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Leading a Technical Group
Copyright 2021, Faulkner Information Services. All
Publication Date: 2112
Report Type: TUTORIAL
The skills needed to lead a team of IT experts are diverse, from
understanding the details of highly technical work to knowing
how to communicate and motivate different types of people. This report describes current
research on the topic and explains the most commonly accepted best
practices in the field.
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Leading a technical team requires both general managerial talents and
skills that are specific to technology initiatives.
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The general talents include an array of soft skills such as motivational
and communication abilities. Applying these soft skills is made more
difficult by generational differences among employees. For example,
millennials and baby boomers have somewhat different preferences regarding
workplace culture and relationships with managers. The technical
challenges involve handling the intellectual property rights of designs
that employees create and ensuring that employees have the training and
certifications necessary to meet an organization’s needs and to satisfy
their own career goals.
Some key industry trends are putting additional pressure on technical
team leaders. Many organizations are planning to increase the size of
their teams to meet increasing needs, but at the same time there is a
growing shortage of qualified IT security experts. Also, average IT
salaries continue to increase at a fair rate, making managing a budget and
retaining talent harder. And the quick, dramatic shift to remote work in
response to the Covid-19 forced IT staffs to better protect remote
employees and to learn to work together outside the office.
To meet these challenges, some leaders are using new techniques, such as
emphasizing employee wellness and using corporate sustainability efforts
as a recruiting tool. At the same time, many traditional management
approaches remain effective, including fostering a good corporate culture
and acknowledging employee contributions.
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Fundamentally, the role of the leader of a technical group is to identify
the beliefs and practices that give shape to that specific, particular
technical culture and then to model and nurture those beliefs and
practices. A leader must have the flexibility to manage multi-disciplinary
teams and to often do so remotely. Managing employees of different
generations also presents challenges.
And in addition to keeping pace with routine management demands, leaders
must also develop long-term plans to meet their organizations’ business
and technology needs. Sometimes, everyday requirements and long-term goals
align. For example, according to one report, the move to distance working
in response to Covid-19 also created greater interest among executives in
some of the big pictures transformations that IT administrators had been
advocating for years.1
Leading a group of highly technical people is in some ways similar and in
other ways distinct from other management positions. The discussion below
covers both types of considerations.
Motivational Methods. This is a soft cost, low
intensity activity that you can only accomplish by getting to know people.
For example, good motivation gives employees “challenge stressors,” which
cause light stress but present obstacles that can be overcome, rather than
stressors that merely degrade a person’s performance.2
Distinguishing between these two types of stressors requires knowing
individual employees and what has motivated or demotivated them in the
Defining Roles. Particularly for Gen X and Gen Y workers,
it is very important to define functional roles. Younger workers have a
powerful need to own their responsibilities: (“I am responsible
for generating project documentation on all release builds”). By contrast,
earlier workplace cultures typically functioned on definitions of rank
(“I work for the head of software architecture”).
New trends in technology development may change the nature of some roles.
For example, software teams that use Agile methods are likely to have
roles that are not strictly defined,3 while DevOps teams
may establish new roles that require a particular combination of coding
skill and data networking knowledge.4
Collaboration and Competition. Much of the success of a
workplace culture relies on a healthy tension between collaboration and
competition. Conversely, much of the disruption in a dysfunctional one
arises from a skewed balance between these things. An effective way to
promote tranquility in the workplace is to be very clear and definite
about when competition is appropriate and then to put a restriction on
competitive language, behavior, and petty antagonisms for everything else.
Effective Communication. As a leader, it’s important to
listen to those who are working for you. Staffers may have insight into
how to better accomplish project tasks. If issues arise, it’s best to
resolve them quickly before they fester. Keeping the lines of
communication open will help ensure that problems get handled immediately
and keeps all workers on task. But communicating effectively doesn’t
require meetings that last for hours. Instead, utilize a group messaging
app or group text so that everyone is in the loop.5
The Technical Component
Intellectual Ownership. Technology is often a creative
pursuit that involves designing new products, and attribution is one
of the most powerful affirmations a technology group leader can bestow.
