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What Your Techies Want You To Know

David Letterman got me started on top ten lists years ago. Today I present the Top Ten Things Techies Expect From Their Managers. If you direct an I.T. project of any kind, this list will help you build motivation and loyalty amongst your technical professionals. It applies whether you hire independent contractors or internal employees.Technical professionals are referred to as “techies” or “staff” in this article. These terms refer to both employees and contractors.

#1 – Recognize Me as a Person

I am a unique person with my own strengths and weaknesses. If you take the time to get to know me, and if you treat me as a friend and co-worker instead of as a subordinate, you will make me want to give you my very best. This is not a contractual matter; this is simply how human relations work. Friends want to help friends.In all cases, think in terms of WE, never in terms of YOU vs. US. When you provide this leadership, you will find that your techies are quick to follow.

#2 – Assign Tasks Fairly

Assign tasks that are not too far above or below my skill level. If it’s too far below, I will be bored, which may lead to stupid mistakes. If it’s too far above, I will fail. If it’s just slightly above my current skill level, it gives me an opportunity to grow.Fairness is important to me. Bias, favouritism, nepotism, and discrimination have no place here. Spread the least-liked and most-liked jobs around rather than giving them to the same person all the time.

#3 – Evaluate / Recognize / Compensate

I recognize the necessity for evaluations, but I need to know the goals, expectations, deliverables, and deadlines up front.Do not count things against me if they are beyond my control. Consequences should be commensurate to what I did rather than the impact of those actions (unless I rightly should have known the impact).

Deal with negative evaluations privately. Deal with positive evaluations publicly.

Reward me for my achievements. I know there is both a carrot and a stick, so use the carrot liberally and reserve the stick for extreme cases. Don’t overreact. “A word to the wise is sufficient.”

When staff discover that other companies provide significantly better compensation, they usually jump ship. Avoid this situation by keeping your compensation package competitive. Remember: When you pay the lowest possible price, you get the lowest possible quality.

Find small ways to openly recognize and reward accomplishments. Example: A monthly one-on-one lunch is a great opportunity for an I.T. manager to recognize excellence. It is also an opportunity to get to know the techie on a more personal level.

#4 – Make Sure Resources are Available

Most managers understand this part of their job fairly well. If your staff don’t have what they need, the job won’t get done (or will get done slowly or poorly). Scheduling the resources to be available at the right time is also obvious.Time budgeting is often poorly handled in two ways:

  • Not Including Some Tasks:Documentation and testing are the two most common victims in this category. Poor documentation creates a perception that the company does not care, from which the reader may infer that the entire system is the product of an I-don’t-care attitude. Inadequate testing, on the other hand, pretty much guarantees a substandard result.
  • Not Allowing Enough Time For a Task: Time is allocated on a best-guess basis, perhaps with historical data to back it up. Usually, though, “stuff happens.” This blows the time budget because it did not contain enough of a buffer for the unforeseen. [In one planning course I took, the instructor told us to make our best-guess estimate, then multiply by π. She then gave us a small project to estimate and build. To our surprise, the multiply by π rule actually worked.]

#5 – Don’t Micromanage

Micromanaging may be suitable when managing highly unskilled or poorly motivated workers, but that does not describe the typical techie. Hovering is almost guaranteed to lower morale and increase staff turnover.Negotiate with your techies to determine deliverables and due dates, then leave us to manage our own schedules, techniques, and work processes. You do need to keep an eye on things, so feel free to ask for weekly or monthly progress reports. Expect us to be professionals and treat us accordingly.

Don’t go totally hands-off, though. Make sure we know you are there to help us through rough patches. You want to be approachable, not invisible.

#6 – Take Care of the Forest

The old saying, “he can’t see the forest for the trees,” well describes the environment most techies work in. They are specialists at seeing the trees. The I.T. manager must therefore be the specialist at seeing the forest.As an I.T. manager, improve your techies’ focus by shielding us from the bigger picture (the forest), especially the politics. Of course, you need to let us know how the forest affects our trees, so don’t keep us in the dark, either. Just filter out what is irrelevant to us.

Because you and we focus on different things, it is more difficult for us to understand some of your decisions. When this happens, give us a clearer picture of the forest so we can see the reason for the decision. At the same time, listen carefully to what we say. We have a good understanding of how your decision affects our trees.

#7 – Hire Well

I spend more waking hours with my teammates than with my own family. Give me people I will be happy to work with – people that have the technical skills to contribute to the team and people that are easy to get along with. I would rather work with friends than acquaintances.

#8 – Know the Technical Basics

You work in a technical environment and provide technical direction to your staff, which requires communication in a technical language. Knowing the language and the basic concepts is essential. You do not need to have an in-depth understanding of every detail, but you do need to understand what your staff is telling you and how those things impact the project.Don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions. That’s how you fill in the blanks when you need to know something.

If you would like to build your technical skills, ask your techies. We will be happy to point out courses, books, or websites that are relevant to the project and appropriate to your current skill level.

#9 – Help Me Manage/Promote My Career/Business

You ask your techies to help you and the company become successful. Be we contractors or employees, we appreciate the same from you. Help employees manage their careers and help contractors build their business.Contracting companies can use your feedback to fine-tune their processes and make themselves better at what they do. A few word-of-mouth recommendations or a written testimonial would be useful in their marketing efforts. Both of these favours cost you almost nothing.

Employees want to further their careers. If I am working toward a promotion, help me reach my goal. Increase my visibility within the company by drawing attention to my accomplishments. Recommend me to other managers when positions open up in their areas. Don’t worry about losing me; news of your management style will get around quickly and will attract other talent.

Techies need ongoing training because technology changes so rapidly. Assign tasks that are slightly beyond our current skill levels and allow us the time we need to learn the new stuff. Send us on course regularly.

Intracompany knowledge transfer builds technical skills while focusing on business needs. A generic external course cannot provide the same focus. Example: In its simplest form, this can be weekly or monthly meetings wherein techies take turns presenting what they have learned on the job. Just make sure it’s real knowledge transfer, not trivialities. And don’t drag it out – 15 to 30 minutes works well.

#10 – Set Appropriate Expectations

Meeting expectations is actually a simple thing IF we’ve done a good job setting expectations. The I.T. manager is expected to do this early on in the process and on an ongoing basis. Do not promise things we cannot deliver. Your and our reputations will both be damaged when we fail to deliver.The easiest way to find out whether or not we can deliver on a promise is to ask us.

When trying to sell a concept, system, process, etc., don’t sugarcoat it or cover things up. Make sure everyone has a clear picture of both the good and the bad. End-job satisfaction will be higher.


I.T. managers can more effectively direct their technical staff (both employees and contractors) by building loyalty, skills, motivation, productivity, and friendships. The above tips will help you work toward that end.
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About Warren Gaebel

Warren wrote his first computer program in 1970 (yes, it was Fortran).  He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Waterloo and his Bachelor of Computer Science degree at the University of Windsor.  After a few years at IBM, he worked on a Master of Mathematics (Computer Science) degree at the University of Waterloo.  He decided to stay home to take care of his newborn son rather than complete that degree.  That decision cost him his career, but he would gladly make the same decision again. Warren is now retired, but he finds it hard to do nothing, so he writes web performance articles for the Monitor.Us blog.  Life is good!