Successfully Managing Talented Technical People

I’m no management guru. I’m no psychiatrist. I don’t even think I’m the geek whisperer. I am a technical person who’s had a whole lot of managers over the years, however. In addition, I’ve been a manager of technical people myself at least three different times. In that context, I’ve had reason to reflect recently on my best and worst managers, and thought I’d share some of those ponderings.

Hey boss, if you’re reading this, uh…nothing to see here. You can look away now. Go ahead – surf elsewhere. We’ll wait. Waiting…you still here? Look, this is not about you, and FYI, I finished washing your car and cleaning the pool like you asked. Seriously! Everything’s shiny now! Shinnnyyyy….

Okay, he’s gone (and in all seriousness he’s a former engineer who’s extremely easy to work for because he totally gets it). Now back to our program. If you’re in the unenviable role of managing technical people, you have both my condolences and commiseration. You probably know there’s some tricks to making techies happy and productive. The greatest trick of all is retaining a talented techie, and that’s tough to do in a market where recruiters are beating down their door several times per week. So give the following points some consideration.

  • Pat your techie’s inner diva on the head once in a while. Techies pride themselves on their ability to make things work that are hard to be understood, difficult to explain, or just plain challenging. They can do things that almost no one else can do. Most of the time, they do things that no one outside of their peer group can even comprehend. The trouble is that they know it. Techies have an inner diva – call it an ego if you wish – that is a reflection of just how good the techie thinks they are. When they walk into the data center and open a rack door, the “Back in Black” riff plays in their mind. Letting your techie know that you recognize them as the rock star they are will reassure them that you have confidence in their superpowers. That said, it probably doesn’t have to be public recognition. In fact, overly public praise might be a bad thing depending on whether your techie is an introvert or not. Not sure? You better find out.
  • Put your thanks in an envelope. Praise is nice, but money puts some meaning behind your words. Raises, bonuses – heck even an Amazon gift card – to recognize a job well done are all great ways to demonstrate to your techie that their work is valuable both to you and the company.
  • Don’t ignore questions asked. When a techie asks their manager a question, it’s because they have exhausted every possibility of resolving the issue for themselves. For a techie, asking a manager a question is an admission of defeat, and defeat tastes like crap. Perhaps they were defeated by corporate bureaucracy, by inadequate access to information, or by the inability to spend money without your blessing. No matter the reasons, the techie-posed question represents something larger: an impedance of the techie’s progress. If you don’t answer the question, the techie will resent you for holding them back from meeting their goals. So answer the question, resolve the issue, or at the very least acknowledge that the question was received and that you care. Of course, then you have to actually care, as the techie will hold his breath until the promised answer arrives.
  • Invest in your infrastructure. No techie wants to work on ancient infrastructure that’s breaking down all the time. Man up and spend the money needed to keep your techie doing interesting work that’s also career relevant and demonstrates your company is in it for the long haul. If you’ve been cutting the IT budget for a while, your techie has noticed as well. Techies can smell the fetid breath of your company’s decay carried on the fell wind of slashed line items.
  • Train your techie. I hear stories far too often about training budgets being cut or companies refusing to train their people because “then they’ll just leave.” Talented techies expect to stay current in their chosen profession, and cramming in vendor documentation when they can fit it in while the phone is ringing and people are stopping by your techie’s desk isn’t close to the same as sending them to proper training. Stop being so cheap, and train your people on the equipment you expect them to design, specify, purchase, install, maintain, and troubleshoot for you. Your IT infrastructure is the lifeblood of your business, so get in the habit of building training into the deployment costs of new gear. And stop looking at the training budget items as the first things to cut when things get tight. Training is not an employee cost. It’s a cost of doing business.
  • Pay attention when your techie says something is important. Every techie has a story about the issue they raised with their manager…who ignored it, but eventually it showed back up like a zombie apocalypse. When you ignore your techie, it demonstrates to them that you don’t respect them, you don’t understand the issue they raised, and that you perceive your own agenda to be more significant than what’s been raised by the techie you pay to keep your IT infrastructure up and running. Be confident that ignoring issues raised by your techie will come back to haunt you someday. Braaaiiinnnss! Your techie understands risks and the worst case scenario. Let them do their job. Stop overriding all the time.
