Managing Computer Professionals


Managing computer professionals is both similar and dissimilar to managing other groups of workers.  This section provides an overview of how to manage computer professionals.


  1. Understand the supervisory role of managers.
  2. Understand the organizing role of managers

Management Role

Managers work at different organizational levels.  A manager supervises others, is supervised by someone and has peer managers with whom he or she coordinates activities.

Managers have to motivate, coordinate and maintain control over the activities of their subordinates.  Among programming staff, many are hired on contract basis.  Some are working in physically different areas and telecommuting to work.  Still others live in different countries and work under different time zones and cultures.  The manager's task of coordinating individuals in different locations becomes more urgent and more difficult when programmers are not in physical proximity to each other.

Managers need to contribute and fit within budgets and plans of their supervisors.   Organization's demands from information technology units are constantly changing.   Managers need to understand these changes, assist in planning for a comprehensive and strategic approach to meeting IT needs.  To achieve these goals, managers need to keep close contact with their supervisors. 

All along, managers need to maintain a collaborative arrangement with their peers.   They need to understand the roles of different units, be able to seamlessly work with other units, and evaluate their own effectiveness in bringing about organization wide improvements.

Asides from relationships within the organization, managers need to play significant roles with individuals outside the organization including maintaining supply relationships, understanding changes in environment, recruiting personnel, managing public relations, and negotiating mergers and acquisitions.

What Is Management?

Management is "getting tasks done through others."  Sometimes, in small organizations managers are personally involved in the production of code or operation of software.  Often these managers have achieved their position through technical excellence and may wish to continue using these skills.  Some level of understanding of computer programming is helpful for managers who supervise computer professionals.  But there is a fine line to cross.  When managers are so involved in doing the tasks that they have no time for helping and coordinating others, then something is wrong.  An unorganized harassed manager carries his/her attitudes to the individuals he/she is supervising and in the end transfers these attitudes to the product being produced.  Successful managers should help others accomplish the task instead of doing the task themselves.

Data management is one component of managing information systems.  This component includes: 

  1. Acquisition of data, 
  2. Classification of data, 
  3. Storage of data, 
  4. Retrieval of data, 
  5. Editing of data, 
  6. Verification and quality control of process that produced the data, 
  7. Choice of format for presentation of data,
  8. Aggregation of data, 
  9. Distribution of reports, 
  10. Evaluation of effectiveness of reports.

Managerial skills are different from technical, or clinical skills.  Obviously knowing the tasks to be done is important.  Having technical skills to understand programmers' issues is important.  Knowing how to operate hardware and use software is important.  But the most important skill a manager must have is management skills.   Skills such as budgeting, communication, planning, coordination, negotiation and so on are not technical programming skills but they are essential for success of managers.

As technical programmers advance up the organizational ladder they need to rely more on their management skills and less on their technical know-how.  They need to personally perform less and less technical tasks but nevertheless accomplish more work.

Management Functions

Effective managers carry out certain functions within the organization.  Including among these are:

  1. Forecasting
  2. Planning
  3. Organizing
  4. Staffing
  5. Influencing
  6. Controlling
  7. Negotiating
  8. Un-organizing

We will briefly describe each of these activities. 


A key task of managers is to anticipate future events and plan for these occasions.   Forecasting is used to predict demand, profits, revenues, costs, utilization of Information technology, productivity changes, technology changes and other similar activities.  In spite of use of computers, forecasting remains a mix of science and art.  No future forecast is for certain.  Nevertheless, managers are often called upon to anticipate the future and act accordingly.

One advantage that managers do have in forecasting the future is that they can takes steps to make the anticipated future come about.  If profits are forecasted to be high, over time the manager can take numerous little steps to ensure that profits remain high even when external events are not as favorable as expected.  If a software is supposed to be finished by January and it is falling behind schedule, managers can make the organization to work over time to produce the product on the anticipated timetable.   So while predicting the future is tough, managers have an advantage:  They can influence the future.

All forecasts have a number of common components.  Forecasts generally assume that history repeats itself; that there are lessons to learn from how events have occurred in the past.  Many forecast techniques project current trends to anticipate future events.  Some forecast techniques ask individuals with experience with the underlying event to advise the manager.  In both approach, the assumption is that current experience and trends are valid for predicting the future.

Another common feature of forecasts is that the longer the time period the larger the size of the error.  Generally speaking short ranged forecasts must account for fewer uncertainties.

There are many approaches to forecasts.  Some are based on analysis of historical data (e.g. time series analysis, correlation analysis, moving average, regression analysis).  Others are based on opinions and judgments of experts (e.g., executive opinions about budget changes, sale force forecasts of demand).  Still others are based on consumer opinions (e.g., satisfaction surveys, household surveys). 

A naive forecast is the simplest method of forecasting.  It assumes that tomorrow will be the same as today.

