduces the capabilities and revenue-generating potential of the business.
Technical people, beyond the quirks that make them behave the way they do, are often earnest people motivated by something beyond a paycheck. For example, software developers will invest significant chunks of their brainpower – that furling of the brow intense concentration for hours at a time – to build a feature that has never been built before. This creates a tremendous emotional and cognitive tax on their psyche that is immediately understandable by those in the respective industries, but is often not appreciated by other departments in the same company, that do not share that burden of conceptual problem solving. Correspondingly, the role of the technical leader often requires a listening ear, more than an instructive whip. The motivations of each of these unique individuals must be respected, for simply what they are – motivations that are good, bad, indifferent, selfish, fearful, coping, ambitious, dreaming, yearning. Each of these are a simple component of the whole brain that the leader is calling upon to achieve greatness.
A good friend once quoted “people are a package deal” and that is never more true than with technical people. They have a truly mixed bag of wants, desires, frustrations, ambitions, hopes and dreams that are indelibly tangled with the years of code and invisible projects that drive the modern economic engines. To manage these people, requires a level of being a personal and career counselor that boldly and sensitively steps into the mental fray that characterizes their digital lives. For technical people, there is almost never the option to “leave the work at home” – their brains are always working out solutions and better ways to approach problems. Sometimes the counselor-leader knows that they have to be curiously strong about the staffs personal lives and force them to achieve some kind of emotional and physical balance. The Psychologist leverages every nuance and life experience of the individual to call them to a greater stage and to get through the occasional “death march” to meet a deadline.
All good martial arts movies involve a master with deep knowledge of skills earned by hard work, mysterious experiences, and a hero’s journey to overcome insurmountable odds. The Sensei leader brings this deep wealth of experiences to bear when directing his technical people. It is a skill that can only be earned on the job – there is no book, no manual, no video, no seminar that can prepare a junior manager to adequately direct the cognitive and organizational efforts to achieve a previously unknown goal. The very essence of modern technology is to take the unknown and make it known – make it usable in a modern world where phones talk with computers, roads talk with cars, and everyone is always connected, all the time. For we are in a period of indescribable change – driven primarily by technologists who are inventing brand new channels of value creation. The Sensei must develop the sixth sense of where the technology should take the customers – and build that future before the customers ask. The Sensei must build a team and make them not only believe in themselves, but believe in an ephemeral future that is just not yet built.
The Alpha Wolf, the Psychologist, and the Sensei must come together in a unified whole to drive to an undefined future to achieve loosely defined objectives. This Technical Leader is one who nimbly brings each profile and each personality together in an effective, composited whole – seamlessly switching voices to fit each situation. This leader will achieve success in their leadership by deftly leading their pack, deeply listening to the cognitive wounds, and thrusting, blocking and parrying in the digital dojo. The truly great technology leaders will weave all of these together and then embrace human compassion, organizational acumen, and business savviness.
So in the end, it doesn’t take a superhero mutant sewer rat to be successful as a leader of technical people – but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
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