How to Be an Effective Technical Manager (Who Doesn't Have to Give Up Technical Work)

Promotions often require giving up technical work. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Tatum Hunter
January 27, 2020
Updated: August 10, 2020
Tatum Hunter
January 27, 2020
Updated: August 10, 2020

Promotions come with higher salaries and more cachet, but that doesn’t mean everybody wants one.

For people in technical roles, especially, the thought of shifting from hands-on work as an individual contributor to perpetual people management can be unappealing.

That’s why, after three years with marketing analytics firm 84.51, data scientist Nina Lerner found herself silently rejoicing each time she was passed over for a promotion.

“There was nothing above me that was a technical contributor role,” she said. “I’m fine with not ever being promoted. I’m okay with working hard, I want interesting projects and I want to develop my skills.”

Still, at a superior’s request, Lerner wrote up a description of her dream role: a hybrid manager-contributor that spends half her time tackling projects and half her time mentoring other analysts through technical challenges.

It didn’t go over well.

“She came back basically laughing in my face,” Lerner said.

But Lerner didn’t forget about the technical manager role she proposed, and neither did her company. Eighteen months later, she was promoted to the exact role she envisioned, and 84.51 has since created a designated technical management track.

During that in-between time, Lerner built a case for herself — something she’d done years earlier when she successfully pitched a hybrid manager-contributor role for herself at Nielsen. Here’s what you can steal from her playbook.

How to carve a role as a technical manager

  • Know your technical strengths, and pitch your to-do list. Coming in with a valuable project will strengthen your bid. 
  • Use technology pilots to showcase communication and leadership skills. Beta programs are a good way to show your potential as a technical mentor. 
  • Take a holistic approach when defining your added value. There’s more to management than your number of direct reports. 
  • Understand the true purpose of a technical management role. Your interest in emerging tech should be ongoing — and contagious. 

 

manager and individual contributor
Image: Shutterstock

Support your pitch with specific project goals

If your company is eyeing you for a management role, they already believe you can handle management responsibilities. Your task is to show them the value of maintaining your status as an individual contributor.

While gunning for a promotion at Nielsen, Lerner established the importance of her technical contributions by volunteering to take on a technical hurdle — evaluating the company’s natural language processing (NLP) tool.

In the days before ready-made Python packages for NLP, gleaning insights from sentiment analysis was particularly difficult. Lerner’s graduate thesis dealt with social media sentiment and its fitness for predicting television ratings, and her expertise was valuable to Nielsen as the company weighed whether to invest in a third-party NPL tool or continue developing its own.

“It was about being really prescriptive about the work that I wanted to do and what I wanted to accomplish.”

She pitched a project that would evaluate how social media fit into quantitative methods, aiming to move into a more senior role while continuing the methodology-focused work she enjoyed. She decided if the company didn’t go for it, she would leave and go to graduate school full time.

“It was about being really prescriptive about the work that I wanted to do and what I wanted to accomplish,” she said. “I remember thinking, if there’s not an opportunity for me to grow here and have a role like this, then I would prefer to complete my degree more quickly. I was willing to gamble and truly walk away from my job, if necessary.”

A higher-up decided to give her plan a shot, and it worked. When Lerner eventually left the company, they backfilled her technical management role, and her project using social media to predict Nielsen ratings continued to evolve.

 

technical management leadership
Image: Shutterstock

Be first in line for new tech initiatives

Perhaps the best way to show your potential as a technical manager is to imagine what the role entails and start doing it — regardless of your current job title. For Lerner, that has meant being at the helm of technical initiatives, such as the switch to new software.

When 84.51 first began migrating its analysts from SAS, SQL and R to Python, Spark and Hadoop, she volunteered for the beta program. That year-long project gave her the opportunity to showcase technical leadership skills, like a willingness to learn and talent for teaching.

“It’s not only about knowing how to use the new methodology or the new software, but it is also important to have the ability to bring others along with you,” she said. “You have to make that leap, the leap of saying, it’s not just about myself. It’s about mentoring others and my multiplier effect.”