Sometimes the manager's role for forecasting the future is presented under different headings.  Often managers are expected to have a "vision" for the future.   Managers are expected to predict a number of related events will unfold and describe how the organization will operate under these new scenarios.

Predicting the future of information technology is difficult because of the rate of change in this industry.  Many managers organizing panel of experts to understand key changes that are occurring in the information industry. 

Predicting future business operations and functions is by far more important than keeping pace with technology.  Effective managers need to understand what changes are occurring in their business more than they need to understand what new technology is becoming available.  Among most industries health care has been least successful in implementing information technologies.  While banks have changed to the point that Automated Teller Machines and online banks are part of everyday business, in most health care companies technology is under used.  

How should managers forecast future events?  In the section on information needs analysis we show a structured approach that managers can use to predict information needs.


Managers can plan in several distinct manners.  First, managers can set up parallel organizations to innovate and plan for radically new ways of doing business.   Such organizations are physically separate from the main company and are staff by new personnel, most of whom are not in contact with the organization.  Parallel organizations often use new information systems to radically modify business processes.   In essence, they re-do the business.

Managers can plan within their organization by creating a champion for the idea (often the manager him or herself) and working out the details of a plan prior to its implementations.  The idea is the organization should be exposed to the proposed new information system only after it is working and functional.  Champions continue working on perfecting information systems and ignore early feedback.  They do not abandon their course.  As time goes by and organizations become increasingly prepared to implement new technology, then the champion is available.  Champions toil for years for the hope of eventual adoption of the system.  Sometimes in planning for information system personnel, the champion arrives at a master plan that others connect to or plug in.  The relationship between the champion and many of the other information system workers is often hierarchical and strained.  The champion innovates and others carryout the tasks. 

Managers can plan within their organization by involving large number of employees in the planning process.  This is often done by selecting employees from different organizational departments to work on a common problem.  Data show that when employees participate in planning, they are more likely to carryout the plans and to accomplish the goals in shorter time.  Participatory planning relies on contribution from different information system professionals.  A master plan may not exist or if it does it may be modified by many parties.  Some work may be redone as employees create overlapping functions.


Once a plan has been made, the manager needs to organize the personnel and resources to carryout the tasks.  If the plan has been made with participation of personnel close to the process being changed, then organizing is not difficult.  Each participant can or has already specified what changes need to happen and when these changes should occur.   When change has not been widely discussed, then organizing becomes more difficult and more formal.

Managers organize by assigning tasks to various employees.  The first step in doing so is to divide the work in separate and identifiable tasks -- where individuals have specialized skill. Then responsibilities are assigned and people are held accountable.  There are different types of assignments.  Some will have direct line responsibility; others will act as advisors.  To enhance work routines, groups of employees may be made into separate departments, keeping in mind the optimum span of control for any one person.  To ease communication and reduce conflicting instructions, it is important that employees are organized in such a manner that they report to one and only one person. They may serve a matrix organization, in which one units serves multiple other functions.  But they report to one and only one person. Management literature refers to the organizing components under the headings of:

  • Specialization
  • Departmentalization
  • Span of management
  • Assigning of authority
  • Assigning of responsibilities
  • Unity of command
  • Line and staff assignments

In organizing computer professionals, there are other organizing concepts that are important beyond the traditional concepts listed above.  Many computer professionals are organized in virtual and networked environments.  A significant part of managing these professionals is organizing principles, policies and procedures that allows remote workers to contribute.  Like before there is assignment of tasks and responsibilities but now there is also organizing of social events, of communication networks and legal contracts that enable employees to work as a team.


Staffing is the process of recurring personnel to work on the task.  In managing computer professionals, there are many different ways of recruitment.  Sometimes entire functions are moved out to other organizations.  For example, many health care organizations have out-sourced payroll to firms that specialize in these activities.   Other times individual employees are recruited but on contract basis for a specific task.  Still other times employees are hired.  Managers need to decide about types of employment and out-sourcing. 

Staffing also means looking after employees careers and growth within the organization.   Managers need to put in place policies regarding retirement, re-training, conflict resolution, drug use, promotion, equity of pay, and benefits.  They need to create an environment within which the contractor or the employee can successfully contribute.  

The environment for telecommuting workers is specially difficult.  In one recent example, a telecommuter that lived in a different State was asked to utilize a physician network that did not exist in her area.  Because the number of telecommuters may not be very large across some organizations, policies that accommodate their needs have not been fully developed.


Employees, specially professionals, do not do what they are told.  To manage computer professionals managers must go beyond asking for change and motivate the change.   Organizations are complex and often multiple competing tasks are required from the same employee.  To manage effectively, it is important to motivate employees.   Managing by directives is recipe for failure.  But how could we motivate computer professionals?


