Do Technology Experts Make Good Managers?

Even in the current uncertain environment, the U.S. economy is driven by nerds — a term that recently morphed from an insult into a quasi-compliment. Nerds specialize in computer science, mathematics, electrical engineering, physics, biophysics, molecular biology, nanotechnology, bio-nano and who knows what. They are smart, sometimes arrogant, and not necessarily the most sociable folks you will ever meet.

But what happens to these super-smart engineers and researchers when they start a business or have to be somebody’s boss? Workplace experts say that a lack of people skills and business sense can turn brilliant techies into nerd bosses from hell.

With technology now playing a major role in the economy, this rarely voiced problem has growing ramifications. The behavior of tech wizards now can make or break whole companies. As a result, business and engineering schools all over the country have begun to focus on this issue.

By inclination and training, many techies prefer the pure world of numbers to the messy world of human interaction. Their work reinforces the predilection. Writing computer code or designing a high-tech product is a rigorous and often lonely enterprise, one where the tiniest mistake can lead to intractable bugs in the product. So, technical endeavors tend to breed perfectionism, isolation and a lone-wolf mentality — all drawbacks once you turn into a boss.

Perils of a Low EQ

“Emotional intelligence,” or EQ, is the term that academics use in discussing how to make a boss an effective “people person.” Without EQ, even the most talented technologist may function in the office as a kind of idiot savant — good at numbers, but clumsy and potentially destructive with people. Happily, EQ can be learned, if not by all, at least by most. And now many engineering and business schools are trying to teach it.

Examples abound of managerial stupidity committed by bosses whose high IQs aren’t matched by their EQs. Andy Iserson, manager of software development for PB Farradyne, a Rockville, Md., maker of software that delivers overhead highway messages to drivers, recalls a boss early in his programming career who was technically talented but couldn’t listen, negotiate or understand the needs of young engineers starting out. “He didn’t want to hear how long a complicated project would take,” Mr. Iserson says. “He would say, ‘I am not going to wait. Do what it takes.’ In a situation like this, the programmer is always losing” because he’s always on the defensive. “Your work is late before you even get started.”

Fed up, Mr. Iserson did what a lot of skilled employees do when reporting to bosses who are mean-spirited or obtuse: He quit and went to a company where the boss knew how to treat employees. Lousy managers “drive people to leave, and then they blame their high turnover on the competitive labor market,” he says, adding that even in a tight market happy employees generally stay put.

Putting People Last

Nerd managers have a reputation for obsessing more about technology than they do about people. Stan Wood, director of information technology for Optinel Systems, an Elkridge, Md., company that makes parts for optical communications networks, says engineers sometimes have trouble comprehending that their work serves the company and not the other way around. Instead of focusing on getting new products to market as quickly as possible, engineer managers sometimes fixate on creating “elegant code.” It’s one reason software companies are “notoriously late in delivering their products,” Mr. Wood says.

When he was running his own consulting business, Mr. Wood says, he often saw cases where “engineers would spend extra time writing an elaborate query” — the statement that allows you to extract information from a database — “when a simpler query would serve just as well. This approach doesn’t add value to the customer,” he says. “In fact, by slowing delivery, it detracts value.”

High-tech bosses also can be notorious micromanagers. Michael Howes, who will begin working as a business consultant after he graduates from the Yale School of Management later this month, says he once worked for a nice nerd whose micromanaging style undermined Mr. Howes’s confidence and stymied his growth. For example, when confronted with a technical problem, his boss would “sit down and out loud go through his entire thought process — and not let you leave his office until he had changed everything you intended to do.” Mr. Howes struggled to adapt. But when that boss left, a new manager arrived and expressed frustration with Mr. Howes’s passivity. “‘You seem real smart,'” Mr. Howes says the new supervisor told him in bemusement, “‘so why are you always in my office?’ ”

Sapping Motivation

Micromanaging, in fact, is the complaint leveled most often at “nerd” bosses. Entrepreneur and private venture investor Don Spero confesses that he was a micromanager during his first years of running a business. A major technology of the company — Fusion Systems of Rockville, Md., which has interests in semiconductor-fabrication equipment — was based on Dr. Spero’s postdoctoral research in physics. “I thought I couldn’t manage unless I could do every job myself,” Dr. Spero recalls. “This kind of atmosphere demotivates people.”

