How 'Technical' Do You Need To Be?

By Patty Azzarello

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Technology executives have to strike the right balance between being technically brilliant, and letting go of enough detail to have the time and energy to invest in leading. Of course, some level of technical competence is required to be in the game, but it becomes a problem if it comes at the expense of leadership effectiveness.


One of the first things to focus on is that each step up in management requires a step up and away from detail, and the addition of new necessary and important process, managerial, and organizational development work.

For example, as an individual in a technology organization your success depends on how well you know your stuff and do the technical work.


But as a manager, success depends on new set of skills that have more to do with how well you know the business and the people, and execute on communication, processes, business outcomes, and developing others. As you become a functional or general manager, you need to master skills around organizational alignment, program management, multi-function/multi-layer communications, planning frameworks, client service, partnerships, etc.


At each level, your competence and credibility needs to be built from excelling at the new higher level tasks that are required for that level role, and by being known for building a high performing team. Building a high performing team adds way more value to the company then adding one more expert (you) in the low level detail.


Why people have trouble with this transition:


       They enjoy the detail.

       They wouldn’t know what else to do, if they don’t do the detail.

       They have not built a team they trust to handle the detail without their involvement.

       They are afraid they will lose the respect of their subordinates if they can’t keep up with them technically.

       They are afraid they will lose the respect of management and peers if they get caught out by a random technology question they can’t answer.


Executives who get stuck thinking that they must maintain the same mastery of the details and content as the people who work for them do not build credibility or big success. Instead they typically:


       End up competing with their subordinates about who is smarter.

       Continue to torture their team for inappropriate amounts of detail.

       Waste everyone’s time doing deep dives into content.

       Develop a culture around being a brilliant hero vs. building a high performing team.

       Miss the opportunity to set strategic direction, lead the organization, and develop future leaders.  


Letting Go


As an IT executive, certainly you need to maintain a working knowledge of the technology, but that is different than competing with your team to be as versed in the detail as they are. You still need to deliver the results. So you need to create processes and frameworks to measure and track technical progress that you will feel comfortable with.


You need to build a system to ensure that the right things are getting done, so you know what you need to know, even though you are not working in the details anymore. You need to put your people in charge of delivering the technology program, be clear about the desired outcomes, and with the right tracking mechanisms in place, trust them to deliver.

Then what do you do, you ask? Good question. You need to re-focus your energy on the leadership and managerial work. You need to re-calibrate what you see as your most valuable work, to be higher level contributions, and excel at those things. Some ideas:


       Articulating clear outcomes for IT and getting them ratified by the business stakeholders.

       Organizational fitness for purpose (getting the right roles defined, assessing the talent, and building the right structure).

       Talent management/development plan.

       Process maturity around user knowledge and care.

       Strategic alignment around priorities and values.

       Process improvements which drive cost reductions

       Effective relationships with partner organizations.


You also need to make sure that the right work gets done at the right levels within your organization, including making sure the managers who report to you are also not working too deep in the detail. The also need to be focused and measured on the development of their teams. Those who manage these upward transitions away from the detail, are the most successful technology executives, add most value to the company, have the highest credibility, and have the most motivated and high-performing teams.


I developed my perspective on this when I became the manager of a 200 person software development organization, after being in marketing roles for the several years prior. Although my education was in electronic engineering and computer science, it was many years since I personally worked in an engineering role. This was my first functional management role, and there was no way I could dive down into the detail even if I wanted to, or thought I should.


So I was forced to find other ways to add value as a manager and a leader. By putting a high value on and excelling at the managerial, systems, and development aspects of the job, I built a huge amount of credibility with my team, my peers and my management, and increased the quality of the software, and the delivery schedule of my team dramatically.


Patty Azzarello became the youngest general manager ever at HP at the age of 33. She ran HP’s $1B OpenView software business at the age of 35, and was the CEO of an IT software company, Euclid Software at the age of 38. She has been working with IT executives to build their careers and put their IT strategies into action for many years. Today Patty Azzarello is the CEO of Azzarello Group, www.AzzarelloGroup.com.