How to Manage a Tech Team if You’re a Non-Technical Person?

Learn the key principles of managing a tech team and embracing the correct managerial role when you lack tech background.

Overseeing IT as a non-technical person can seem intimidating at first.

You wonder how to manage a team that seems to speak another language and operates on completely different terms.  

However, you don’t need to rush into getting PM’s certifications or additional professional training to lead the IT team to success. Sure getting a grasp of the jargon and tech stack is helpful. But you can pick up all the words from your day-to-day interactions.

The crucial goal here is to build the correct managerial hierarchy and establish a well-functioning communication funnel with the assigned team. This guide will give you the necessary blueprint for this.

Embrace The Role Of a Product Owner

Product Owner

As a non-technical product owner or founder, you shouldn’t be competing with the technical project manager assigned to your project by the web app development company. Instead, opt for establishing mutually beneficial cooperation terms and clearly define the responsibilities.

So what does a product owner do?

Let’s put this in layman’s terms.

You are launching a new P2P lending platform. The marketing team wants to gather immediate user feedback and plans to aggressively promote its beta version before the release. They need to record user’s journeys and product experience with heat maps for the best results and afterwards draft a list of improvements for the release. Also, the business stakeholders insisted on collecting live feedback, so you’ll need to have a live chat and phone line all setup and have someone responsible for managing a technical support team.

As a product owner, your duty here is to coordinate these three different entities (web app developers, marketing department, and tech support team) and make sure that everything goes without a hiccup and on schedule.

Basically, you are responsible for an effective team management and act as an intermediate between different departments, who work on the same final goal.

Your core duties could be summed up to the following:

  • Overall program planning and governing the effective resources allocation across the projects within it.
  • Program budgets management.
  • Monitoring the project timeline.
  • Quality control of the project deliverables.
  • Program risk management.
  • Managing all the communications within the program.

In general, you don’t need to be a technical product owner to cope with managing a technical team successfully (or any other team for that matter). The lack of specific technical skills in management can be compensated by partnering with a great project manager. Though different project management roles entail a varied scope of responsibilities, all good PMs are expected to be great communicators.

If you plan to outsource web app development, choose to partner with an IT technical project manager that speaks both the tech and the business lingo.

So How Does a Project Manager Help You?

Project Manager

In a nutshell, great PMs should be able to render the business needs of the project stakeholders (and/or the product owner) to the development team.

Their role is to help you make more educated decisions and consult you on the different business implications such as timelines, complexity, budgets and future maintenance costs.

Their primary role is managing technical people assigned to the project. A good PM’s responsibility is to highlight the pros and cons of each business decision when it comes to development. They are here to consult you on the better technologies to use for a certain solution or the latest IT trends you might not be aware of. For instance, their task is to clearly explain which Java framework to choose and why in terms of timelines, budgets and future use cases by customers directly.

Your Final Product is as Good as The Brief

One of the most common management problems non-tech people experience with developers is dwelling on the assumption that great developers automatically deliver great products.

Yet, even a dream team cannot read your minds and understand exactly what you mean. There’s no place for vagueness during a tech project.

Alex Turnbull, a non-techy founder of Groove, shared a good story to illustrate this point:

“The form needs to be bigger, and we need fewer navigation links,” I emailed our development lead. “No problem,” he’d say. And an hour later, I’d get a new version with a too-big form box and critical links missing from the header. “Why on earth would we remove the link to the home page?,” I quizzed him. “Um, you were the one who told me you wanted fewer links.”

Sounds familiar? Well, as already mentioned – proper communication is always essential. Particularly when it comes to creating the initial project brief and giving feedback on the deliverables.

Here’s how to manage a tech team during the initial project stage and avoid the communication mishaps.

Go an Extra Mile To Create Detailed Instructions

project scope - Manage a Tech Team

Sit down with the project management team and ask them to help you drafting the initial project scope document and all the additional specifications.

The more details you are capable of providing; the more specifics you could list – the better your expectations will be met by the developers.

Go graphical and create simple mockups or wireframes to illustrate the custom product layout elements; leave specific comments on the design and provide examples whenever applicable.

Sharing and describing the product functions, especially for enterprise-sized apps can be a bit tricky initially. For non-technical managers, one of the best options is to opt for creating a set of user stories – two-three lines explaining what a user should be able to do within the app.

Here’s an example:

“As an admin, I should be able to add new members to the existing project via email”

One of the good tools for creating and keeping track of the user stories implementation is Atlassian Jira, which is action-packed with additional features as well, necessary for overall project monitoring.  

Additionally, you should have a more detailed functional specifications document in place. If you don’t feel confident in the draft you’ve created, ask the development team to help you formulating the essential points. Carefully go through all the details together to make sure no point goes missing or lacks clarity.

The bottom line is – be descriptive and communicate your ideas clearly to the developers, especially when outsourcing abroad. Communications often get mixed up and you risk wasting everyone’s time and budgets if you fail to deliver crystal-clear specifications from the very start.

Hence start practice saying “I want the sign-up button to be 35% larger and green” instead of “I need a bigger button of a different color”.

Initiate Asking Questions 

asking questions

Developers are known to be introverts, and unfortunately, choose to speak up on fewer occasions than needed.

Be proactive with asking questions and initiating new proposals straight from the development team.

Appear approachable and open-minded to proposals. After all, the team has more expertise in the tech site of your project and could advise you on a better solution for your requirements.

At the same time, you shouldn’t act too intrusive and act as if you don’t trust the technical team leader’s judgments. Again, your responsibility is to keep the entire project on track, not override the developers’ ideas and push yours instead.

Trust their expertise and facilitate them to do their job, not micromanage. This might be a bit tricky when you manage an offshore team, but do resist the urge to arrange too many meetings just for the sake of meetings.

This would negatively impact the team’s productivity and morale. We’ve previously published a detailed guide offering tips on how to manage a remote team effectively.

Keep The Team Knowledgeable and Excited About The Project

development community Manage a Tech Team

You may lack the technical expertise to deliver actionable insights, but you need to have well-developed soft skills, which the development community often lacks. Take advantage of those as much as you can.

A lot of developers can immediately explain what their product will do and how it’s used, yet they often feel puzzled when asked: “what exactly it does”.

You can be valuable by helping them develop a better understanding of these “whats” from the customer’s and business perspective, which likely affects the quality of their technical work and the tech implementation tips they’d share.

The common problem is that product owners envision the final product, while the developers only see the lines of codes required to power a certain feature and lack the overall picture.

For startups keeping the development team motivated and excited about their work is particularly essential to retain employees and turn them into active product evangelists.

Hence, you could work on explaining the team:

  • How final product will work and which important problems it will solve.
  • What an important work they are doing and how much you are appreciating each effort and tip shared.
  • How you are here to facilitate their progress and remove any possible frictions.

While you may not be capable of directly facilitating the tech side of their jobs, you can act as a supportive cheerleader, hoarding the development team towards the final shiny goal with the lowest tension possible.

The most important step towards managing a team better is to accept your limited experience with technical project management and focus on your strong sides – great communication, excellent overall management and effective motivation techniques.

If you choose to partner with a skillful, ethical and friendly development team, you won’t suffer from your lack of technical expertise in the first place. At Romexsoft we always speak your language and go an extra mile in layering all the tech stack and technology options in simple language.

Written by Romexsoft on January 19th, 2017

Serhiy Kozlov
Serhiy Kozlov CEO, Romexsoft
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