Managing Technical People – A Book To be Enjoyed!

There are surely a gazillion books in general on managing people, motivation, getting the best out of teams etc. However, in my professional pursuit of managing software projects, I have not come across many focusing on managing technical people. Having been a software techie myself, I thought I understood what made techies tick. So, when I became a leader of a techie team, I did not think of it as such a great challenge. Wrong! I had lots to learn – and had to continue to learn from every successive team that I had to manage. I was still not quite sure that I was “doing it right”.

However, I felt that maybe I did not have to learn everything the hard way from practice. That is when a friend recommended the book “Managing Technical People” (MTP) by the late Watts Humphrey (WH), Quality Guru who pioneered the software process maturity model at the Software Engineering Institute (SEI).


At that point, I associated Watts Humphrey primarily with software quality and maturity models. He was such a brilliant speaker on these topics! However, I applied a mental stereotype and thought quality folks generally spoke only about process, metrics, control charts and such esoteric stuff and not much about people management! So, it was a surprise that a Quality Guru produced a book on people management. And a great book at that! But then when you think about it, isn’t quality of software mostly about quality of people – technical as well as management? While process and tools do have a bearing on the quality of the product, they perhaps have second or third order impact on it.

Within a few pages of reading MTP, I saw that WH had written with a rare insight. That is when I read up on his pre-SEI experience – he had led very large teams in IBM, delivering world class system products (System 360 and System 370) and commercial applications for almost 30 years. Although WH’s people management experience started in the 1960’s, the messages in the book are kind of timeless. Here are a number of evergreen pieces from the book (paraphrased) which I hope will motivate you to read it.

· Managers who are great leaders can describe a compelling vision for the future which can inspire the technical folks. Greater leaders can create the environment in which the potential followers can develop a compelling vision and goals. For example, a technical leader in IBM created a lab of competing world-class products and asked the team to come up with a product vision to excel, rather than creating it himself and trying to align the team

· The power to control is not the same as the power to lead. All leaders are actual or potential power holders but not all power holders are leaders.

· Commitment is the way to sustain action in the face of difficulties

· People will make extraordinary efforts to meet a plan they believe in but when the imposed schedule makes no sense, motivation is lost and performance suffers

· The two key elements of professionalism are the knowledge of what to do and the discipline to do it

· Visibility gives a professional an extra motivation to do thorough work

· Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things

· People are adaptable and intelligent and if their work does not use both these traits, they quickly find it dull and uninteresting. What is good industrial engineering for work is exceedingly poor human engineering for workers

· Lack of communication is one of most frequent complaints about managers by the team members

· The first step from direct personal control is difficult for most technical managers. Up to this point, their technical ability has been the basis for much of their success. Beyond the first level, they should learn to depend more on leadership ability than on technical skill

· Power is the ability to cause action and politics is the art of obtaining power

· The strategy to foster adult behaviour in the team is for the manager/leader to defuse the implicit of her authority and explicitly state your need for the team member’s help

· Organizations are typically designed to fight the last (previous) war

· Change is great when you are its agent; it is bad only when you are its object!

· An assessment software process maturity is not a fact gathering exercise. Generally, the engineers and managers will pretty much know what the assessment will find. The assessment objective is really to start an improvement program & provide direction for the most important improvement objectives

· “The unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates

I have often gone back to MTP to re-read specific topics – in fact, the list above was easy to assemble – the placed I had highlighted over many readings.

Here is the parting shot. The book’s focus is managing people in knowledge industries – no doubt. But much of the wisdom in it is truly applicable to all people – not just “technical people”.

Enjoy the book soon!

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