Managing Technical Teams

CCNA: Cisco Certified Network Associate Study Guide: Exam 640-802MCSA/MCSE Self-Paced Training Kit (Exam 70-270): Installing, Configuring, and Administering Microsoft Windows XP Professional: Installing, Configuring, ... Second Edition (Pro-Certification)Managing technical staff is becoming more of a challenge daily.  Even more so, when your staff are MORE technical than you are - which to some extent is expected ... you are a manager and responsible for multiple area's of the company, they are specialists and able to focus on their area to the exclusion of everything else.

In most cases technical staff are those who prefer to perform their work with little or no supervision and they often view Managment "oversight" as a hinderance to their - getting the job done.  They also quite often forget that at the other end of the phone line, there is a customer (or customers) that has been impacted and regardless of the fact that they "think" they can resolve the problem, there are timelines and SLAs in place to ensure that issues get escalated.   Now, while "techs" are members of the team that managers depend upon heavily to resolve the problem, it is the managers responsibility to understand the "big picture" and also the challenges faced by these key members at a non-technical level.

The manager is responsible for balancing the needs of the company against the needs of these key resources and obviously directing technical staff can be a challenge.  It is made even more of one, by those managers that are unable to step back and release control.  The understanding between a manager and his team must be such that trust exists at either level.  You trust them to get the job done in a timely manner and escalate those problems that they are unable to handle & they trust you to keep their best interests in mind, work with them to get more training (which is something a "true" techie will never have enough of), ensure that they have the resources and training to resolve the problems that you are assigning to them and in those instances where its necessary ... pull them back and away from a problem so that they do not get defeated.  This mutual respect MUST be in place if the team and organization is expected to be effective. 

The manager of a technically oriented department MUST have a reasonable grasp of the technologies and issues that his staff will face.  They should be able to understand it at a "high" level, but it is OK to let your staff know that they are smarter than you!  Remember they are skilled in their unique discipline and while you could not do their job, they are not managers and could not do your job either.  It is far more important for the manager to be able to direct the staff to the right resources, tools or training when working issues.  If the employee cannot perform the task with his current level of knowledge, it is incumbent on the manager and the company to ensure that appropriate and relevant training is available in a timely (& frequent) manner.  Technical skills "rust" when not used and with the plethora of new technologies constantly being developed and launched it is very difficult to always be current with the newest while maintaining a grip on legacy tools/applications and knowledge.

Managers are constantly expected to do more, with less resources, regardless of the economy (think about it - in good times, the number of customers you have are increasing whereas your resources won't (at least not at a comparative rate) as the company is in business to make a profit ... in bad time, you lose staff and have to service what customers you have left with fewer and fewer resources) and unfortunately is probably one of the few constants in our world!  Now, not only do you always have to do more with less, but you need to also ensure that the staff you have you KEEP!  The cost of hiring/training and integrating new staff and making them useful is a topic for another day, but suffice it to say, if you have a "good 'un", you want to keep him!  Its a fine line between customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction and its a tightrope you'll be walking every day.  I generally tend to err on the side of employee satisfaction - if you have good staff, doing a good job who are happy doing that job ... customer satisfaction just comes naturally!

The Importance of Training

Training for DummiesHow do you treat your new starters?  Do they get thrown in at the deep end - after all, they were hired for the skills you need, they should be able to just "pick it up" - right??  How did that go for you?  Were they your high performers?  No, starting to wonder why?

Hard to believe as it might be, companies did this!  They left their new staff alone to "find their feet" and pick things up on their own.  However, fortunately most companies now provide some sort of introductory training or orientation for most of their new employees. The better companies have a dedicated training department that helps to integrate all new employees and following this some sort of mentoring from another more senior employee in a similar role or position.

Now, the initial training - if done correctly - is actually a staged approach.  Generally HR would be responsible for showing the employee around the company, giving a little bit of detail with regards to the kitchen and all the details about time off etc... The training team or department would cover off the products and services that the new employee would be responsible for selling/servicing or supporting - in reality this should be a 2-3 week process at a minimum ... think about it like this, unless your company is brand new, the complexities of your product or service are something that has grown over time.  Ensuring that your employee is able to answer questions about it properly using the correct tools is not something that can be picked up in a day.  If you are offering a proper training program - spend the time and do it right.  This should be followed by "on the job" training and again ... spend the time to do it right.  One additional point?

