by Allan Hoffman
Technology professionals who seek to move into management might want to post a sticky note on their PCs: "It's communication skills, stupid."
That's the message from CIOs, recruiters and other executives who hire and promote the industry's managerial talent.
To succeed, IT managers must:
- Cut through the technical jargon prevalent among techies.
- Understand the "big picture" view of their company and industry.
- Be able to present ideas and proposals in front of nontechnical audiences, from the CEO to the customers.
"There's a certain amount of tact and poise required," says Scott Hajer, senior corporate recruiter at Software Architects, an IT consulting firm. "You're going to have to talk with decision makers and users in an organization and be able to translate technical topics into laymen's terms."
While other skills, such as identifying and retaining talented techies, come into play for would-be managers, here are five examples of how communication skills are a key trait for technology managers.
Translate Technical Material
To demonstrate their management potential, tech pros must display their "ability to communicate clearly, rather than going into techno-babble," says Shiv Krishnan, president and CEO of INDUS Corp., a software company.
Many situations provide an opportunity to stand out: project-planning sessions, meetings with nontechnical personnel and customers, presentations of material from industry conferences -- even email. Krishnan notes how some technology-focused workers "are not able to write very well about the tools they're developing or the projects they're working on." Even routine email messages, he adds, can be a way for an individual to stand out from the pack as someone able to communicate clearly and effectively.
Mentor and Train Colleagues
Managers should know how to develop a company's talent. It's an area where techies, even those with relatively little experience, can demonstrate their ability simply by volunteering to mentor or train colleagues in a particular area of expertise. Mentoring can be informal, involving nothing more than extra time with a colleague, or it could be more involved. For example, distributing an FAQ document on the company's intranet that explains how a particular technology could be leveraged by the development team. Don't forget to include an invitation to contact the author for further assistance.
Volunteer for Projects
You can't count on getting noticed just by giving presentations or helping out your colleagues. "Get up and volunteer for the best projects," says Tarun Inuganti, a partner in the CIO practice at Korn/Ferry International. "Find a need that hasn't been addressed and spend extra hours to find a solution."
Krishnan concurs. In particular, try to take on leadership responsibilities for small projects -- those with just a few people, for instance -- that may become more significant down the road. "Those are opportunities for members of teams to move into a project-management role," he says.
Know the Business -- and the Big Picture
"When an individual is coming up the ranks, he must absolutely know the business," says Inuganti. That means searching out information far from the typical purview of a junior-level coder or help-desk worker. What is the competition doing? What are the firm's earnings per share? Be sure to read publications beyond IT industry journals. Forbes and BusinessWeek should be part of your reading diet, he says. "You'll learn lessons from what Home Depot and Wal-Mart are doing," he notes.
Phil Verghis, president of the Verghis Group, a consulting firm, started his IT career in technical support, eventually rising to be vice president of infrastructure and support at Akamai Technologies. "Part of how I did that was understanding the big picture," he says. "Stop talking your own language, and speak the language of the company."
Position Yourself for Promotion
Don't count on moving into management by switching employers. That happens, but more often IT pros move into a managerial role within a firm. "Take advantage of opportunities to step up," says Hajer. "It's much easier to get promoted within your company to a management position than to switch jobs to get that next big step."