Thoughts on Importance of Managers Being Technical

This article re-ignited a thought that has been kicking around in my head for a long time.  As you read a post on “unadulterated nerdery”, I’m sure it doesn’t exactly take a rocket scientist to figure out my opinions on the matter, but I’m also not just burying my head in the sand and plugging forward with the concept because I’ve already purchased the domain.  Even if you find yourself in the non-technical camp, you have to give me that “perfectly measured generalist” just doesn’t have the same allure.  I’m interested in hearing your thoughts both military and civilian.  For my military readers, I am specifically talking about unrestricted communications officers, but the general idea should be universally applicable.

The two main concepts that article brings out that really resonated with me were:

Don’t have technically blind leadership running one of the most critical functions in your organization


Technical training programmess are critical for your development team to keep apace with change, and investing the time for IT management to do the training too can pay dividends.

Communications are never going to defeat the enemy by themselves, but they are universally lauded as one of the most critical aspects of fighting and winning wars.  One of the frequent criticisms of the “technical CommO” is they tend to be brilliant communicators, but are unable to relate 1’s and 0’s to mission accomplishment (seeing the big picture).  Not to discount the criticism, because it is critical, but it would be significantly easier to teach someone how their really technical job relates to the mission compared to teaching someone who really understands the mission how to be a technician.  Additionally, the job is not getting any less complicated.  Today’s gear is significantly more complex to configure and maintain than the gear I was initially trained on, and the cyber threat has upped the ante through complexity in architecting and configuring defensive measures.  We’d never accept an infantry officer who doesn’t know which end of the M-16 the bullet comes out of, so why do we accept a CommO who doesn’t know how IP works but is a good MAGTF officer?

Somewhat along the same lines, it is critically important we continue to train our managers in technical skills.  It was less than 10 years ago that I was trained as a basic communications officer and in that relatively short time span we have undergone drastic changes.  For example, I was initially trained on tactical switching (military specific telephony systems), then we moved to circuit switching (TDM based telephony, T-1s and the like), and then moved to IP telephony.  We need to make sure the officers throughout the ranks are continually trained to keep pace the rapid change in technology.  If we fail to maintain the learning continuum we will have junior officers and Marines without any senior officers to technically lead and develop them.  I’ve seen on many occasions where leaders are ineffective because their lack of technical ability became an extreme obstacle to their credibility.  Where many go wrong is operating under the assumption they have to know the most about everything.  I’m not arguing for that.  I tried finding the article I read this, but can’t locate a link.  The gist is that many successful low to mid level technical managers fail when they move up a level in the organization because they previously succeeded by buckling down and learning everything, always knowing more than their subordinates.  Eventually their management scope makes it impossible to know that much about that wide of a subject matter.

I’m not arguing we need to know more than our subordinates, but we also can’t stop learning.  The two most convenient arguments I have heard from senior leaders are that “we need to save training dollars for the Marines who actually do this” and “I’m a generalist now, being technically proficient is important for company grades” (mid-level mangers).  These are both cop out answers.  When it comes to training money, or school seats, or however you want to look at it there is some utility to the concept of “taking care of the Marines” and letting them take the class/quota/etc.  Ask yourself though, who is the most appropriate choice?  I frequently think of this quote from Gen Lejeune:

The relation between officers and enlisted men should in no sense be that of superior and inferior nor that of master and servant, but rather that of teacher and scholar.

I could certainly see Gen Lejeune being comfortable with many of his Marines being smarter/more knowledgable than he was, but I can’t imagine him saying he was a generalist and giving up on his craft.  It is about being willing to devote yourself to a lifetime of learning AND being able and willing to pass what you have learned onto your Marines.  This is how it makes sense to send managers to training, because if they take advantage of the opportunity they will not only technically contribute to the organization, but they will pass what they have learned onto their subordinates.

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