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Improving non-technical skills

Improving non-technical skills

Improving non-technical skills

I just recently got a new position after being unemployed for nearly an entire year.

It's a small company, but it's very close to home and also happens to be my first time being directly and solely in charge of an IT department.  

I have a very strong technical background and many years of experience at network administration, the problem I'm finding is learning the "intangibles" so to speak.  For instance, how to talk in that somewhat mystical language of "managerial-ese", how to come up with an accurate budget and stay within it, how to look at things from a business perspective as well as a technical one, how to sell upper management on upgrades/projects/expenses, how to balance being a boss with being nice, etc...

Any recommendations on some good books or even just some advice?

Many thanks!

RE: Improving non-technical skills

While I don't have any useful advice on your management issues, I just wanted to say "Congratulations" on your new job!  I know how awesome it is to get something after a long period of looking!


RE: Improving non-technical skills

Some things off the top of my head:
You can't balance being boss with being nice, it's your job often to be the bearer of bad news. What you want to do is be perceived as fair not nice. You want the people who work for you to know you will support them when things are tough (nothing worse than a boss you feel will throw you off the bus when there is a problem), but they also need to know that once a decision has been made, it's been made and everybody has to live with it.

The worst boss I ever had could not make and stick to a decision, consequently we ended up changing direction on long-term projects multiple times a day. To stay sane, we did the project three differnt ways and only showed hom the stuff for the way he was currently leaning towards. In retrospect, a bad decision is easier to work with than no decision.

Sell your ideas for new projects in terms of business needs not technical desires. WE all know that you want to redesign the application or buy two monoitors for every developer, don;t tell senior managers you want to do it because you think using an ORM is cooler than using stored procs. Sell things in terms of profit, meeting deadlines, imporved customer relations, lower development costs, security, etc. If you can't reduce it to money, at least find a way to evaluate it numerically. Senior managers love numbers.


"NOTHING is more important in a database than integrity." ESquared

RE: Improving non-technical skills

Decision making and critical thinking skills will be the most important. As long as you make good decisions in the areas you are responsible for, things will work out.
 These two skill sets will earn you the respect of those who work under you and those above you investing in those decisions.


If the women don't find you handsome,
they should at least find you handy.
 (Red Green) www.redgreen.com

RE: Improving non-technical skills

Try to "buddy up" with another manager who understands the budgeting and other managerial processes the organization uses. It will make things eaiser if you can find someone who will mentor you.

Most managerial issues you have to learn on the job. Nobody can really teach how to manage others effectively. You can get tips and ideas but you it's kind of like a trial by fire kind of thing.  

RE: Improving non-technical skills

If you're a one-person IT department, learn as much as possible about the IT infrastructure, and try to eliminate any outside consulting - learn how to take care of everything yourself. Call outside help only in true emergencies.
Plan ahead, anticipate - watch trends in your equipment useage, storage space, and give management alerts on what future expenses might be, and plan cost effective solutions.
Try to ensure that management is never surprised.
If they'll let you, buy used gear if it fits the situation.
(years back, in a firm in a high rise with Arcnet Coax cabling, I bought some used TCNS boards and a hub, so I could demonstrate 100M/b networking on the slower coax. That got me budget approval to rewire the firm with Cat-5 and move the whole operation to 100BaseT).
A source of server-grade hardware that I have used was Corporate Systems. Get comfy with all of your gear - PC's, backup systems, network cabling & hubs/switches/routers, printers (learn how to do service kits, etc). If you have any subordinates, get them trained on some of the printer servicing. Check into toner refills, etc. Show them that you spend the firm's money as carefully as if it were your own. Network with your opposite numbers at similar firms - there may be a local lunch meeting or informal association gathering.
(my small firm experience  - 3 years as the only IT guy for a furniture manufacturer with 3 distant showrooms, and 7 years as an IT guy for a law firm, with two subordinates, and expanded the system to a WAN connecting three remote offices, and integrated the email with three customer organizations)

Fred Wagner


RE: Improving non-technical skills

I think that it is extremely misleading to say "eliminate outside consulting," especially without knowing the environment.  In reality you will only achieve this in two ways:

1.  Increase employee headcount, and consequently increase year-round expenses.

2.  Decrease workload.  Since you can't cut your support workload, you'll end up cutting your project workload.  While some companies may be OK with that, it is typically the projects that have the most ROI (as opposed to just maintaining support).

