Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Mid-Level IT Manager

If you've worked in any industry, you're probably aware of what a "mid-level manager" is.   You may also be aware of how subjective the term "mid-level" is, especially as the size of an organization grows.  There are often many levels of "mid-level".

The interesting aspect that comes into to play is when people move from a non-managerial level into a managerial position, of any level.  I've seen and experienced it, from various angles, in the service industry, construction, engineering, sales, legal, medical and IT organizations.  The IT organizational aspects are most interesting to me.  Why?  Let's digress a bit...

The entire life of most entry-level workers is usually some sort of "hands-on".  It was often the sole reason they pursued the line of work in the first place.  I'm not counting people that take "any job" because they need a paycheck.  Those folks don't typically stick around long enough to move into any managerial roles. The folks that move into management positions are usually "career oriented" rather than "job oriented".

For years, the diligent line worker, systems administrator, programmer, analyst, technician, systems engineer, even systems architect, plies his/her trade and struggles to keep pace with ever-newer technology and trends.  Hours and days spent in labs, at home, learning, testing, experimenting.  I'd guess on average we spend probably a solid week of our life every year doing things to improve our skills.

Then one day, you're called into an office and asked to close the door.  Instead of the expected ass-chewing, you're greeted with a smile and a congratulations.  Sometimes bundled with a few solid minutes of accolades and commendations for worthy achievements.  Then the punchline: "We want to promote you to Team Lead/Manager, etc."  At first you're ecstatic, because you've had a train-load of sunshine blown up your ass with a smile and a hand-shake.  They calm your fears about handling the new duties, the paperwork, the meetings, the new agenda.  You soak it up over the weekend.  You show up on Monday and start picking away at the new world ahead of you.  Life moves on.

After a few months you realize you miss working on the things you used to work on.  There's a touch of emptiness.  A bit of isolation, now that you're working with a new group of people, and your circle of faces is morphing into a new entity altogether.  Some might even say it's a sign of depression.

But that's not unique to the IT world.

What I've seen that is unique to the IT world is the extreme level of self-worth tied directly to the "hands-on" achievements.  You don't see that in construction.  You don't see it at that level in most any other line of work.  An IT engineer/technician/programmer/analyst assesses their value by virtue of what technologies they've mastered, what projects they've been instrumental in accomplishing, and how their professional-social (combined) circle values their capabilities. That's right.  It's a bit of a vanity and ego twist, but we do very much value what our peers think of our abilities.  We absolutely do NOT want to be the guy who gets joked about for screwing things up.

Now that person is asked to step away from that zone, and into an entirely unfamiliar zone.  A new zone where self-valuation is based on entirely new skills and new methods of assessment.  It's a major shift and it often causes problems for people trying to cope with a multi-faceted group of changes:

  • New peers
  • New duties
  • New skills
  • New assessments
  • New schedules
  • New agendas
Shit.  Even one or two of these can be very disruptive to a person.  Emotional and physical.  But when you've spent years tying yourself strongly to each of these, and ALL six of them are swapped out... wow!  For a non-IT person, it would be like...
  • Moving to a new house
  • ...In a different country
  • ...On a different planet
  • ...In a different climate
  • ...Using a different language
  • ...and Changing your name
Some can cut it.  Some can't.  Some relish the new role.  Some despise it.  Some find peace and comfort.  Some find angst and turmoil.  It really boils down to one basic issue...

Are you happier working with "things" or with "people"?

Most IT folks I've known over the years, tend to favor "things".  Mainly because it's a technical field of work, that requires hours and hours of intimate time with "things" in order to figure them out in excruciating detail.  They're often more at ease in a quiet room surrounded by stuff: hardware, or software.  Or behind a computer screen typing away at code.  The more intimate our relationship with our technologies, the more isolated we often become.  Compare the average day of a network engineer, server administrator, or programmer with someone in construction, fast food service, sales, or other fields, and you'd likely find the IT person spends much less time with much fewer people each day.  It's usually referred to as "the nature of our work".

That leads into the dilemma of making the shift from working with technology to managing people.  It's entirely different.  Some have the desire and the natural tendency to make that jump, but more often it's a very tough transition.  I've known quite a few colleagues over the years who've tried to make that switch and only a few stayed with it.  Most of them moved back into a technical role and were happier.  I suppose the inverse would be true as well:  Try to move a non-technical manager into a role where they spend most of their time putting things together in a data center, by themselves or with one other person (the most common scenario I've seen).  That, too, would be a difficult transition to get used to.


So, having said all this, what I really need to say is that when you are dealing with a mid-level IT manager, especially one who has only recently made the transition, be considerate.  It's tough.  Very tough.  And you may find them to be a bit awkward and uncomfortable at times.  Give them time to adjust and a little room to figure out what they're doing.  It may work out just fine.  Too often others are quick to judge against them, and that only adds to the angst and frustration, making a difficult situation even worse.  If they're a complete dick, that's one thing, but if they're just awkward, even at brief moments, try to be understanding.  I say this because:  when that transition works, it works great for everyone.  Nothing beats a manager that truly, honestly, thoroughly "gets it".  They've done your job, or worked at a peer level, long enough to know what it means for those still doing it.  Nurture a manager like that, and it comes back around in good ways.
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