In the British sitcom "The IT Crowd," Jen has just been appointed manager of her company's two-man IT department. She knows nothing about technology, but figures she had better make herself look good. So when Moss, one of her new subordinates, knocks on her office door, she quickly grabs her phone and pretends to be having an important conversation.
"Yes, Moss what is it?" she asks, putting her hand over the mouthpiece as he pokes his head in.
"I was wondering if you wanted me to hook up your phone," he says.
There's an important lesson here for every non-geek who has to manage technology staff: don't fake it, don't try to fool anyone, and don't pretend to know more than you do.
Make no mistake, managing geeks can be a challenge for those without technical training. "Technology people are inherently skeptical," notes Bo Peabody, managing partner at the venture capital firm Village Ventures, and author of Lucky or Smart? Secrets to an Entrepreneurial Life (Random House, 2004). "You should assume they will not give you the benefit of the doubt," he says. "If you can get the benefit of the doubt from your most hard-core technologists, you're ahead of the game."
Learn as much as you can
Managing techies effectively begins with learning as much as you can about what they do, says Dan Rice, vice president for corporate affairs at PrintingForLess.com. Though trained as an attorney, Rice oversees his company's technology staff, and calls himself a "poster boy" for the notion that a non-techie can manage IT.
Rice believes the more he understands, the more better he is as a manager, so he spends many hours in front of a whiteboard, asking questions about exactly how the company's software and hardware function. "I tell them, 'Explain this to me as though I had never seen a computer," he says. Employees for whom technology comes as second nature are sometimes frustrated at first, he notes. But once they get used to explaining things to Rice, most seem to like it. "I go in with no preconceived notions and a genuine interest in what they do," he says. "Most people enjoy teaching something they're passionate about."
For Kelly Cutler, CEO of the Internet marketing firm Marcel Media, the key is taking a hands-off approach whenever possible. "I try to keep a high-level perspective and don't micro-manage," she says. "I consider myself a project manager and salesperson."
As a result, technology staff feel empowered to find the solutions on their own. Rather than posing questions, they've usually figured out a problem and are ready to recommend solutions by the time they discuss it with Cutler. Nine times out of ten, she accepts their recommendations. "So if a client says they don't want PHP, but the technology people tell me they really need to use PHP, I'll look for a way to help the client understand why."
Find a project manager
Another helpful strategy is to identify a leader within your technology team who can serve as project manager and act as a liaison. That was essential to the success of 4Refuel, a fuel management company that provides on-site diesel and fuel management. 4Refuel's success is built on its heavy use of technology, but the company outsources most of its technological work. "We found that we really had to manage that function ourselves," says Norm Bogner, vice president of international development. The solution was to hire a vice president of technology. "He can talk to the outsourcers and understand exactly what they're doing."
"When I have someone who's good at project management, it's easier for that person to delegate coding and other day-to-day tasks to other team members, and focus on managing the project," Cutler says. She adds that people who work strictly in IT, even those with a natural aptitude for product management, may need some extra training to become effective product managers. But it's well worth the effort. "Someone like that can be a tremendous help to me," she says.
Create a culture of respect
Ultimately, Peabody says, to effectively manage tech people, "You have to establish a culture where business and technology deeply respect each other." For a business executive without technical training, he says, this means "gently helping them understand that they can't do what you do, and that what you do is important."
Before Village Ventures, Peabody was co-founder and CEO of Tripod, one of the first sites that allowed users to create their own webpages, and a rare dotcom success story. Back then, to help them understand the importance of what he did, he had a standing bet with his technology staff that he could learn to program a Web server before any of them could raise a million dollars in investment money.
Nobody ever took him up on it.