management
Duke University
Berkeley

Tech Industry Managers: Little Men in Big Shoes?

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When I was ready to transition from computer programmer to project manager, my employer, Xerox Corporation, sent me to its huge training center in Leesburg, Virginia. Over two weeks, the people there taught me some of the skills I needed in order to succeed in my new role: managing projects, motivating people, complying with employment regulations, and preparing status reports and presentations. The company also encouraged me to complete an MBA, on a part-time basis, at New York University. It gave me lots of time off and paid for the tuition.

Tech companies in the internet era offer their employees some great perks. But do you think that Facebook, Groupon, or Zynga provide budding professionals with any serious management training? Not at all. Given the way tech companies grow and the HR challenges they face, management training and career development are more important than ever. But few have the time—they are too busy surviving.

Professors Robert Fulmer and Byron Hanson of Duke University’s Corporate Education group researched the management practices of 23 leading high-tech firms. Corporate executives in an overwhelming majority, 89 percent, believed that leadership development was becoming increasingly important for their companies; 58 percent ranked this as a high corporate priority. Yet less than one-fourth of the managers interviewed had a clear roadmap for how they could develop themselves, and more than half didn’t even know who in their organization was responsible for the development of leaders. The conclusion of the researchers wasn’t surprising: many high-tech companies are young, so their systems and procedures for grooming leaders aren’t well developed or firmly established.

Maybe this is why so many tech companies suffer from morale problems, missed deadlines, customer-support disasters, and high turnover. And this may be one of the reasons why so many tech startups who succeed in selling their vision and raising millions in financing are just a flash in the pan.

One of the interesting findings in the Fulmer and Hanson research was that more than 70 percent of the tech executives interviewed said that leadership development in technology-driven firms is different than in other industries. The researchers believed, just as I do, that these tech executives were dead wrong. The lessons that leading companies like Proctor and Gamble and General Electric have learned about management development and training apply as much, if not more, to tech companies.

This means that if you’re a fresh grad joining a hot new tech startup, you shouldn’t expect your managers to train and groom you, or the company to provide you with time off to complete an MBA. You’re on your own. If you are working at some of the more established companies, such as IBM and HP—which do have excellent management-development practices—take full advantage of them. You need to learn all you can.

Many people are born with an innate sense of vision; they readily learn new technologies and master them. Some are very good at communicating and inspiring others. But you can’t be born with the skills needed to plan projects, adhere to EEOC guidelines, and prepare budgets and manage finances, or to know the intricacies of business and intellectual property law. All this has to be learned. Some skills can be developed on the job, but this is usually through trial and error.

I usually recommend that engineering students who want to become managers and CEOs complete a fifth year of education. There are one-year long engineering management programs which cover such subjects as marketing, finance, intellectual property, business law, and management—similar to the key courses in an MBA program; plus tech-oriented subjects like innovation management, operations management, and entrepreneurship.  One such program (and there are many) is the Duke Masters of Engineering Management program, at which I teach.

For experienced tech workers in Silicon Valley, Berkeley and Stanford both have excellent MBA programs. Berkeley Haas School dean, Rich Lyons told me over dinner, last month, of his plans to make his school the premier training ground for Silicon Valley executives. Boston’s Babson College is also launching a program in San Francisco.

But not everyone needs to spend two years doing an MBA. Berkeley’s college of engineering is creating a much shorter program targeted at Silicon Valley techies with leadership potential. Under the aegis of Fung Institute Chief Scientist and Director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, Ikhlaq Sidhu, the school is developing a professional program in Engineering Leadership. This will meet one evening a week for six months and teach subjects like product management, entrepreneurial thinking, leadership and finance. It will also teach team building, business management, and motivation.

The new Berkeley program is highly selective however.  It will only accept 25 candidates in 2011, based on recommendations from senior executives in the valley. Sidhu says that he hopes to address the “symptoms of engineering without leadership”—which include organizational indecision about new products and services; unresolved conflict between product management and engineering; and superficial technology strategies.  Berkeley will likely expand this program significantly over time and add many others. After all there is a great need.

Editor’s note: Guest writer Vivek Wadhwa  is an entrepreneur turned academic. He is a Visiting Scholar at the School of Information at UC-Berkeley, Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School and Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University. You can follow him on Twitter at @vwadhwaand find his research at www.wadhwa.com.

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