Friday, January 12, 2007

Management: The Techie's Dilemma

It's not unusual on the Forums to get a young person asking for career advice. Usually they have got a Comp Sci degree and an OCP or a couple of years experience in development and they want to become a DBA (like this guy). It is rarer for somebody at the, er, maturer end of the spectrum asking for advice. But Peter Scott did just that this week: his employer has offered him the post of managing the company's Oracle applications team. Should he take this job or should he stick with the data warehousing job he currently has?

The advice he got back fell into two categories:
(1) Supporting E-Business Suite sucks (I paraphrase)1, steer well clear of it.
(2) Managing a team will be more boring than being a data warehousing expert.

Here's my take on these arguments.

"E-Business Suite sucks"

Peter pointed out that the job would entail managing the support of applications written in-house as well as (uppercase) Oracle Applications. The underlying message remains the same: supporting systems written by other people is not as much fun as working on our own systems. The key thing is that Peter wouldn't be supporting other people's systems. he would be managing the people who were supporting other people's systems. So the minions have all the aggro and Peter would just have to manage their unhappiness. So it doesn't really matter whether it's just EBS or in-house apps too. The challenges of the post remain the same.

Technical interest

We become techies because we enjoy wrestling with technical issues. It can be tremendously satisfying to track through a system and nail a bug. There is joy to be had in devising an elegant algorithm to implement a gnarly piece of business logic. The hardest part of adjusting to a managerial role will be saying to a team member, "That sounds like a really interesting problem. Let me know when you've solved it." I know I'm not ready to say that (although there are days...) A manager who keeps involving themselves in the low-level details is not only not doing their own job properly but is hindering their staff in the performance of their duties. Which is not to say that management is an inherently boring role. The difference is that the role requires the manager to debug people rather than software or hardware

The sub-text

The thing is, the other reason why many people become techies is they get on better with machines than they do with human beings. Debugging a database performance problem is easy. Run a trace, tkprof the output, look for the heaviest waits, slap on a index. It's altogether more difficult to tune the performance of a person. There are no diagnostic scripts to run, no trace to analyse, no configuration parameters to tweak. Instead you have to take your performance problem down the pub for a lunchtime pint (or two), subtly mine the small talk for the underlying reasons why they are not working to their full potential and figure out what changes you can make. It may be as simple as telling them to buck their ideas up.

The tricky bit is that there is no backup and recovery option. If a manager says something inappropriate or clumsy and their staff member storms out the room in tears or high dudgeon, there is no flashback query to retrieve the situation. Management requires a different set of skills. It requires softer skills, which unfortunately tend to be innate, although it is still possible to work on them, if we have some basic aptitude and the right attitude.

Oh, and management usually requires wearing a suit and a tie, which also grates with many techies.

So why should Peter take the post

As those who have met Peter know he has the requisite people skills, and famously he does own a suit. So what benefits might he get if he should make the jump?

Time. Being a technical expert requires mastery of a lot of low-level details. Because of the nature of our industry, these details keep changing. Furthermore, the number of areas which we have to master is always on the increase. There are only so many hours in the day. Whereas management skills are a lot more transferable. It helps if the manager is generally familiar with the problem space their team works in, but it really isn't essential. And they certainly do not need to keep up with the details. I remember a manager who, having sat through a fifteen minute presentation on Ant, asked, "Isn't this just like make?" Which was really all he needed to know.

Money. We may not agree with the value proposition but it is overwhelmingly the case that managers make more money than the staff they manage.

Career opportunities. In the technical stream there is a limit to the opportunities for career development. There are a few rock stars recognised throughout the world by a single name (Tom, Jonathan, Ritters). They get the travel, the book deals, the glamour, the groupies. For the rest of us there is the daily grind of doing basically the same old thing. Eventually we reach a point at which the current role has lost its spearmint. At the same time we cannot move into different technical space because it would mean taking too big a pay cut (nobody is going to pay data warehouse expert-level wages for a J2EE novice) and we have families to support. The best chance of doing something different is going non-technical.

The standard advice to neophyte developers wanting to become DBAs is that it is easier to manoeuvre oneself into a DBA role with an existing employer than it is to get a new company to take one on without any real actual experience. The same is true for grizzled techies wanting to get into management. Peter has been offered such an opportunity by his current employer. If he is tempted he should take it.

And I'm sure he will still find things to blog about.

1. For the record, I have never worked with Oracle Apps and have no idea whether supporting EBS sucks as a job. I defer to the opinion of those with experience.