Do not restrict this to your staff at entry level positions.  Ensure that staff in management positions also receive the same or similar training.  This is beneficial for a couple of reasons - (a) it ensures you have a extra staff - your management team- available to "jump in" in case of emergency; (b) it gives your management team an insight into the work your staff do on a daily basis and as such a better understanding of your staff and their challenges and (c) your management team NEEDS to know how to use your tools!!!  I cannot emphasize this enough - you do not need managers able to program routers, but you do need those managers to understand some of the alerts that your monitoring system provides to you.  This team determines what issues get escalated and to whom and as such they need to have the appropriate tools available to them to make that right decision.
Naked Employee, The: How Technology Is Compromising Workplace Privacy
Now so far I have only been speaking about training new staff.  The technology in the workplace is changing very rapidly and companies that can't keep up will drop out of competition. It is definitely worth stating that you must ensure current and up to date internal and external training is available to your existing staff.  I will cover that in more detail in some later posts though.

Is Training Worth it?

Surveys have determined that approximately 60% of companies are planning on offering some level of training to existing staff.  Some of the reasons provided are the introduction of new technology into the work environment requiring staff retraining, improving employee performance and employee retentionin.  The current $ value assigned to these initiatives?  About $2000/employee of which the largest portion was spent on technology and process related training initiatives.  A paltry 2-3% was spent on New Employee orientation.

Now, I am not trying to dismiss the amount spent - even at $2000/employee it is still a significant  cost and in industries with high employee churn - a major expense!

Flip it on its Head

Think about it another way though ...
  • Its not a cost if you take into account the amount of time its taken you to find that employee in the first place.
  • Its not a cost if you take into account the inherent knowledge that senior employee has obtained while working for your company.
  • Its not a cost if you can get these new (& old) employees being your advocate OUTSIDE of the workplace.
  • Its not a cost if you want to provide valued and useful and timely service to your customers!!!
Although mentioned last think about the last point I've said.  Which type of employee is going to be able to provide better service to your customer?  One that doesn't understand your company, its culture, products and services or one that does?  In the end that is really THE MOST IMPORTANT thing to consider.  The only reason you are in business is the customers that you have and the best way to keep them is by ensuring that you provide an unparalleled level of service to them.

Make sure that training becomes part and parcel of your company and its culture.  You want to get the right people in the door and integrate them into your teams as quickly and seamlessly as possible.  You also want to keep the people you have and ensure that you recognize that the training and development knowledge, attitude and skills of the employees you have are fundamental to your companies efficient and profitable performance.  Training should be so much a part of your culture that it is considered a benefit at the interview stage - you would be surprised at the number of people clamouring for this and the quality of these people!

Work Ethic and Today

A famous quote from Thomas Edison reads - 

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.

Thomas Edison

Now how often have you been the one to procrastinate or put something off till later?  How often have you not studied for that big test or perhaps not got onto that train because the weather was a little bit bad or you felt a little bit under the weather?

The unfortunate truth is that with the prevalence of modern conveniences that we now have available to us, people have gotten lazy.  It is easy to forget that a requirement for success is dedication and hard work.  This doesn't mean that you stop using the tools available to you ... what it does mean though is that you need to learn how to use them correctly.

Work smarter - not harder ... use your email client to track issues that you need to stay on top off - most clients have a "flag" option and any good email client will actually thread conversations together so that you do not need to read every individual message.  Use tasks and task management ... if your email client doesn't support this, use one of the free ones on the net - a great one that I use that is extremely customizable is called "Remember The Milk".  Make sure that you have access to all the people and resources you need to instantly by keeping your address book synchronized through tools like Plaxo.  If you have a PDA (Blackberry, Palm or equivalent smartphone) make sure that your email client is integrated appropriately so that you can take it with you.  

Remember however that you need to "clock off"!!  Do NOT work to the exclusion of your family.  You need to remember that the only reason you are there is to support your family and it should NEVER be the other way around.  

Use appropriate and useful project management tools  - if you do not have access to Microsoft Project there are several free alternative Project Management sites that you can get access to - check out Zoho Doc for a good option.

Think about MindMapping software - Freemind is a great application if you can download and use it on your desktop.  However, if your IT department has restricted your access you can use - - this is a free and fairly easy to use application.

The Job Search

OK, unfortunately, its that time of year again and you need to get your name out there and start looking for another job.  Now, this might be for any of a variety of reasons and we're really not going to worry about that here.  What we are going to discuss however is some good tools that you can and should be using to ensure that you are promoting yourself correctly and that you are looking in the right places for your new role.