  • Provide your techie with the tools to do their job. There’s a difference between tools and toys, and sometimes the line is admittedly blurry. That said, if your techie can explain why he needs more memory in his laptop, a bigger screen, an extra docking station or a handheld network scanner, then get it done for them if at all possible. Little things can make a huge difference.
  • Avoid repetitive tasks. Techies need challenges. If you keep your talented techie in a constant grind of resolving routine tickets or cranking out hardware configs for rip and replace, you’ll lose them. Why? Because that stuff, while necessary, is boring. Techies don’t want boring. They want interesting.
  • Avoid changing project priorities. Projects have a way of piling up, but techies just want to get projects done. When you add so many projects to your techie’s plate that nothing is ever completed, they feel buried under the weight. Bury them deep enough, and they’ll just roll over and die. Once you’ve burned them out and then stomped on the ashes just in case there were a few embers left, they’ll leave you and probably won’t send you Christmas cards. Let your techie finish a project before adding new ones that change their focus. Yes, business needs change, and new projects come up. But if the project list is getting too long and your techies are maxxed out, then what you’ve got is a staffing problem, not a project management one. Better get on that. Adding headcount takes a long time, and the time you’ve got now is borrowed.
  • Expect eccentricity. Techies tend to be a weird bunch. Many of them are social misfits, introverted, or just disinterested in other people. Some of them have no fashion sense. Many of them are way down deep in geek culture with its world of memes, gaming, and music – you might have no idea what they are talking about or what their references are. Don’t expect to “get it” or be a part of their world necessarily. Just let them be who they are.
  • Get to the point. Techies are fine skipping social niceties (and would probably even prefer it), so when you need something from them, get to it. That doesn’t excuse rudeness, but save brushing up on your interpersonal skills for the sales team. In the techie’s mind, you’re under no obligation to share your weekend, how the kids are doing, what your cat Fluffy hacked up on the duvet this morning, or your opinion of the football game. While your weekend adventures and drive to work were undoubtedly fascinating in their own way, your techie is much more interested in what it is you’re about to add to their already full plate. You see, your techie came into the office with a mind full of what they were going to accomplish that day, because the list is long. Demand is high. Deadlines loom. And besides all that, there’s all the stuff that’s behind the scenes you don’t even know about also weighing on your techie’s mind. Your weekend experience doesn’t really rank.
  • Stop calling your techie at home. If you have to call your talented techie at home more frequently then about once a quarter, you’re doing IT wrong. Hire more staff to spread out your coverage, buy some equipment that doesn’t suck, and stop people from making silly changes in the middle of the night without telling anyone else. Then maybe your techie will stop going directly from resolving your after-hours issue to setting up appointments with recruiters.
  • Don’t ask your techie for information they already gave you. Techies thrive on crossing things off the list. Accomplishing a task, no matter how small, offers a sense of satisfaction and progress. If you ask them to do something again that they’ve already done for you, you communicate that you didn’t care enough the first time about their efforts to pay attention. Sadly, yes, there’s a good chance that when the re-requested information is forwarded to you from your techie’s “Sent Items”, it was intended as a veiled insult. If the techie pulls the requested information from YOUR inbox or (even worse) your “Deleted Items”, then the insult is not even veiled…but frankly, you deserved it. And change your password, for goodness sake.
  • During a crisis, neither disappear nor get in the way. In a crisis, your talented techie is worried about one thing: solving the problem. He doesn’t care about your VP’s feelings, explaining the situation to the ignorant masses, or mentoring the n00b who’s crying in the corner while the data center burns. Crisis moments are not mentoring moments. Maybe later, during the post-mortem…but during the actual event? No. During a crisis, your techie needs two things to solve the problem: information and time to concentrate. You can help with that by not disappearing. You need to run interference. Guard your techie’s cubicle and phone. Keep management away from them. Take all calls. Send out the e-mail updates to the idiots who think problems are resolved faster by asking for a status update every five minutes. You can also help by giving the techie whatever information he’s asking for. Does he need you to figure out who the technical team lead is for application X? Make it so. Does he need a list of exactly what systems and locations are impacted by the outage? Find out. You get the idea. The techie won’t have time to explain every little thing to you along the way, so just feed him the information requested.
Okay – so perhaps not a conclusive list, and perhaps a bit of stereotyping was involved in my points. Maybe more than a bit. But rest assured that talented techies are a special breed that require special care and feeding if you’d like to have a successful and long-term working relationship with them. As one of my favorite managers of all time is fond of pointing out, “You network people are high maintenance.” Yeah. He’s not wrong.