Through that pilot, Lerner showed she could communicate effectively with people both above her and below her in the company. She gave constructive criticism when things weren’t working, and helped migrate about 200 analysts to the new software. Most importantly, she broadened her network in the office.

“People outside of my team became my advocates, and I believe I got promoted because there were additional people beyond my immediate network who valued by helpfulness and ideas,” she said. “I think it was the broadened exposure, and not my reporting structure directly, that ended up getting the attention of the business leaders that made the decision.”

 

technical role direct reports
Image: Shutterstock

THink holistically about the value you can add

Companies that calculate the value of a manager based on their number of direct reports are missing the point, according to Lerner.

Imagine a technical manager, for instance, with zero direct reports. Picture a scenario where analysts spend three hours per data set applying golden rules one at a time until the data is clean. Then someone writes a Python package that cleans that data automatically.

Suddenly, hundreds of analysts are saving two and a half hours per data set.

“Yeah, that person has no direct reports,” Lerner said. “But their efficacy and their value to the business is immense because they’re saving so much people-time.”

As you craft your pitch for a technical management role, consider the many ways a manager can add value beyond their people-management duties. But don’t get so focused on proving your technical value that you fail to establish your leadership potential. Sharp communication skills will help you stand out among other strong contributors.

“I don’t think it’s a requirement for a technical leader to be able to present to the CEO of a major company,” Lerner said. “But my presentation skills are valued by my company’s business leaders. I could do the technical work, and I could also talk about the work with both a technical audience and a nontechnical audience.”

The ability to read a room and determine how to best package and explain your findings — Excel versus PowerPoint, for example — is one mark of a good technical manager in the data science space, Lerner said. Think back on scenarios where you had to change your communication style based on the technical proficiency of your audience, and be ready to share those examples.

“I understood my value through the process of receiving job offers.”

If you’re struggling to define your value to the company, your leadership skills or your motivation for moving up, interviewing outside your company may bring things into focus.

Lerner went to final interview stages for jobs at other firms multiple times while she waited for her dream role to gain traction at 84.51. While she always decided to stay with her company, those interviews helped boost her confidence, which strengthened her bids for a technical management role on her home turf.

“The grass isn’t always greener on the other side, and that process was helpful. It made me realize that I was in the right place,” she said. “I understood my value through the process of receiving job offers.”

If nothing else, interviewing will give you a clearer sense of what you bring to a company and what qualifies you for a technical management role.

 

technical mentorship
Image: Shutterstock

Prioritize flexibility over expertise

If your goal in pitching a technical manager role is to avoid meetings, emails and mentoring — abort mission.

As a technical manager, you’ll be charged not just with staying apprised of the latest developments in your field, but with passing that knowledge to your teams — which involves plenty of emails. A good way to tell if you’ll enjoy being the go-to person for technical challenges is to notice whether you already are.

“You can become a go-to person without actually being a manager or being senior. You get there because of your personality and the time you’re willing to give to help others because you’re passionate about the subject,” Lerner said.

Lerner’s interest in methodology often landed her in that “go-to” role. Because she made a point to continually grow her technical skill set, leadership opportunities came naturally. Many times, she said, being an effective technical leader simply means having resources at the ready so when contributors come to you with a problem, you can point them toward the training materials they need.

“I want to have the skill sets that are agnostic to technology so I can adapt to whatever the next new thing is.”

“A mentor that I had was able to direct me to start learning on my own,” she said. “It’s not that he taught me everything, it’s not that he had all of the knowledge in the world, but he always helped me get started so I could learn for myself.”

Ultimately, the ability to learn on the fly is what makes Lerner — and any good technical manager — an asset to their organization. Technology changes, and companies need people willing to keep up and able to bring others along. In that sense, expertise is valuable, but flexibility can be more so.

“What I learned in grad school has helped me in my career, but it’s already irrelevant,” Lerner said. “What is relevant is knowing how to read, learn and stay current. I want to have the skill sets that are agnostic to technology so I can adapt to whatever the next new thing is.”

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