Tech managers must know more

It may not be the most important thing for tech managers to have technical skills; people skills make the real difference 

by Dana H. Shultz 

[Dana H. Schultz] 

An active participant in the Northern California chapter of the Institute of Management Consultants (www.imcnorcal.org), I recently attended one of IMC’s afternoon workshops.

As one might expect in the Bay Area, four of the six consultants sitting at my table had technology-related practices.

Two work with semiconductor manufacturers, one works in mitigation of environmental hazards and yours truly advises clients in selecting and using computer hardware and software.

In the course of our discussion, it became clear that we and our clients are experiencing a phenomenon that crosses industry lines: It’s not enough, any more, for technical personnel to just be technicians.

As an example, one of the manufacturing consultants noted that engineers can no longer be successful just by designing a new product. They also need marketing skills to ensure that enough people will buy the products the engineers want to create.

People skills

This comment reminded me of an observation regarding the changing role of law firm technology managers that I first made several years ago. It’s not enough — and it may not even be the most important thing — for a manager to have technical skills. People skills make the real difference.

When firms started replacing minicomputers with PC networks in the early ’90s, it was clear that technology managers needed to update their technical skills. What was a bit harder to see then, but is clear now, is that other skills need updating, too.

We are in an era of ever-increasing competition. Every business — not just law firms — is feeling greater competitive pressure.

Every business must provide more products and services, of higher quality, more quickly and more cost-effectively.

The only way to get all these variables moving in the right direction at the same time is through the effective use of technology.

At the center

Technology has moved closer to the center of every firm’s existence. Thus the right technology manager can help make the firm a winner rather than an also-ran.

But the manager cannot do the job alone — other people must be involved. The manager’s success will depend on how effectively others are integrated into the technology selection and implementation process.

Consider, for example, the firm’s partners. The technology manager must be able to communicate clearly, honestly, openly and persuasively in order to gain their trust.

Otherwise, partners will not share and act on the manager’s technology vision.

On the other hand, the technology manager must also be prepared to say “no” — forcefully — when partner demands are unreasonable or unrealistic. This can be most difficult when the head of the firm’s technology committee is a self-proclaimed technology “expert.” In this situation, calm, careful explanation usually works better than direct confrontation.

Technology staff

Partners are not the only challenge. Technology staff members have their own idiosyncracies.

Often, the best technology staff have poorly developed social skills. Their manager needs to figure out how to get the most out of people who do not seem to play by everyone else’s rules. Success requires careful investigation of and appropriate response to each individual’s working style without disrupting the rest of the department or the firm.

So when your firm needs to hire a technology manager, don’t just look for a technical superstar. Look for someone who has the skills and personality to manage, lead and help bring your firm together as a team.

Dana H. Shultz is an Oakland-based lawyer, certified management consultant and speaker specializing in office technology and online marketing. He may be reached by e-mail at dhshultz@ds-a.com and on the World Wide Web at http://seamless.com/ds/.