Do Software Teams Need Managers with Technical Expertise?

Technical manager

Software engineers often express a preference that their managers also be skilled in software engineering. They enjoy having managers who can understand their work and work with them.

But finding a person who is both a technical expert and an expert manager can be a challenge, as management and engineering are each all-consuming jobs. It’s worth considering how much technical proficiency managers really need if they are being hired to manage, not to be full-time, hands-on engineers.

Some argue that it is impossible to remain technically competent when you’re a manager. A manager will now be spending more time in meetings and doing administrative tasks rather than coding, and there is a difference in mindset between management and technical work. If you’re not doing something on a regular basis, it is hard to maintain that skill level.

Having once done that work is definitely valuable, though. According to research on managers and their teams, employees are happier—and thus more productive—when they are managed by someone with similar expertise. While a manager’s “soft skills” such as charisma, organizational ability, and emotional intelligence do matter, having a manager with technical knowledge is the biggest positive influence in team members’ job satisfaction.

However, don’t be tempted to promote all your best engineers into management roles. It can frustrate the person being promoted and reduce their value to the organization. Another risk is that it can be hard to separate the management function of “enabling” from the technical function of “implementing.” Crossing this line can lead to people feeling micromanaged.

Perhaps the question of how much technical skill a manager should have is hard because we are asking the wrong question. Many teams have assumptions about what a manager is and don’t set appropriate expectations for the role. If you are looking for someone to lead the technical conversation, perhaps you need a technical lead or an architect rather than a manager.

Some organizations solve this problem by pairing managers who understand the business and are conversant in the technology with lead engineers who have aptitude for and the desire to do technical mentoring. Managers with stronger people-related skills can then fill gaps in mentoring engineers in the “soft” skills needed to be an effective team member. The technical leads can focus on deeper technical mentoring and avoid many of the administrative tasks managers perform.

People management and technical leadership are both important to developing and maintaining a successful team. While it seems ideal to have these skills in one person, it’s hard to find people with a strong interest and aptitude in both areas—and even if you do, it’s likely that one job or the other will consume the person’s time.

When looking to fill a manager role, be mindful of what you need the person in that role to do. That should help you decide whether a manager, a technical lead, or both will be the best fit to help teams do their jobs effectively.

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