Working at EMC, I often run into highly technical people in management roles. Almost every manager I interact with could tell a story of transition from technical contributor to manager. It’s not unusual to have senior managers directly contributing to a product, and recently my senior director recently called in an individual contributor to discuss coding practices after he stumbled onto some things while reviewing the code quality dashboard.
With this in mind, I am not surprised when I walk into a manager’s office (or cube) and see a bookshelf with books about programming languages, software design, code quality, and so-on. I think it’s healthy, actually. In the role we’re expected to play, it’s important we be able to speak the same language, be able to detect poor practice from early signs, and so on.
What does surprise me sometimes is the scarcity of management and leadership books. I know managers who can point you to a half-dozen software engineering blogs, but would never bother to read one on the subject of management or leadership. People who can tell you obscure facts about how processes interact but have never read anything about how people interact.
There seems to be a belief among highly technical people that management is something you “just do.” After all, everyone’s been managed, and so everyone can manage. (Everyone’s read a book, so we can all write one, right?) This is made worse by the fact that many management books read like self-help books, with most of their lessons seemingly in the domain of common sense. So much of the “leadership” information out there is pandering to the same audience who order empowerment seminars from infomercials. It’s easy to dismiss the entire lot.
But just as skilled software developers know non-obvious methods for increasing a product’s quality, skilled managers know what’s important about increasing a team’s productivity. Just today a colleague sent me a link to an article from the Harvard Business School about employee engagement and its statistical impact on team productivity and turnover. There’s quality research being done out there on organizational practices, team morale, and more. As a manager and leader you owe it to yourself, your team, and your employer to at least know some of it.
Imagine learning a new programming language only by copying and pasting from other people’s code. No web searches for best practices, no articles on common pitfalls, no books. Sure, you’re smart and capable — you’d probably write something passable — but would you claim expertise in that language? Would you want your skill at that language, as compared to other experts, to be the basis for your career?
Of course not. At the very least you’d be searching out other developers, reading forums, making sure you’re aware of the bugs in the latest version of the product, and so on, even if you avoided any formal training.
And yet we see so many managers using a copy and paste methodology for patching together people skills. It’s not a bad place to start, but it’s a scary place to end.