It is often times much easier to get a project funded than it is to get a position funded, because a project will have a fixed cost and end date.  Employees continue to get paid long after the project is done.  From that perspective, management may be much more receptive to project work than hiring people.

The other problem in dealing with more in-house staff versus contractors is that you may find that you frequently will not have the skillset in house to implement solutions that can drive higher levels of ROI.  Most businesses simply cannot afford to employ solution experts for every technology are (or in many cases, any technology area).  Without the ability to contract out for those services a company is essentially trying to swim with a boat anchor tied to their leg.  I've seen far too many cases where a company has tired to deploy sophisticated technology using internal, non-expert or neophyte practitioners, which usually ends up with either an unsatisfactory solution or the need to hire in expensive consultants to fix it.

CompTIA A+, Network+, Server+, Security+
MCTS:Windows 7
MCTS:System Center Virtual Machine Manager
MCSE:Security 2003
MCITP:Enterprise Administrator  

RE: Improving non-technical skills

I was going on the premise that complex 1216 was better educated and experienced than his predecessor. When I took over the Law Firm network, my predecessor was non-technical had been more of a paralegal, and no clue on networks and computers, so she relied on consultants. I had a strong technical background, came from a one-man IT shop, and was able to take the system management back in-house. Complex 1216 may be able to do the same thing. It doesn't take dozens of certifications, it takes natural ability and experience. If you've got it, you can do it. If you can't, you use consultants. If you use consultants, get references. At the law firm, I needed a new server. The dealer insisted on configuring it. I needed netware 3.x (I said this was a while back!) and four ArcNet NICs installed. I gave them four new Thomas-Conrad NICs, in the box with documentation. They delivered the server, and it although it booted and you could control it from the console, it could not be logged into. they had set up all four NICs to the same IRQ and Memory address. We crossed out several hours of 'expert consulting' time on the invoice. The guy who did it was a 'Certified Netware Engineer'. I wasn't, but I'd built Netware servers from scratch before, and they worked.

Fred Wagner


RE: Improving non-technical skills

complex1216 - In our opening post, you ask several "how to" questions and they all represent skills that well need to improve upon.  

However, the number one skill to have is the ability to listen.

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RE: Improving non-technical skills

Thanks for all the responses!

Apparently my predecessor at this place was not exactly what you would call a "go-getter" and tended to live by a mantra of "set it up once, forget about it, and don't document at all costs", so as you can imagine I have not only quite a mess to clean up, but expectations among the non technical staff have fallen to the point where not many people have confidence in the IT staff.

I hope to change that and am already making great progress in that area among most of the staff, but one of the consequences I'm finding is that upper management in particular has developed an extremely skeptical view when it comes to technology.  As a result, there is a lot of trust that needs to be rebuilt, but I suppose that will just take time and patience.

More than anything I just want to make the most of this opportunity since it is by far the greatest opportunity I have had in my career up until this point.


RE: Improving non-technical skills

You've got a huge opportunity, and by being careful you'll continue to build confidence - yours and theirs. You can also use the technical areas of this forum for advice in areas where you might be hazy - and if the advice is 'hire an expert consultant' then do it. At the law firm, I had to do that for setting up T-1 links and configuring the router to merge the WAN into the LAN. You'll progessively build confidence and knowledge as you go. If possible, have a test server and small network segment to use as a sandbox. Back at the law firm, while still on Arcnet, I had two main servers with 4 Arcnet Nics each, and a 10BaseT backbone, and a third server on the 10BaseT backbone(previous main server) running a CD-ROM farm, with an extra ArcNet NIC. When I had a suspicious workstation, I'd move it to the isolation NIC on the CD-ROM server while I troubleshot it. (frequently turned out to be damaged coax). That way it still had network access, but wouldn't affect the rest of the system while I isolated the problem. You've got a superb opportunity to learn, be creative, and do things the way they should be done, including documenting things so that if you should ever want to take a vacation, you can have a contemporary at another firm (or a vendor) who could be on call to fix a problem, with your good documentation.
Are there other small businesses in the area with one-man IT shops? Do lunch together, become each other's on-call backups.
Ways to enhance things ? Mail system ? Firewall? Spam filter ? network printing? network Faxing ? gigabit network segment ? Backup to DLT? Off site rotation of backups? all sorts of ways you can incrementally improve the network.
How about the accounting department ? is their info on the network and backed up? or do they do their own ? (we had to pay Ontrack Data Recovery to recover the Accounting Manager's local drive, where the profit/pie information was kept - not stored on or backed up with the rest of the network of course, too private!) ever done a test restore ? (to a test server, of course!) Lots of ways to improve the system and learn as you go.

