Opinion: So you want to be a network manager

How to deal with all the troublesome technical, leadership and political issues

Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series. Read more strategies and tips in Part 2.

You've worked your way up the ladder, from cable jockey to network technician to network administrator.

You are the senior technical expert, the go-to person whenever something network-related goes wrong.

You know you're good, and you have the experience and certifications to prove it.

You always get great performance reviews, and everyone likes you.

You know your next career goal is to be in charge of a networking department.

It's the right choice for you. Maybe your boss is leaving, or you know of a vacant network manager position at another company that you're thinking of applying for. You meet the requirements stated in the job description, so you figure you should be the top candidate.

Hold on a minute.

Although technical prowess got you this far, it's going to take more than knowing how to configure a router interface to make it to the next level. About 10 years ago, I was that techie guru, and I made the leap to network manager. What I found out, however, is that there's much more to being a network manager than excelling at technical skills.

Some networking pros don't want to move up to management, and that's fine; there are endless technical challenges to be met, and some thrive in that environment. But if you're one who is hearing the call of being a network manager, read on. Whether you work on a small LAN, a large campuswide network or a global WAN, the following tidbits culled from my experience and the experiences of other network managers can help get you into the driver's seat as a manager of network operations -- and excel.

Understand that networking is a part of IT

It may seem trivial and obvious to state, but the network group is a part of IT and supports IT as a whole. Understanding this and being intimately familiar with how networking supports core IT functions, such as ERP access, is critical. Often, however, different groups within the broader IT group tend to form boundaries.

As an example of these boundaries, think of the times you've heard that application latency was diagnosed immediately as a network problem when in actuality, the issue was server load (or vice versa; we're all guilty). IT professionals can be very territorial with a "quick draw" reflex to point the problem elsewhere. This only creates boundaries and prolongs solving the problem, so the less territorial an IT group is, the more productive it will be. As a manager, you are the conduit between networking and other IT departments.

I made the mistake of adhering to those boundaries early in my tenure as a network manager. Asked by the IT director to come up with a solution to a remote access problem, I presented one which, as I put it, worked fine from a networking standpoint but possibly not from an IT one. I was reminded -- adamantly -- that networking is a part of IT, and that we had to provide solutions that were proper from a global IT perspective (and from a company one as well).

It took a while to sink in, but I eventually fully understood the message. To be a successful network manager, you need to leave the network boundaries at the door and start looking at the bigger picture.

Let your staff do the job

Sure, your technical skills probably played a big part in getting you to knocking at the management door, but as a manager, you shouldn't jump into the technical details of every project.

Darow Han, an IT professional who has been on both sides of the network manager line, points out another detriment of managers handling technical details. "One obvious issue is knowing when to step back" Han explains. "[Network] engineers are often threatened by technical managers who have a similar background."

I learned that lesson rather painfully early in my management career. At the time, my assistant manager was having difficulty fully implementing an SNMP management platform. The IT director made it clear to me that this needed to be completed quickly. My solution was to take over the technical aspects of the project, when I should have mentored and assisted my staff. Doing so would have avoided hurt feelings and pride.

Even though it was nearly 10 years ago, I can still clearly visualize the look of disappointment on the assistant manager's face as he rapidly passed by me, clutching a large pile of notes and documentation he had personally worked on for weeks. I had, perhaps inadvertently but certainly effectively, told him that I didn't think he was capable of performing the job.

It took some time to repair that damage, and it started with a "straight look in the eye" apology to him immediately after I realized what I'd done. I have learned that when I let any of my staff find a technical solution, even though it may not have been the way I would have done it, I gain a much happier, knowledgeable and valuable team member, and more often than not a design superior to what I would have produced.

I learned from that experience to let my staff handle the technical details unless they ask for assistance, but keep an eye on them from a distance. They need to know that you trust their skills, and if you intervene on projects, it may seem you don't trust them. That is a tough hole to climb out of, so it's best to avoid it. On the other hand, they need to know that they can rely on your technical knowledge when and if they need it.

Finally, keep in mind that your staff may not do things the way you would. I have found that is often a good thing, as no one, including the network manager, always knows the best solution to a network problem.

Lead and be strategic

While your employees need to do their jobs without constant technical micromanaging, they still need direction. As the leader of the network group, it's your responsibility to set strategies to achieve goals. As a tech, you may have been mainly focused on specific technical tasks, but moving up means throwing tunnel vision out the window.

Sergey Berezansky, an independent IT consultant with eight years of networking experience, says that the network manager needs to avoid "drilling down into details of implementation, but concentrate on management itself and on strategic planning." He suggests leaving to the staff decisions such as what code version to run on a switch.

Successful supervising doesn't mean letting go of all technical duties. Ultimately, the network manager is responsible for the network operation, but the degree of involvement in the nitty gritty issues depends on your organization. For example, should the manager have all administrative and root passwords? Tech-savvy managers may benefit from having that access, while other management types may prefer to leave all administration technical duties behind.

Regardless, you need to understand your role is no longer as a foot soldier, but as a leader. You need to tap into your leadership skills and expand them, and leave the routine subnet creations to your staff.

And how do you expand your leadership skills?

  • Join a local technical organization and offer to lead projects such as recruitment drives or Web page development, and make sure you're actually leading the project and not performing the technical duties yourself.
  • Try to emulate the best qualities that person or persons that you looked up to in your early career; it doesn't necessarily have to be a supervisor but it often is.
  • Offer to give a presentation at a conference or to a local college or high school class. I regularly talk to classes and speak at conferences and have found that by leading a discussion for an hour or so, I exercise my leadership skills, because selling my visions and ideas to others is what leaders do.
  • Finally, know how to follow a leader, and constantly recognize that when you are leading successfully you're convincing people to follow you. You should always be asking yourself "How would I like to be led?" and go from there.

Not just management skills

So far I've discussed strategies that can help in your pursuit of becoming a successful network manager. But it's not just about management skills; understanding how IT supports the business goals of the organization is critical. I'll address those skills and strategies needed in part two.

Greg Schaffer is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. He has over 15 years of experience in networking, primarily in higher education. He can be reached at newtnoise@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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