  1. says

    Great article.  Think I might print out “During a crisis, neither disappear nor get in the way” and snail mail to a couple of ex-bosses of mine. Brings back some terrible repressed memories *shudders*

  2. says

    Fantastic post which made me smile for all the right reasons  –  I have been on both sides of the fence in my 15 years of networking. I’m now ready for my 1st mgmt team  / leadership meeting of 2012…which is tomorrow !!

  3. Ben Johnson says

    Brilliant.  I even learned something about myself reading this article.  Thanks for your insight and your willingness to share, Ethan (et al).  PacketPushers is certainly making the [networking] world a better, and often more entertaining, place to be.

    Oops.  Too public?  😉

  4. kevin myers says

    We are indeed a high maintenance bunch and you really nailed the finer points of what makes techs tick. Really enjoying following you guys on the podcasts…keep up the superb work. 

  5. Aric Babson says

    Money spent on training your employees is an investment.  If the training is good and relevant it results in increased employee loyalty (hence lower turnover), higher productivity, and fewer technical outages.  You can’t afford not to train your technical employees.  How the management of so many companies can still not get this is beyond me.

  6. says

    Very well laid out.  I found myself nodding a lot while I read this and thinking of past bosses.  It’s also good for those of us that fancy ourselves converting into management at some point to remember these points when the shoe is on the other foot.

  7. John Brown says

    I will second the notion of not only nodding, but giggles a couple of times.
    I will also say that once most techs get to the CCNP and the CCIE level, they are more inclined to stay with the Company that provided the Money to help get the cert. Unless they are the consultant style.

  8. Adrian Skinner says

    As a technical team leader all I can say this is all great advice. I’ve seen the positive and negative examples of pretty much everything above, being technical but also managerial I’ve got a decent perspective from both sides’ and everything above rings true. Particularly like the bit about protecting your staff from the 5 minute update idiots while Rome burns!

  9. guest-sorry my boss reads this says

    When we tell you something, frequently in writing, and you bring in vendors and ask them the same thing with frequently the same answers … does not bring us much belief in the level of confidence you have in us.
    By the way – when we got it wrong, that was because vendors gave us wrong/incomplete answers and/or did not read/understand our configs that you made us share with them.

  10. Pineapple Pusher says

    Great article I can relate to everything you said.  The last topic “During a crisis, neither disappear nor get in the way”, I cant stress this topic enough.  We have all been on those calls where a manager gets on the call and all they do is generate more questions instead of just letting the techie people fix the issue.

  11. Aaa90944 says

    is important to keep in mind some issues when dealing with technically talented
    persons. In the course of carrying out operations, it is important to give them
    some degree of freedom. Technically talented persons do not like being told
    what to do every time as they believe in themselves. They should not be
    supervised all the time as this will create a negative impression and thus
    reduce their creativity. The technically talented people are also very
    sensitive and some may feel that they are being undermined when they are placed
    under close supervision. It is also important to choose carefully the
    supervisors who will work with the technically talented people as it may have
    an impact on their performance.

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