Eventually, Dr. Spero realized that his do-everything-yourself style was counterproductive. “It was obvious that we were not building a healthy culture, and we weren’t making progress at the rate I thought we should,” he says. So the entrepreneurial physicist backed off and let others make decisions, even though such an approach was a stretch for him. When you start a company, Dr. Spero explains, “you have all the responsibility. You develop this attitude: I’ll do it myself because then I’ll know it will get done right.”

Dr. Spero had to make a conscious decision to transform himself into a real manager. First, he found mentors among more-seasoned CEOs. He made a concerted effort to really listen to his employees. And he learned to trust his own instincts. He also called upon his experience as an Olympic rower, harking back to the ways teams are motivated.

Today, after dividing and selling his company — the semiconductor-equipment arm went to Eaton Corp. — Dr. Spero directs the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship. Dingman is one of the nation’s 120 university-based centers that help entrepreneurs launch companies, many of which are based on technologies developed in university laboratories. Dr. Spero’s own evolution as a manager serves him well dealing with the techies-with-a-business-plan at the entrepreneurship center.

Educating technological elites isn’t easy. First you have to pierce the armor of their arrogance, he says. “You have these very smart people,” Dr. Spero explains. “They say to themselves, ‘If I can master biophysics, what’s so difficult about a balance sheet, or sales, or human resources?’ But the difference between success and failure is operations.”

Elizabeth Altman, senior director of a unit of Motorola Inc. that invests in and nurtures small technology companies, agrees. While she admits that techies occasionally possess “troublesome” personalities, “the real problem engineers face in the workplace is their lack of business skills. You need to train them to make decisions based on market criteria, not technical criteria.” That means overcoming their “perfectionism” and helping them learn that “each product is not the last product,” she says.

Ms. Altman learned her business skills at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., where she earned master’s degrees in engineering and management in a joint program run by MIT’s Sloan School of Management and its School of Engineering.

Tearing Down the Walls

The Leaders for Manufacturing program in which Ms. Altman participated is one of many initiatives at MIT that seek to tear down the walls separating engineering and business. The point is to help techies function on the factory floor, in the boardroom, the office and even in a social setting. (One part of MIT’s entrepreneurship curriculum covers how to raise venture funds at a cocktail party.)

As part of the program, future high-tech leaders learn to pay attention to what they feel inside and to what others express outwardly and through body language. This approach is important because so many business decisions involve factors that can’t be quantified, Ms. Altman says. “Strategic alliances are relationships,” she says. “They have to work as relationships between people and between companies.”

Communication is another skill emphasized in the “Leaders for Manufacturing” program. “We have some students here whose attitude is, ‘I just want to build something, so get out of my way,'” says John S. Carroll, a Sloan professor of behavioral and policy science. Students learn to persuade rather than intimidate through exercises, such as giving speeches where they take a view that isn’t their own. “The brash young ones are the hardest ones to reach,” says Prof. Carroll. “They have been successful all their lives doing what they are doing, and they may be more confident than is warranted.” Feedback, including some delivered confidentially, helps the engineers in the program understand how they come across to others.

‘Lone Wolves’ Face Traps

That self-awareness helps prepare the techies for other realities of the business world. “Lone wolves build perpetually small companies,” says Ken Morse, the director of MIT’s Entrepreneurship Center. The point of all the Entrepreneurship Center efforts is to help MIT entrepreneurs avoid the failure so common to start-ups.

To his students, Mr. Morse hammers hard at the importance of such nontech talents as selling. “It’s sales — not engineering — that makes companies successful,” he tells his students on every occasion imaginable. “To make sales, you have to understand the needs of your customers. And to understand your customers, you have to be able to talk to them.”

Mr. Morse and his colleagues also emphasize team building. “Eighty percent of companies started by engineers alone fail,” he warns the engineers in his audience.

The emphasis on merging engineering and business championed by the Sloan School and the Entrepreneurship Center now is spreading to other departments housed along the MIT corridor. Thomas Magnanti, a business-school professor and former director of the Leaders for Manufacturing program, was recently named dean of MIT’s School of Engineering. Never before has a professor from the business school held this post.

The new dean brings with him to the engineering side Sloan’s emphasis on people and communication skills. Under his watch, MIT’s engineering undergraduates must take a series of communication classes designed to improve their ability to speak, write, listen and interact.

What Dean Magnanti is aiming for, he says, are “nerds who can communicate a passion for their technology — nerds who have the skill to translate the intricacies of their technologies to broader audiences.” In short, nerds who can lead.

Leadership, Management