10 tips for working with nontechnical IT managers

Joanne Yip headshot
Joanne Yip|May 4, 2023
Illustration of computer desk and monitor with PDQ logo
Illustration of computer desk and monitor with PDQ logo

Looking for an IT manager with technical expertise, people management skills, and business savvy? In IT, that can be as rare as a three-headed unicorn. Chances are, you’re working with a manager who is less technically skilled than you’d like them to be. That can be frustrating, especially if they come with big egos and a chronic inability to listen. In such situations, how can you keep your cool (and your job)? From building your IT communication skills to growing your business knowledge, we’ve got some handy tips that might help.

Do IT managers need to have technical skills?

This question can evoke some pretty strong reactions, depending on whom you ask.

Team “Uh, yes, of course!”

Some sysadmins strongly believe that nontechnical IT managers are not qualified to make technical decisions, manage technical projects, or lead a technical team. After all, you wouldn’t hire a person who can’t cook to be the head chef of a restaurant. Many IT pros argue that technically experienced project managers can better appreciate the challenges and complexities that the team faces. And you don’t have to spend extra time explaining basic concepts or trying to break down complicated scenarios for them.

Team “Eh, not necessarily”

Others believe that IT managers don’t need (as many) technical skills. It’s not their job to handle technical tasks like product development. A manager’s job is to handle corporate shenanigans, clear obstacles, and empower the team so that work can get done. Some of the best IT managers are the ones who — despite having little or no technical capabilities — have invaluable soft skills and high levels of self-awareness and humility. They’ve also been known to share a great deal of trust, openness, and mutual respect with their team.

Either way, the most important thing is that they’re willing and able to work with the team and set you up for success.

10 tips for working with nontechnical IT managers

For IT teams, it can take more than good intentions to work effectively with an IT manager who knows less about technology than you do. Here are 10 practical tips on how you can overcome common barriers and develop a more positive working relationship.

1. Know your audience

Is your nontechnical manager somewhat familiar with the basics — or not at all? Do they come from an entirely different field of technology? Understanding their profile can help you tailor how you relay technical information, including the words you choose and how you break down concepts.

2. Earn their trust

Build trust with your manager by being consistent and reliable in your work. Choose the right KPIs that showcase your value and support their vision for the team. Set clear boundaries, keep them informed of your progress, and be honest about any issues that come up. The more they trust you to deliver results, the less they’ll question your decisions.

3. Simplify communication

When communicating technical information to nontechnical people, keep these two guidelines in mind: avoid jargon and use analogies. Those two skills will save you time and keep communication clear. Not sure if you can pull this off? Here’s a good test: Explain how VPN works to your parents in three minutes or less and see if they get it. Lean on analogies and down-to-earth terms to convey the message. Then take that same approach with your boss.

4. Offer solutions

When faced with ill-advised requests, try not to say no right away (or roll your eyes, as tempting as that may be). Instead, present alternative solutions and frame it as a business issue (instead of a technical one) by highlighting potential savings and business impact. Keep the discussion open and encourage questions so that management feels like their views are being considered.

5. Document key decisions

Some managers have selective memory, especially when their decisions lead to mistakes or failure. (And let’s not get started on bosses who habitually throw their team under the bus.) When you can’t fully trust your manager to have your back, it’s a good idea to CYA (cover your a**) by documenting key decisions in writing. It’s not the best approach for relationship building, but it’s crucial when navigating tricky situations at work.

6. Learn to speak business

EBITDA, SHMEBITDA. You may not love management speak, but it can help you to bridge the gap with your manager. Learn more about your organization’s broader business priorities and observe how other teams discuss them from a nontechnical perspective. If you have the time, budget (or sponsorship), and inclination, taking an MBA course could also boost your business knowledge and lead to new opportunities in other tech companies.

7. Find good mentors

It can be hard to see clearly when you’re the one dealing with the problem. That’s when a good mentor can offer invaluable advice and insights. Identify where you need help, and look for individuals with relevant experience or wisdom to share. And who knows, you might have the chance to pay it forward one day.

8. Build your support network

There’s a strong sense of community among IT folks — something you don’t see in many other industries. Whether you’re struggling with burnout or a difficult boss, you can find peer support and advice from others who have had similar experiences on community forums like Reddit and Discord. You don’t have to suffer in silence because you’re not alone.

9. Be the one to drive change

There’s a shortage of tech folks in management because most of them prefer to focus on technology rather than deal with people. And we get it. It takes a brave soul to navigate the murky realms of corporate bureaucracy. Still, it might be worth taking up the mantle not just for the pay but also for the difference you can make for your team and the work that they do.

10. Screen potential employers

If you’re applying for a job, screen your potential employer carefully. Do they have a clear IT team structure? Is there a clear chain of command? Do you vibe with your would-be manager? Do they meet your expectations of what you need in a manager? Request to speak to peers on the team or find an appropriate moment during your interview to ask more in-depth questions.

For real-life anecdotes and a more spirited discussion on what it’s like to work with a nontechnical manager, watch our webcast episode on how to work with CTOs who don’t know tech.

Speaking of strategies to make IT life a little less stressful, we’ve got tools for that, too. You can easily manage and provision Windows devices with PDQ Deploy and Inventory if you prefer to stay on your local networks. If not, our new solution, PDQ Connect, is agent based, easy to use, and lightning fast, allowing you to support Windows devices seamlessly over the internet. After all, even if people are complicated, IT doesn’t always have to be.

Joanne Yip headshot
Joanne Yip

Joanne has always loved the impact that words can make. When she isn’t typing away in the world of sysadmin, Joanne loves hiking with her husband and dog, true crime podcasts, and dreaming of her next scuba diving adventure.

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