First Question - what do you do now and are you happy?  

Sorry, I know it seems a little bit redundant, but you need to ask this one as so many people just go from job to job without doing what they enjoy.  Considering you are spending 8+ hours a day there and over 40 hours a week - it really makes sense for you to seriously think this one through.

If you are not happy with your current career - perhaps it is time for a change?  Think about schooling options and time away from the workforce in relation to your bills.  Assuming that you can afford to do it, get the relevant training you need so that you can progress forward in your new chosen career.  Remember for a lot of us, our job is just something we "fell into" after school - more often than not, it has no relation to what you studied, so this is your chance to do it right from an adult point of view!

One thing you should obviously consider is that whatever new career you start, you will be starting at the bottom.  Just keep it in mind and don't expect to immediately be at the same level you were previously.

Hows your CV/Resume?

Make sure you have a professional looking version of your CV available.  There are many free templates available on the Microsoft Website itself that are a good starting point if you have not built anything at all yet.  Here are some links to some good ones - but check the site itself for even more:
Now if you recall in a previous post, I mentioned the fact that when first creating your resume do not worry about page length.  The most important thing is content and information.  You want to think about having a "master" version of your CV that you can tailor specifically for the job that you are applying for.  So your master version could be 10 pages in length, but the tailored version once you've gotten rid of the jobs/roles that are not relevant and shrunk down the wording and font would be 2 (or 3) pages.

Advertise yourself - 

OK, so assuming you're happy with your chosen career and you have an appropriately formatted CV to show the world, you need to get your name out there.  There are probably three main ways to do this and to be honest they are all somewhat interrelated.


Even though job search networking is one of the most successful ways to find a new job, it can sound intimidating and sometimes seems a little bit scary. It doesn't have to be.  At least 60% - some report even higher statistics - of all jobs are found by networking.

The thing you have to keep uppermost in your mind is that your Job Search IS a job!!  You need to treat it as such and ensure that you assign some time to do it right.

Develop contacts - friends, family, neighbors, college alumni, people in associations - anyone who might help generate information and job leads - although you are not selling a product, you are selling yourself and that's how you should think about it..  Contact everyone you know. You may be surprised by the people they know.   Make yourself pick up the phone and call.  Networking isn't a process of making cold-calls to people you don't know. It's talking to people you do know or asking them to introduce you to others.

Email is a perfectly acceptable way to network as well.  Keep your message brief and to the point and be sure to check your spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Formal networking works too - try going to a business social or an association meeting or event.  You'll find that many of the participants have the same goals you do and will be glad to exchange business cards.

Job Board

Now there are lots of different Job Boards that you can find and use.  One of the most popular ones of course if Monster.  In addition to Monster, you will find many that are specific to your country or region and I will try to cover most of the bigger ones for the US/UK and Canada over the coming months and years.  However, another International tool that is definitely worth looking into - especially as it ties into the Networking topic mentioned above is called LinkedIn.

This site is different as it is very similar to social networking sites like Facebook and others, but it is professional in nature.  Your work friends and colleagues will be your networking contacts here and these are also the same people that through their own network will assist in getting you a new job.

The main reason that companies are using LinkedIn is to find passive job candidates. Another reason why companies are using LinkedIn, is because referrals from their employees are highly valued because they typically have a higher success rate (hence the popular "employee referral bonuses"). LinkedIn helps companies leverage the networks of their employees.
It's also important to note that LinkedIn has reached a point where it's almost unprofessional not to be on LinkedIn. There are members from all 500 of the Fortune 500 companies. LinkedIn members comprise 130 different industries and include 130,000 recruiters.


Your third option in your Job Search is Recruitment firms ... now, don't think of this as your last option as they should not be ... they are simply another arrow in your quiver and should be used in conjunction with the other two methods already mentioned.

Try to ensure that you target recruitment firms in your chosen sector vs. general recruiters as the specialists are most likely to have an opening in an area that you are interested in.  I'll try to cover some of the better/bigger ones in the next little while, however finding a recruitment firm is probably best done through Google and other search engines.

What is the hardest thing about running a call center?

I was recently asked this question in one of the forums that I am active on and its actually a surprisingly difficult question to answer.  Here's what I said to the Questionaire ... if you have a similar question, take a read through the points below but pay special attention to the extra info section.


What is the hardest thing about running a call center?