Fred Wagner


RE: Improving non-technical skills

Well, one of the good things is that I inherited a TON of resources.  It's a software developer and our product runs on just about every platform imaginable, which means they develop and test on every platform.  Also have a very extensive VM environment.  

I also inheirited a virtual lab as well as an actual lab room full of spare machines and on it's own subnet.

I currently have a full time admin underneath me, as well as a part time desktop support tech who comes in 3 days a week while he goes to school.  Problem is, they too have grown accustomed to the previous manager and his lazy approach so it's not that they are incompetent or bad employees, they just aren't as motivated or as ambitious as I would like. So not only do I have to raise the expectations among the non technical staff, I also have to raise them within the department itself.  

This is part of what I was alluding to when I mentioned "intangibles" earlier.  I know have to lay down the law, and I know I have to lead by example, but I also know that nobody like a pushy boss, and employees who don't like their bosses are not as productive.

As for enhancements, it's kind of hard to say at this point.  Everything has kind of just been ad-hoc'd and patched together for the past several years with little follow up or preventative maintenance.  As a result, the only way I can see to enhance, is to first slowly deconstruct piece by piece and rebuild from the physical topology up (if you saw my server room at this point, you would fear for your safety, literally).  I feel that for the most part, we have all the resources we need, it's just being dramatically under-utilized.

RE: Improving non-technical skills

As far as books go....

"The Leadership Challenge" by Posner was very good.

Of course "7 Habits of Highly Effective People" I not only have in print, but also on CD to listen to in my truck when I'm on trips.

Both have changed my outlook.


Just my 2¢

"What the captain doesn't realize is that we've secretly replaced his Dilithium Crystals with new Folger's Crystals."

--Greg  http://parallel.tzo.com

RE: Improving non-technical skills

Congrats to Complex1216 on your break through.

Thanks for the great insights of how to handle managment career areas.

I have 10 years of experience in technical support and systems management. I know i need to improve on communication skills.

Any thoughts about how to build a brige (Communication ) with someone who doesn't like to talk much.  ?

RE: Improving non-technical skills

rjohn2223 - Sometimes people who won't talk much in person will be much more communicative in email - even if they're in the same floor with you.... worth a try...
Or, if you find out they play chess, invite them to a game on www.schemingmind.com and insert some chatty comments between the moves.

Fred Wagner


RE: Improving non-technical skills

Be clear on exactly what your department is trying to achieve, document it and make sure it fits with what the company needs. Then feed that back to your manager and get agreement.

Set your targets, and identify the priorities.

Agree a work plan for each of your direct reports, with quarterly targets - make sure that you can monitor them.

Have regular meetings, at least every two weeks, with your direct reports to discuss progress, identify any problems and sort out any problems.  Keep it informal, non-threatening, and use it to build relationships.  

Look for opportunities to help you staff to develop their skills.

Walk the floor regularly, don't interfere, just get a gut feel for what's going on - that should alert you to any looming problems.

Provide cakes (or similar) whenever there's a success, or when you feel they need a lift, or just because you feel like it.  Never underestimate the value of cakes!!!!

"It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong." Richard Feynman

RE: Improving non-technical skills

I used to keep a jar filled with gumballs in my office.

(I got the idea from one of the books I mentioned about a manager who kept a popcorn machine in his office)

It was great; because all of the other supervisors would come in for a gumball, and while there they'd say Hi, or tell me something that was going on, or whatever.  It was a great way to make myself approachable.


Just my 2¢

"What the captain doesn't realize is that we've secretly replaced his Dilithium Crystals with new Folger's Crystals."

--Greg  http://parallel.tzo.com

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