But there is a trend in the IT industry toward companies assuming
ownership of employee innovations.6
Flexibility and Open Discussion. It is helpful to create
a forum for engineers and designers to get together on a regular basis and
in a relaxed atmosphere to talk about what doesn’t work and why. Gathering
colleagues to dissect failed experiments and re-imagine outcomes achieves
two important things. First, it formalizes a space in which highly
technical people can talk about things that fire their imaginations. It is
impossible to overstate the value of this sort of personal connection to
the people involved or to the enterprise. Second, it makes the workplace
the focus of this interaction.
Skill Development as a Workplace Cultural Value. Skill
development can be fostered by encouraging independent study, proactively
setting up mentorships, and fighting for a professional development budget
to allow staff to attend training and conferences. If an organization can
only send part of a team to an important event, the people who do attend
should provide a group tutorial afterward. A company can even award future
training opportunities based on the quality and effectiveness of the
attendees’ communications of useful information gained. It is also good to
support and participate in local user groups and provide flex time so that
employees can attend.
To ensure that investments in technical training are helpful
to employees and relevant to an organization’s needs, it is
beneficial to identify the most well-recognized and well-regarded
certifications. One good annual study of IT certifications comes from
Global Knowledge, which for 2021 identified the following (in order) as
the top-paying credentials:7
- Google Certified Professional Data Engineer
- Google Certified Professional Cloud Architect
- AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate
- Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control
- Certified Information Systems Security Professional
- Certified Information Security Manager
- Project Management Professional
- Nutanix Certified Professional – Multicloud Infrastructure
- Certified Information Systems Auditor
- VMware Certified Professional – Data Center Virtualization 2020
- MCSE: Windows Server
- Microsoft Certified: Azure Administrator Associate
- Cisco Certified Network Professional – Enterprise
- Citrix Certified Associate – Virtualization
- CompTIA Security+
The Importance of Soft Skills
Soft skills are frequently defined as interpersonal skills — in other
words, the ability to get along well with others. Soft skill development
can result in more effective communication, teamwork, and employee
motivation and retention, among other things.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers identifies
competencies for “career readiness,” a list that focuses significantly on
soft skills. For example, under the “communication” category, examples of
effective behaviors include “Employ active listening, persuasion, and
influencing skills” and “Frame communication with respect to diversity of
learning styles, varied individual communication abilities, and cultural
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Technology Providing Employee Feedback
Some companies are beginning to allow employees to anonymously provide
feedback related to workplace satisfaction. The framework used for this
resembles Web sites that allow customers to review restaurants and other
businesses. Glassdoor is a Web site that lets current and former employees
from all companies to post anonymous reviews of their work experiences and
employers. According to Glassdoor, receiving positive employee feedback
can improve a company’s overall brand through honest, transparent
A Shortage of Cybersecurity Experts
Dating back to at least 2016, there has been a shortage of qualified
cybersecurity specialists, and the problem is worsening.10 The
2021 edition of the annual study by the Information Systems Security
Association found that this “cybersecurity skills crisis” is adding a burden
to IT staffs and creating job lingering vacancies. These impacts are
complicating the jobs of IT security leaders. The areas in which gaps were
most commonly reported in the survey were “cloud computing security,
security analysis and investigations, and application security.”11
New Ways of Thinking Are Being Adopted
Many companies are using ideas about employee satisfaction and
recruitment that would be deeply unfamiliar in a traditional workplace.