Managers do many things.  We have already discussed: forecasting, planning, organizing, staffing, and influencing.  In this section we discuss how managers control and set limits on activities.  The controlling is the feedback loop in which managers monitor that plans are followed and activities are accomplished.   Managers, for example, control budgets.  They see to it that expenditures are within limits. 

Managers may control behavior of computer professionals in subtle ways.   They may gather data that shows the average performance of the group and ask everyone for improvement.  By monitoring performance and communicating the data to computer professionals, managers may remove the need for direct control.

Managers also control computer professionals by using version control software.  Version control allows programmers to check out portions of the software code, work on them and re-write back to the main copy.  Managers can then review and accept the work.  When work is done across time zones it is important to maintain close tab on versions of computer programs.  Mistakes in version control can lead to incompatible portions of code.


One important function of the manager is to negotiate the future of the organization.  As organizations merge and grow, manager's negotiating skills are going to be increasingly important.  Furthermore, managers need to negotiate with suppliers, collaborators, and even with large customers.  In all these activities, managers are guiding the future of the organization. 


It is seldom realized but one of the functions of a manger is to dismantle organizations.  Sometimes organization units survive well after their usefulness.   Managers need to break these organization units into components that are more successful.  This is often the case with information technology where legacy systems are no longer compatible with newer systems.  Managers need to think through how to dismantle the legacy system without loosing connection with previous accounts and services. 

Sometimes, though rarely, managers need to dismantle the entire organization.  Sometimes this is done through bankruptcy courts.  Other times this is done after an organization has been acquired.  Finally, managers choose or may have to fire employees.  The effective way that managers accomplish this task affects the morale of employees who remain. 

Motivating Computer Professional

Self interest

A simple method of motivating is through rewards and punishment.   there is considerable amount of evidence that self interest (e.g., pay) motivates employees.  Literature on Value Expectancy and Multi-attribute Expected Utility confirm that human behavior is explained by rewards and punishment.  Employees act in their own self interest.  But do they?

Not all individual behavior can be predicted by self interest. There are many examples of behaviors when individuals do not do what they wish.   A good example is the resolutions we make at the beginning of a new year. Many resolutions are made but not kept.  Another example are all the missed deadline on information technology projects.  People promise to finish on time and want to finish on time but fail to do so.  Why do people fail to do what they wish? Neither Expectancy theory nor Expected Utility model give us a clear answer .  Additional models of change help explain this paradox better than either of these two models.

Employees do not act in their own self interest in part because they act out of habit and do not always decide about issues in front of them. Habits that may endure despite the attitudes of the employee.  A computer professional may come late to work and stay late through the night because of force of habit.  In part because his or her life is organized around these timetables.  To change this work habit he would need to change many other life habits.  To go home earlier, he may need to organize an activity for himself away from work.  he may organize to socialize after work hours, an activity that he may not be comfortable.  Changing a work habit may not be easy because it is related in inexplicable ways to other aspects of employee life.

Other times, employees peers influence them to do things that may not be in their direct self interest.  Many employees change by imitating the behavior of individuals they admire. While self-interest is an important component of how we change, group influences on the individual are ignored by this approach to change.  Setting a higher pay will motivate the individual but so do other activities.  If the people they admire encourage them to change, many employees are likely to change whether or not they see any direct benefit from the change. 

Managers often assume that employees are aware of the rewards and punishment involved.  They think that employees know and think about these policies.   This may be wrong.  Often the information about the impact of the decision on the employee's self interest is not available -- not to the employee and perhaps even not to the manager. Take the case of a manager at Harvard Community Health Plan who organized a parallel organization in San Francisco to develop a technology based health delivery system.  Is this in the interest of the employee?  Many answers are possible.   Yes, if the project succeeds then the employee gets a promotion.  But the project may fail.  More interesting the project may neither fail nor succeed.   In this case after the first year the project received independent venture capital to proceed, but within 7 years the original manager had been fired and the project ended in failure.  Success and failure of the project are not clear even in retrospect as it may have led to new learning for the organization.  Managers assume that employees are aware of the short or long term rewards, specially financial rewards.  But for the most part employees do not think about these issues everyday.  These managers assume an ideal person willing to gather information and decide in a rational manner.  

When we look at employee's behavior from the perspective of self-interest, we are likely to blame people who do not act in their own interest.  At the personal level, this leads to blaming the victim and at the organizational level this leads to defensive and perhaps counter productive behavior.  It creates an environment of fear.  Self interest (as defined by pay changes and threats of loss of job) are not everyday reasons for influencing employees, in general, and computer professionals, in particular.  Then the original question remains.  What can motivate individuals beside pay changes and threats of loss of job?

