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Michael Levan
Michael Levan

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Why Tech Managers Need To Stay Technical

Throughout an engineer's career, they meet many types of leadership. Some technical leads, others VP's and C-Level. Regardless of what level the manager is at, there's a question that comes up almost always; why aren't they technical?

In this blog post, you'll learn why it's important for a manager to stay technical and how it can help grow your business.

Technical Leadership

There is a big and important question if you have an engineering leader (CTO, VP of Engineering, technical lead) part of your company; can they hold their own in a technical meeting?

Better yet, can they fully understand if the team is going in the proper direction because they're going off of their technical abilities from 10 years ago?

Chances are, a lot of the answers to this question are no. What typically tends to happen with technical leadership is that they feel so bogged down with managerial and business tasks, that they feel like they don't have time for anything else.

That's not true. In fact, you probably have more time than you think (more on this later).

I believe a technical leader has five major qualities:

  • A great and compassionate manager
  • A good delegator
  • A phenomenal communicator
  • Has an eye for product direction
  • Understands the tech stack and the decisions that went behind the creation of it

Don't get me wrong, it's a lot. A technical leader needs to be a combination of a business person, a strong communicator, and an engineer at heart.

Depending on what type of organization you're in, a technical leader can come in three phases/flavors:

  • The technical co-founder
  • The technical leader in a startup
  • The technical leader in a large enterprise

Each phase is different from the other. Some are more technical than others. Some are more business-focused and high-level. In any case, there is always time to learn the engineering aspects of the business.

Why It's Important

Tech is one job that's always changing.

Numbers and money don't constantly change value, so the CFO doesn't need to do much to keep up to date.

Marketing pretty much stays the same, besides the social media burst, so the CMO will always have the skillset in one way or another.

The overall operations of an organization don't change all that drastically, unless it's a startup, so the COO is pretty set from a skillset perspective.

People are people, and compassion is compassion, so the CPO is geared with the knowledge needed to run HR.

Each job that I mentioned above is ridiculously hard and amazingly important, but there isn't much that's needed to keep up to date. There are of course changes, but nothing drastic that happens month by month.

In the tech space, for the CTO, CISO, and CSO, there's a constant change. The world used to say that tech changes every 2-5 years. Now, it feels like every 6 months. Every week there's a new tool, a new trend, or a new way of writing and handling software that comes out. Tech is in a constant state of flux.

So the question becomes - if the C-Suite and leadership teams are the officers of the organization that have the most influence and specify the most direction/change, and tech is always changing, how can a member of the technical leadership team be in that position if they aren't staying technical?

How To Do It

People always use the same excuse; I don't have enough time.

The funny thing about time is that we all have the same hours in the day, yet there are people that are more successful than others.

It's not because they have more time, it's because they use their time more efficiently.

One thing that you should do is take a look at the screen time settings on your phone. Check to see how much time you spend on your phone on average per day.

Another thing that you can do is set a timer for how long you watch TV. Set the timer on your phone and let it run until you stop watching TV.

Before you say well, I need time to relax, I absolutely agree with you. I take a ton of time to relax. I never just work 16 hours per day because I feel like it's not only awful for my well-being and mind, but it also means I'm not enjoying life. On the flip side, what I am saying is you don't have to watch TV for six hours straight when you know you should be taking some time to study.

Watch TV for 3 hours and study for 3 hours.

If you want to do the things in life that you want to do (like staying technical), take the time to do so. Just like anything else in life, something that's worth it takes dedication.

How To Stay Technical

In the section Technical Leadership, you learned about the three phases of a technical leader:

  • The technical co-founder
  • The technical leader in a startup
  • The technical leader in a large enterprise

Let's learn how each phase can stay technical.

In the first phase, technical co-founder, you pretty much don't have a choice but to stay technical. In fact, you'll most likely be writing a lot of the code for the MVP. You'll also need to hire technical staff, lead the engineering efforts, and help the product direction, but you'll be hands-on a lot of your time. I would say an 80/20 split.

The second phase, technical leader in a startup, is a solid 50/50 split between being technical and managing. You'll need to manage people, but you'll still be in a ton of technical meetings and drive the direction of the engineering efforts. You should have your hands on the keyboard, writing code, doing automation, or working on the systems, at least 50% of the time (at least).

The third phase, a technical leader in a large enterprise, will be about a 70/30 split. 70% being business-focused and 30% staying technical. You'll probably be hands-off at this point at work, but there are still other ways to be hands-on and stay technical. For example, you can write a book, create a tech course, or write a tech blog. Each of those will ensure you're still hands-on in a demo environment and most of all, you'll be teaching, which is great for a player/coach scenario in any organization.

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