Well, I guess this answer varies depending on if you're running a Customer Service Call Center or if you're running a Help Desk/Support Call Center. However, in either case, probably your first challenge would be determining the appropriate KPI's that need to be measured.

You need to know what services are important to your customers and ensure that your teams are in the right place with the right knowledge to provide those answers to your customers to minimize any service disruptions or service impacts.

Then you need to be hiring and sourcing the right candidates - local or external - to ensure that your customers are getting the information they need. Once you've found the bodies, you're going to be looking at initial and ongoing training.

Appropriate teams and methodologies need to be in place to ensure that information flow and tools are available to your front line staff so that customers get the appropriate answer as quickly as possible - things like FAQs and Knowledgebases are great, but they need to be kept up to date. You must also ensure that you have a robust and effective system to track customer interactions.

Given you quite a bit of building and running a call center ... your question though ... the hardest thing ... really depends on what step of the process you're in. If just starting out, then getting the right people is probably going to be your biggest challenge - as a hint, hire for Customer Service skills and experience vs. Technical ... its easy to train/teach technical skills but a lot harder to do the same for Customer Service.

If your service is already well established you probably want to look at your KPI's and metrics as well as training and tools to ensure that your customers are getting the best answer possible. 


Extra Information - 

As you can see, as much as I would have liked to, I was unable to give a complete answer to this question as it is a bit too vague.  I would have liked to have known the following for a starting point to get into more depth.
  • Service Provided
  • Size of Company/Team
  • Size of Customer Base
  • Customer Service Call Center or Technical Call Center
  • Volume of Contacts
  • Current Customer Satisfaction Level & KPI's in place
  • Current Knowledgebase
  • Current Toolset
  • Insourced or Outsourced Customer Service

    What do you do when your Company is constantly having Outages?

    Its been a while for me, but there was a period of my life where I was working for a company that was in a constant state of outage.  They had a mix of services, and over the course of 2 years, I was flown across the country and around the world apologizing for the (lack) of services that my company provided.  While I love traveling and accumulating Air Miles, this was not my idea of a trip as you can imagine.

    So what did I do right and wrong?  Well, I got very good at apologizing and groveling and it helped me write my policy on dealing with Irate Customers.  While not exactly ideal I definitely learned a lot from this experience and I definitely made a positive impact on my companies bottom line.  How?

    Well, simply put, the Customers stayed! As you can well imagine, when a business and its service is being impacted by a 3rd party the natural inclination of anyone is to pull the service and move to another vendor.  When SLAs are constantly being missed and month on month, services are not improving this is even more likely.

    Now - it's easy to say that I "saved" the customers ... but how?


    Its easier to say than to do - especially when you don't have any news or even worse when you have bad news (you expected it to be fixed in 1 day and it's going to take 1 week!).  As I mentioned earlier, I quickly became skilled at speaking to Customer's face-to-face which happened with quite a few of our Tier1 customers.  I also became skilled at sending out mass emails, posts on message boards and forums and phone calls.  Setting a timeline for an update by any/all of these methods and then ensuring that I met that criteria were key.

    Now communication is actually a two-way thing.  Speaking to the customers is great, but what if you don't have anything to tell them?  Support and Helpdesk teams and Management are frequently on the "short end" of the stick without any updates from Engineering and Programming teams.  More often than not, these internal teams have no concept of the impact that the service interruption are causing to the customers.  It's your job to persuade them that the customers MATTER and the reason you & they are in a job - working for your company is the money that your customers are paying!!  They will take their business away eventually if you don't tell them what is going on.

    OK, assuming that you're talking to your customers and your other internal teams are talking to you ... what's next?  Well, you need to ensure that your company is actually doing something to fix the problem!!  The company that I mentioned with constant outages?  Well, they were all with different services ... each time one thing was fixed another in a different product was impacted.

    From my point of view, it was 2 years of hell, but no one single customer was impacted for that total amount of time.  How do you fix this though, because it is extremely draining on your staff regardless ... well, Quality Control is useful.  Make sure that any new product launches are properly tested and tested and tested again before being released into a live environment.  Try to get your staff to break it if possible while it's in the testing phase.  Make sure your documentation, release notes, and training material are complete and accurate.

    Ensure that Senior Management gets involved at the appropriate intervals based on your Escalation Matrix so that they are aware of the impact to the Customers ... DO NOT be afraid of escalating.  If you are ON CALL 24/7 so are they!  The money will be released when the phone rings at 2am!