IT Managers: Managing Engineers vs. Managing Support Staff

Wednesday Sep 1st 2010 by Scott Alan Miller

IT managers need to manage these two groups knowing that the engineers' goal of productivity contrasts with support staff's focus on availability.

As IT managers we face the need to deal with two very different types of technical professionals, roughly categorized as “engineers” and “support professionals.”

Understanding the unique needs of these two job types is critical in effectively managing them -- but few IT departments truly take the time to understand and appreciate the nuances inherent between them.

The first type, and by the far the best understood, is the “engineer.” This engineering role encompasses a massive array of job functions ranging from software developers and designers, architects, system engineers, network engineers. It includes anyone whose primary function is to creatively design or implement new systems of any sort.

The second type of technology worker role can be generically referred to as the “support” role. Support professions includes helpdesk, systems administration, desktop support, network monitoring, command center, etc. What separates support professionals from engineering professionals is that they are not tasked with creative processes involving new designs or implementations. Instead they work with existing systems ensuring that they run properly and get fixed quickly when something is wrong.

It goes without saying that no one real-world human is likely to ever be completely in only one category or the other, but almost all job functional in IT focus very heavily upon one or the other. It’s pretty safe to assume that almost any role will be exceptionally weighted to one role or the other.

Managing Engineers vs. Managing Support Staff

Measuring and managing engineers, from a very high level, is quite well understood. The concept of productivity is very simple and meaningful for engineering roles. The goal of managing an engineering person or team is to allow and encourage that role to output as much creative design or implementation as possible.

The concept of quality exists as well, of course, but we still can think generally about engineering roles in relatively concrete terms such as number of functions written, number of deployment packages produced, size of network designed, etc.

Metrics are a fuzzy thing, but we at least have a good idea of what efficiency means to an engineer even if we cannot necessarily measure it accurately.

Support roles do not have this same concept. Sure you could use an artificial metric such as “tickets closed” to measure productivity in a support role, but that would be very misleading. One ticket could be trivial and the next a large research challenge. In many cases there may be no tickets available for a long time and then many arrive at once that cannot be serviced simultaneously.

Productivity is likely to be sporadic and non-sustainable and, ultimately, not at all meaningful to measure.

Engineering positions earn their keep by producing output effectively over a rather long period of time often even spanning into months and years for large projects. The goal, therefore, with engineering positions is to provide an environment that encourages sustainable productivity. It is well known that engineers will often gain productivity by working shortened or alternative hours, taking regular vacations, etc. Not only does this often increase productivity but often greatly increases the quality of the output as well.

Support positions earn their bread and butter by “being there” when needed. If a support person is attempting to work at maximum efficiency there is a natural implication that there is a continuous backlog of support issues awaiting the support team’s attention and that there are many people requiring support who have to wait for it in order to form a queue.

By having a queue always in place this also means that support personnel are continuously taking work off the stack instead of resolving live items - either ignoring high priority items or being regularly interrupted - causing continuous context switching which significantly reduces the ability to efficiently handle the queue – whose entire purpose for existing was to create the appearance of artificial productivity in the first place.

Event Driven

Support roles are “event driven.” I like this terminology because I think it most accurately describes the mode in which nearly all support professionals work.

Whether an event is generated by a phone call, an instant message, an email or a ticket, it is an “event” that kicks off the transition of the support person from idle to action or, in some cases, from a low priority item to a high priority item.

One way or another, an event represents a "context switch" for the support professional. Without an event there is nothing for a support professional to do. Even if the “event” is represented by a ticket queue or an email backlog it is still a form of event.

Having a truly efficient support desk requires careful management of the event process. Having a never-ending queue of support issues is exhausting for the support professionals and it also means that no amount of staff is ever in an “idle” state awaiting high priority items. Because of this, high priority items are either not addressed as quickly as they should be or else in-process items are neglected.

Understanding the event driven nature of support staff is critical to understanding how to approach the management of these teams. There are no simple answers, and metrics of support staff are often even more meaningless than those of engineering staff - so use with extreme caution.

But by empathizing with the support role we can begin to see where our role as a support manager plays into the bigger picture of supporting and promoting the support team members.

The most important concept, from my experiences, is providing a good flow of the interrupts going to the support team. Often support teams are handling a number of different avenues for support, such as email and telephone. Restricting and funneling events to appropriate channels is critical.

The problem with telephones is that they are aggressive and demand an immediate context switch whether the recipient is idle or if they are currently supporting the most critical production outage in corporate history. The person calling is guessing that their immediate need outweighs the current needs of whomever the support person is currently supporting. Telephones cause this problem everywhere they’re used.

Think about the last time that you were at a pizza parlor placing your order at the counter. You waited in line patiently as each person was served. You did the right thing. You arrive at the front of the queue. You begin to place your order when, the phone rings. The person taking your order puts you on "hold" even though you are standing right there, picks up the phone, takes the order, hangs up and returns to you.

What this says is that for the person calling, being the "squeaky wheel," is more important to the restaurant than the people actually in the restaurant. This same effect happens on many support desks - in process work is interrupted by calls going to a group line or directly to the support person. This is, at best, inefficient and at worst may disrupt critical support processes for highly critical issues.

So when thinking about how to manage IT professionals, think about the purpose of their role. The goal of an engineer is productivity. The goal of a support professional is availability.

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