One prominent example is applying concepts of mindfulness or encouraging
meditation during work.12 Providing other types of
employee wellness services also appears to be a growing practice.13
And some organizations are adopting sustainability practices with the goal
of attracting good candidates, many of whom today judge potential
employers based on their commitment to such values.14
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What is the best measure of success for a technical team? Is it meeting
budgets and deadlines? Today, those end results aren’t always the complete
answer. Yes, organizations want their technical projects to be on time and
within budget constraints, but sometimes the project objective changes and
the results aren’t what were expected. It’s critical to keep objectives
and milestones clearly defined so that everyone on the team is well-aware
of what the end results should be.
To maintain project efficacy, it helps immensely to keep employees
engaged so that they feel appreciated. Should employees leave the company
the technical lead is responsible for training new workers to take on
tasks and duties that have fallen by the wayside. Companies always claim
that “our employees are our best asset” but if those employees aren’t
feeling fulfilled, wanted, or appreciated, they will move elsewhere. A
company that is fully invested in its employees demonstrates success.
Gallup’s Ed O’Boyle wrote, “…engaged employees are an asset — in the
truest sense of the word. But turning employees into assets requires
investment in their engagement… A well-conceived engagement strategy
helps people do great work, add value, and feel like they are a part of
the organization’s success.”15
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Leading a technical group requires both general management skills and
specialized techniques and dispositions suited for IT teams. Options for
training are expanding and diversifying. A growing number of universities
— including Cornell and UC Berkeley — now offer non-degree educational
programs in IT leadership for working adults. There are also various
for-profit training companies.
To make leadership more effective, it is helpful to think in terms not
just of general versus technical skills, but more narrowly in terms of
particular technology needs and contexts. Many IT leadership courses
are specialized to specific needs. For example, MIT’s Management Executive
Education program offers IT training both for technically oriented
managers as well as for non-technical managers who want to know about IT,
and Ouellette and Associates offers a course specifically for “mid-level
- 1 “Top Priorities for IT: Leadership Vision for
2021.” Gartner. 2020.
- 2 Stephanie Pappas. “Rousing Our Motivation.” Monitor on
Psychology. American Psychological Association. October 1, 2021.
- 3 Geoff Keston. “Agile Software Development.” Faulkner
Information Services. November 2015; revised January 2021.
- 4 Chris Moyer. “What Are the Key DevOps Roles in an
Enterprise?” TechTarget. October 2015.
- 5 “Four Tips for Leading a Technical Team.” Davis Staffing,
Inc. July 26, 2017.
- 6 Orly Lobel. “My Ideas, My Boss’s Property.” The New
York Times. April 13, 2014.
- 7 “15 Top-Paying IT Certifications for
2021.” Global Knowledge. August 17, 2021.
- 8 “Competencies for a Career-Ready Workforce.” National
Association of Colleges and Employers. March 2021.
- 9 “The Right Way to Ask Your Employees for Feedback.”
Glassdoor. September 3, 2018.
- 10 "Cybersecurity Skills Crisis Continues for
Fifth Year, Perpetuated by Lack of Business Investment.” Information Systems Security Association (ISSA).
July 28, 2021.
- 11 Ibid.
- 12 Bella English. “Mindful Movement Makes Its Way into the
Office.” The Boston Globe. August 7, 2015.
- 13 Dana Manciagli. “Five Workplace Trends Driving Change in
Offices.” Silicon Valley Business Journal. May 4, 2016.
- 14 Ibid.
- 15 Ed O’Boyle. “Treat Your People Like Assets, Not Expenses
– Invest in Them.” Gallup. June 6, 2019.
- 16 Sarah K. White. “10 IT leadership Development Programs
to Help You Level Up.” CIO. October 16, 2020.
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eCornell Technology Leadership:
Global Knowledge: https://www.globalknowledge.com/
Harvard Business Review: https://www.hbr.org/
MIT Professional Education: https://professional.mit.edu/
National Association of Colleges and Employers: http://www.naceweb.org/
Oullette and Associates Technology Leadership Experience: https://www.ouellette-online.com/the-technology-leadership-experience.html
UC Berkeley Executive Education Technology Leadership:
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