Consider carefully all your options before deciding management is your path to career happiness.

Make the Management Move

Consider carefully all your options before deciding management is your path to career happiness.

I’m an MCSE who has lots of field experience. Unfortunately, I don’t have a degree in business like many of my counterparts. However, I’m well-spoken and aspire to be an information technology executive some day. How can I best prepare for IT management? I see as many openings for managers as I do for engineers. I’d like to get some training on presentation skills and strategies for dealing with the complex business we’re in.
—George Ulerio
[email protected]

George, we’ll get to the specific advice soon, but, first, I want to briefly discuss the decision to move into management. As a starting point, you need to be clear in your own mind why you want to be a manager and why you believe you’ll make a good manager.

There used to be a common view that the only way to make career progress was to move from a technical to managerial role, but in many organizations, that’s no longer true. Some companies now realize the importance of skilled technical people and have developed good career paths within the company to accommodate them. So don’t feel you have to move into management just to progress.

In moving to a managerial role, you’ll move from being responsible for completing technical tasks to being charged with producing business results. Your current technical skills will take a backseat to your ability to work with people to get things done—and your technical people will hate you if you don’t leave the technical decisions to them! Don’t forget that you’ll be measured by your ability to achieve as much as possible using as few resources as necessary (for example, keeping staff salaries under control and making tough decisions about new IT equipment). In addition, you may often be forced to make decisions without all of the information you’d like.

Your local Toastmasters club is a great way to practice your public speaking. You can also learn how to run a meeting there, along with how to think on your feet and general leadership. This is a supportive environment for mastering the basics of putting together an effective presentation.

You should also consider some basic education on negotiating skills. As a manager, you’ll need to constantly negotiate with your peers, managers, staff, and clients in order to get things done. There are books you can read on this; Getting to Yes (by Roger Fisher et al, Penguin USA, ISBN 0-14015-735-2, $12.95) is often quoted, although you might want to look around for a two- or three-day course where you can practice what you’ve learned.

You need some basic knowledge of finance and accounting to be able to communicate with others within the organization, since this is the language of business. There are plenty of books on this area in your local bookstore; you just need to find the one that’ll suit you best. To give an example, in your management role you’ll probably be responsible for developing a budget for your functional area, then sticking to that budget throughout the following year. You may deal with accounting staff who put together the consolidated plan for the whole company, as well as the regular reports that show variations of planned vs. actual expenditure for each business unit.

On a day-to-day level, keep current by reading the business section of your local newspaper and by subscribing to business magazines such as BusinessWeek, as well as ComputerWorld or InfoWorld, which cover IT issues at the managerial level. As you find articles of interest to your immediate management, photocopy and pass them on, even if they might already have seen this information. That informs them that you’re reading and keeping yourself updated.

Developing and understanding business strategy is tougher, since it’s not generally something you can pick up by skimming a book over the weekend. You could get some basic information from pocket MBA guides—the Fast Forward MBA Pocket Reference (by Paul Argenti, John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 0-47114-595-5, $12.95) and Portable MBA (by Robert Bruner, John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 0-47118-093-9, $34.95) come to mind—but don’t kid yourself that you can learn enough to be an expert in the area that way. These cover just the basics, as do short courses on business management available at your local college or university.

As you probably found when taking your MCSE, there are no real shortcuts in life. These tips may get you started, but in the long term, to become an executive in IT, you’ll probably need an MBA. I’d suggest considering that later, once you’ve established yourself as a successful first-line manager and are sure that this is the path for you. I know of many successful managers who have used their management experience as a development opportunity and later move back into a senior technical role. In those cases, they bring value with both their technical and business knowledge.

The best advice I can offer you for now is to make your ambitions known. Talk to your manager about your aspirations and tell him or her about your specific plans and the schedule you had in mind to get yourself ready. Your manager knows better than anyone what skills you need to improve on or gain in order to be ready for a management position, and most organizations prefer to promote from within when they can. Look for opportunities to demonstrate your leadership skills within the organization—volunteer for projects, arrange team meetings, take control of things needing action and make them happen (rather than waiting for your manager to mandate it), and ask whether you can act as a manager during vacation periods.

About the Author

Greg Neilson, MCSE+Internet, MCNE, PCLP, is a Contributing Editor for MCP Magazine and a Professional Development Manager for a large IT services firm in Australia. He’s the author of Lotus Domino Administration in a Nutshell (O’Reilly and Associates, ISBN 1565927176).