Steve Rabin is the Chief Technology Officer at Insight Venture Partners. He has extensive experience designing enterprise-class software and managing technology teams. At Insight, Steve’s goal is to help technical teams at portfolio companies build best-of-breed R&D organizations and enterprise-class solutions. 

In this first of two posts, Steve identifies the attributes and behaviors of top-performing technical managers. Read on for some valuable insights.

The vast majority of technical software managers at the enterprise level have solid technical skills. Unfortunately, the same is not necessarily true of their team and people management skills.  

Managing people is a soft art. Often, technical leaders haven’t been trained to manage teams. While some may have the innate ability to manage people; this is hit and miss at best. If a technical leader isn’t lucky enough to have a mentor or the appropriate training, then learning on the job is the only real alternative. 

There are no shortcuts to becoming a good manager and respected leader. With this in mind, let’s look at the attributes of a strong technical manager and a strong team. 

Attributes of a Top Technical Manager

Solid tech and people skills are essential to succeed as a technical manager. A technical manager is respected by his team because he is knowledgable, even-handed, and able to effectively collaborate to resolve problems fairly and efficiently. The best technical managers also lead by example; they not only talk the talk but also walk the walk. 

There are a set of rules that talented technical managers articulate as the basis for being successful. Some of these rules may seem obvious and some less so. For example:

  • Create meaningful, challenging work for employees by considering individual values, abilities, and skills along with the objectives of the organization. 
  • Communicate with and (when necessary) discipline employees. Setting an example as well as enforcing rules and regulations is a must.
  • Coach and develop employees to support their career and professional growth goals.
  • Motivate employees by recognizing and reinforcing effective performance.
  • Lead by example. Do as I say and not as I do is not a recipe for success.
  • Create a path for top performers to become managers. The rule of thumb here is to identify and develop talent who can capably replace you.

Determining whether a person has the potential to become a good technical manager is fairly complex. Besides technical skills, personal attributes are also important. Here are a few key attributes of top technical managers: 

  • Honest and diplomatic
  • Communicative and collaborative
  • Respects the opinions and beliefs of others
  • High degree of integrity
  • Possesses qualities of the “heart” (loyalty and compassion, for example)

Recognizing a Good Technical Manager

How does one recognize an effective technical manager, and how do you know if you’re doing a good job in your role? Introspection is critical. When promoting someone to a managerial position, there are some typical questions to ask yourself or others:

  • What makes you believe this person is a good manager? Has he managed his own work or the work of others properly?
  • Do you think she will set a proper example for her team to follow? For example, what time does she arrive at and leave work every day? How often does she proactively and collaboratively help others solve team challenges?
  • Does he have strong communication (especially listening) skills?
  • How quickly and effectively does she resolve conflicts?
  • Has he coached other people before (formally or informally)? Is he a good mentor?
  • Can she effectively manage employee grievances and complaints?
  • How organized is he?
  • Does she use and understand the value of metrics? If you don’t measure it, you can manage it. 

Most of the above attributes are not black and white, so they are not easy to objectively measure. Evaluating talent is not binary. 

Strong Manager, Strong Team 

A strong technical manager is the backbone of a high-performing team. Identifying a talented team at a technology company is easy if you know what to look for.

Understanding Priorities

One of a technical managers’ key roles is ensuring that their team not only what the priorities are but also understands why those priorities are important. Teams that understand product and company objectives, and how their work aligns with those objectives are going to be more successful. 

Productivity

A high degree of productivity is another key attribute of a strong team. Teams make commitments and managers are there to help them deliver on those commitments. Dependencies, unexpected risks, disruptions, poor estimations, and unplanned time off all impact the team’s ability to successfully meet their obligations. A technical manager must be able to help his team navigate these issues in order to ensure a high level of productivity. 

No Ambiguity

Clarity is another project attribute that impacts a team’s or individual’s ability to succeed – clarity in terms of either project details or responsibilities. Strong technical managers implement effective mechanisms to reinforce self-management principles and clarify team responsibilities.  

Continuous Improvement

Discussions on well-functioning teams are efficient and task-improvement oriented. Continuous improvement is the watch word here, and it’s the technical manager’s job to develop this culture. Team players discuss conflicts openly and maturely, which often results in growth or learning. The emphasis is on solving problems and compromising, not getting the last word in. 

A team’s success is often a direct result of how that team is managed. The best technical managers possess a unique combination of hard and soft skills which allow them to impart wisdom, provide guidance, and collaborate effectively with their teams to get the job done.