Are You Just A Leader Or Techno-Leader?
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Are you just a Leader or Techno-Leader?

Managing Director
See interview of Chetan  Nagaonkar
Although I had published my previous blog on ‘Paralyzed Productivity’; I was not too happy about it. I admit, in a hurry of keeping my commitment of publishing at least one blog every month; I had narrated my latest experience with one of our customer and had ended up sharing mostly the pain points without getting into different aspects.

After completing about just over a month with this customer; I have realized that one of the lessons which I had learnt few years ago holds good today as well. I am not sure how many of the readers would agree with my thoughts that I intend to share in this blog; however, my objective of writing is to share my thoughts/experience without getting biased of what readers may judge :-). My thoughts in this blog are purely from my IT experience perspective.

Let me get out of confession mode and start the topic by asking the question that will indeed have many arguments – “Should a leader be technical?” I know that many of you will say a firm NO.

I couldn’t stop exploring the causes/solutions of pain points with one of our customers where I have committed my time recently. It is a complete chaos; they have a huge application with umpteen interfaces using different technologies and have a large set of relatively inexperienced people on those technologies. Their customer is not happy with the quality as the defects keep piling up while the managers keep finger pointing each other as a part of RCA (Root Cause Analysis). It’s a different story that they don’t use Fishbone or any other tool for doing RCA though. I think that RCA itself is used by them as a tool to finger point other teams!

While I was climbing my career in early stages; I was brought up in an environment where becoming Project Manager was on the wish list. A step prior to becoming Project Manager was Project Lead. Obviously, I had made my first mistake of completely avoiding getting into technical details and focused only on leading the team when I was promoted to Project Lead for the first time. For about a year, I tried to get ready for my next stage – Project Manager, and hence got my certification completed in Project Management. When a time came to move on to different organization; I realized that I should not have ignored my technical skills. Perhaps, since it was in my very early career stage; I was able to take corrective action. I joined the next organization with a title/role way lower than Project Lead and spent a year to get myself established as a technical person. After that, although I have been into Senior Management and Director positions, I have never dared to become non-technical again :-)

Continuing to share my thoughts on one of our current customers; none of their managers have expertise/background of the main technology that the product has been built. I agree that it may not be absolutely essential; however, I can also sense that none of them has ever tried to even get into understanding of this technology at a high level either. They seem to be of the opinion that they need not understand the technology and can manage it with so called smart or intelligent (or for that matter using management jargon) questions. What they do not seem to understand is that since the people reporting to them know about their manager’s lack of technical expertise (in that specific technology), it’s easy to use technical jargon and buy in additional time, give in incorrect estimates, misguide them on architecture etc! The net result is lack of technical leadership which has already led to incorrect architecture, performance issues, lack of best practices in coding/designing, orphan objects creating more confusion with the already puzzled developers.

Before we started providing consultancy; this customer of ours already had another vendor who had taken them for a nice ride by providing fresh graduates trained on this technology for couple of weeks, fudging their resumes and claiming to have them experienced as 2-3 years professionals ! So much for the lack of technical leadership! Despite this, I see that this customer seems to hire anybody who can spell (pun intended) this technology.

I do agree that leaders with domain expertise (without necessarily being too technical) can make a difference; however, not everybody can be as exceptional as Jack Welch or Warren Buffet. In his biography, ‘Beyond the Last Blue Mountain’, even the legend and one of my role models, JRD has expressed many times that he would have added more value technically (as well) had he not discontinued his education. I truly believe that the leader (Type I) having a technical expertise often does better on quality and architecture. Those (Type II) who are really good but yet do not have technical expertise manage the show for some time by surrounding themselves with the true experts and taking correct decisions. Honestly, I think that this is a very rare breed though. Note that this takes time as the leader needs to understand the core people and surround him/her with them. The rest of the leaders (Type III) try to hide it using their communication skills or blame it intelligently on others until they move out of the project (not sure if we should refer them as leaders as they don’t really lead, but make people believe that they do!).

I can share couple of real examples –

Scenario 1: A leader who was technical on technology A had taken his team to the customer to deliver an assignment. Midway, he realized that couple of team members didn’t have enough technical skills on technology B to deliver the project on time. This person had to roll his sleeve, understand the situation; learn what was necessary in that technology and deliver it – most importantly without letting his customer feel unsecured.

Scenario 2: A leader was tasked to resolve performance issues of a well-known established process that was being used for over 10 years. When he discussed the details with experienced designers/developers, they explained the details in technical terms and expressed their inability to enhance performance. Both - the leader and designer/developer were expert in the same technology.

The non-technical leader would have perhaps either given up or taken a long time to deliver it. What do you think happened in both scenarios when technical leaders worked?

In Scenario 1, the technical leader learnt the technology B enough to deliver the project on time and he delivered it with much appreciated quality :-)

In Scenario 2, the technical leader went into enough details on day 1 to realize that the coding was too complex to resolve performance issues immediately. He then went to the designer the next day – prepared with asking enough questions on how it was designed/coded and what options were explored to design/code it differently. As expected, towards the end of discussion, he had a convinced designer and a satisfied developer ready to resolve the performance issue after realizing technical feasibility :-)

I understand that the debate would be on Type II leaders as most of the leaders would be categorized here. I have experienced that many of Type II leaders tend to rely on the technical experts that they surround with. Often, a decision is taken by the opinion given by the technical expert to the leader. Unknowingly, the dependency grows and many a times the technical expert tends to take advantage of this. Net result – the leader takes a while to realize that the cost of replacing this technical expert has grown immensely. This is seldom the case when the leader is technical enough to manage the show with the team. Although, the leader is always credited with the success; I strongly believe that it is a team effort.

I don’t intend to compare IIM grads v/s IIT grads here :-). I believe that being a technical leader certainly helps to achieve it with better direction and much confident quality than a leader lacking corresponding technical skills. So, what type do you categorize yourself into?