Dimitri Gielis said...

Great post Andrew!

I had to decide a while ago, but for me it became more natural.

I was fully technical at Oracle. When I switched to a smaller company the goal was to do Oracle missions. And because after a while too many customers asked for my services, we took some other people. After 1,5 year we were with 12. I was a bit the "natural" leader, they formalized it as "Oracle Competence Center Leader". I was also responsible for the Oracle partnership, the monthly teammeetings etc.

At the end of last year another bigger company asked me to work for them as Oracle Business Unit Manager, a bit the same as OCC leader but with more responsabilities (P&L etc.) I'll do less technical (detailed) things as I'll do more pre-sales and not the whole project anymore.

I can't look into a Cristal bowl, so I can't see the future... but I know what I can expect as "techie" (as I was/did it) Now it's again a challenge; I'm learning and expanding my knowledge in another way and that's exiting.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Andrew. Pefect Friday afternoon reading material... but I am struggling with the mental picture of Tom Kyte and/or Jonathan Lewis surrounded by groupies (partly after watching a BBC4 TV documentary earlier this week on late '60s/early '70s West Coast country rock with Dave Crosby surrounded by groupies wearing not a stitch...).

Pete Scott said...

Andrew - a nice well balanced post. The role in mind for meis a bit like Dimitri's in that it also covers managing our Oracle partnership in the UK, it is also managing all of our non-DBA Oracle staff in the support division.

The big choice is whether I move from a niche skill (DW is regarded by some as an art) and become a 'suit'. A lot of my technical contacts have a dim view of 'damagers' and perhaps that colours the issue.

But if groupies are on offer, I might go the rockstar consultant route.

Thanks for the posting


Anonymous said...

Yes, nice post. I'm not sure I agree with this part though, unless you add the key word 'permanent'

"Money. We may not agree with the value proposition but it is overwhelmingly the case that managers make more money than the *permanent* staff they manage."

Lots of contractors earn much more than their managers, which is an interesting situation in itself ;-)

Pete Scott said...

Doug - I have staff who earn more than me !

Anonymous said...


Once more an insightful and interesting post. Much more useful than my knee-jerk "don't do it" reaction to Peter's original post.

I'd only add one more thing, after a little sober reflection myself, and that is the oft repeated advice of "do what you love, and love what you do."

As someone with a foot in both camps it is more of a challenge to 'debug' a person than a program, it just depends whether you personally think that this is a good or bad thing ;-)

APC said...

>> Lots of contractors earn much more
>> than their managers, which is an
>> interesting situation in itself

Is that a flat salary comparison or are you including the benefits such as holiday, sick leave, pension schemes, etc in your calculations?
And by "manager" are you talking about project managers or line managers?

Cheers, APC

Anonymous said...

[i]Is that a flat salary comparison or are you including the benefits such as holiday, sick leave, pension schemes, etc in your calculations?
And by "manager" are you talking about project managers or line managers? [/i]

Ooops, I just noticed your comment. Maybe there is something to coComment, after all.

Anyway, I'm talking about all types of manager and I really can't remember having a manager who earned more than their contractors, even the seniors. If there have been, they're a minority.

As for holiday and sick pay, a few accountants have told me to count on a maximum of 46 weeks pay a year which works out reasonably well, but maybe a lower number is safer in case you switch contracts and it takes a while to find something new.

I suppose pensions are probably the biggest factor and might close the gap, but it's still very much my impression that there's a gap.

This is all based on what I've come across in the UK, but there are international differences no doubt.

Of course, you have absolutely no 'career' prospects as a contractor and work isn't just about the money.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I see I've picked up bad habits from using Serendipity for my blog and getting used to that infernal BBCode ;-)


Anonymous said...

Actually, one final point.

I've heard of much higher salaries in the South of England, particularly in The City and some consulting jobs.

But most wages north of Watford are much lower than contract rates ...

Anonymous said...

We're all rich, us southerners, you know! And unfriendly. :D

Actually that reminds me -- I was introduced to the father of an English work collegue in Cincinnati a few years ago. He'd emigrated from Newcastle-upon-Tyne fifteen years before but when I answered his "Where are you from?" with "Around the south .. London, Bournemouth, the Bristol area" he retorted, "Ah, the posh part!".

What an idiot.

Anyway, good post, Andrew. I'm interviewing for a change from a technical architecture role to a managerial one next week so the subject is rather on my mind right now.

Anonymous said...

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