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Product and Technology

Bring your A-game: The common traits of top tech managers

Steve Rabin | November 20, 2023| 3 min. read

Most technical software managers have solid technical skills. Unfortunately, the same is not necessarily true of their team and people management skills.

Managing people is a soft skill. Often, technical leaders haven’t been trained to manage teams. While some may have the innate ability to manage people; this is hit-or-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 top attributes of a strong technical manager.

Attributes of a top technical manager

Solid tech and people skills are essential to succeed as a technical manager. Technical managers are respected by their team because they are knowledgeable, 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.

Successful managers (technical or not) typically:

  • Create meaningful challenging work: They consider individual values, abilities, and skills along with the objectives of the organization.
  • Clearly communicate: Effective managers clearly articulate expectations, organizational goals, and are transparent about any changes that may impact employees. By clearly outlining expected behaviors/outputs, managers can help ensure employees stay on track and intervene when employees don’t meet those demands.
  • Coach and develop employees: In line with clearly communicating expectations, strong managers also support their employee’s career and professional growth goals. Be it the path to management or a top individual contributor, effective managers ensure employees have the stretch and development opportunities to reach those aims.
  • Motivate employees: Strong managers recognize and reinforce effective performance.
  • Lead by example: Effective managers understand that they set the tone and need to model the behaviors expected of of their team(s). “Do as I say and not as I do,” is not a recipe for success.

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

  • Are honest and diplomatic
  • Are communicative and collaborative
  • Respect the opinions and beliefs of others
  • Have a high degree of integrity
  • Possess qualities of the “heart” (loyalty and compassion, for example)

How to recognize 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? Have they demonstrated that they can properly manage their own work or the work of others?
  • Do you think they set a proper example for the team to follow? Are they collaborative? Have they proactively worked to solve team challenges?
  • Do they have strong communication (and listening) skills?
  • How quickly and effectively do they resolve conflicts?
  • Have they coached other people before (formally or informally)? Are they a good mentor?
  • Can they effectively manage employee grievances and complaints?
  • Are they organized?
  • Do they use and understand the value of metrics? If you don’t measure it, you can’t 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.

Why strong managers are important for success

A strong technical manager is the backbone of a high-performing team. They:

  1. Help teams prioritize: One of a technical manager’s key roles is to ensure that their team not only understands their priorities but also why those priorities are important. Teams that understand product and company objectives, and how their work aligns with those objectives will be more successful.
  2. Enhance productivity: 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. Technical managers must be able to help their team navigate these issues to ensure a high level of productivity.
  3. Provide team clarity: Clarity – in terms of either project details or responsibilitiesimpacts a team’s or individual’s ability to succeed. Strong technical managers implement effective mechanisms to reinforce self-management principles and clarify team responsibilities.
  4. Foster a culture of continuous improvement: Effective teams are efficient and task-improvement-oriented. A strong manager will foster a team culture that encourages growth and learning, and creates a safe place for employees to discuss conflicts openly and maturely. The team emphasizes problem-solving, continued learning, and compromise. It is not about always being “right” or getting the last word.

A team’s success is often a direct result of how that team is managed.  Do not assume that someone who possesses strong technical skills will automatically be a strong manager. It is crucial to consider both soft and hard skills when selecting leaders for your technical teams. The most effective technical managers possess a distinctive blend of these abilities, enabling them to share insights, offer guidance, and collaborate seamlessly with their teams to achieve success.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published July 6, 2017 and has been updated.