Manipulate information processing

One way that a manager can influence employees behavior is through how they present information to employees.  Managers can repeatedly ask for change, they can do the task in different ways (formally on paper, verbally in passing, etc.), they can make simple vivid arguments for change, they can put the main reason for change first, and so on.  Bettman in his book titled "An Information Processing Theory of Consumer Choice" (Addison Wesley, 1979) highlights how information processing may affect decisions.  In this book he reviews data that suggest:

  • Information processing capacity is limited and search for information requires both internal (memory) and external costs. Mangers can change employees behavior by presenting information for change in succinct and simple fashion.
  • Motivation determines how extensively we search for information.  Motivation changes because of clues available from the environment.  When motivation changes, the information we pay attention to changes.  Managers can motivate employees by providing them with information that argues they have taken the correct course of action.
  • Attention to various sources of information changes. Important stimuli may be ignored, if the individual consciously or unconsciously chooses not to pay attention to it.  Managers can motivate employees by constantly reminding them.
  • Perception of information may differ from the actual information. Managers can verify the perception by asking for the employee understanding of the situation.
  • Information acquisition and evaluation go hand in hand. People do not gather information before evaluating it. They evaluate the information as they gather it. They stop when the information gathered so far gives them a level of confidence with their judgment. Sometimes, they may stop prematurely. Other times, the early pieces of information may inadvertently influence where they search for information and they may miss important information. Still other times, the framing of the information affects its evaluation.  Managers can influence employees by framing their directives in a scenario that strengthens its message.
  • Decision processes and rules do not follow an optimization procedure.   People do not maximize their self interest. They satisfy the constraints (e.g. the amount of resources they have). The nature of how information is gathered also affects what decision rules are followed.  When many options are available, it is more likely to follow heuristics that simplify the task quickly.  Managers can influence employee behavior by making them understand the constraints that organization faces.
  • People choose but fail to effectively learn from experience. Because many decisions are self fulfilling prophecies, because often the information on effectiveness of a choice is not available and because, even when available, negative information is often ignored by decision makers, many fail to learn from their experiences.  Managers can influence employees by highlighting patterns across situations and asking them to look for common causes.

Managers influence employees by many ways other than direct manipulation of how information is presented.

Attribute success to the employee and failure to the system

Data suggests that how employees attribute causes to behavior and events in the organization may influence their willingness to change.  Managers can influence employees by helping them attribute their success to themselves and their failures to external events.  Two employees faced with the same information may act differently because they attribute it to different causes. A complex process helps human beings decide what is the cause of an effect. In part, causes should precede effects, should co-occur with effects and should not co-occur with other spurious events.   Attribution is highly subjective process and can easily be manipulated by a manger.  

When change occurs people have a mix of failures and successes. Sometimes a pattern of failure may make the employee less willing to try.  Other times employees continue trying despite early failures.  Data show that attribution of a failure to stable or internal causes leads to expectations of more failures and loss of self esteem. Similarly, when failure is attributed to uncontrollable events or to global causes, future effort will diminish.   Managers can influence how failure is interpreted by attributing it to different causes.

Managers need to develop a therapeutic relationship with employees undergoing change. They need to understand how employees perceive the reasons for change. To the extent that these reasons highlight external, controllable, stable and specific causes, optimism will prevail and more effort may be exerted.  Managers should promote optimism.  If the objective is to make sure that difficult tasks are initiated and continued despite early obstacles, it is important for managers to attribute success to the person's effort and failure to events outside the control of the person. In this fashion the employee will remain optimistic despite evidence of failure.

Change work norms

The literature on Reasoned Action suggests that human behavior is influenced by two factors: attitudes towards the behavior and the influence of social environment and general subjective norms on the behavior. Social norm is determined by examples that significant others set for us and by the attitudes they convey to us. Literature on Social Learning suggests that behavior dynamically influences the environment and personal constructs.  Likewise, the environment and personal characteristics affect each other and the person's behavior.   

A key element of both Reasoned Action and Social Learning theories is the importance of social norms in changing the individual's behavior.   Managers can use these well known motivators to influence employees' behaviors.  In particular, managers can set formal policies about work norms or informally promote work habits they value.   They can set an example with their own behavior or speak highly of exemplar behavior of others.  The effect of social norms in influencing behavior has been demonstrated in many studies.

Give them a shoulder to cry on

There is extensive data that peer support influences employees behavior.   Managers can influence the availability of positive peer support through organizing national conferences, seminars or social gatherings of select employees who are trying to change.  How social support affects behavior is not known.  It is possible that peer support provides the employee with key information about copying with change.   It is possible that it provides the employee with a sense of acceptance and that we are in this together.  Employees who feel that they are not accepted may fail to get help even when help is available to them.  Individuals reassured about their social support worry less about where help might come from and spend more time facing their problems.  The ecological model sees social support as a feature of neither the individual nor the environment, but as a transaction between the two. The person must maintain relationships by providing support to others when needed. In return, others will provide support when the individual is in need. Over time, the transactions of helping and being helped must balance, otherwise social ties change. Thus, in stressful situations sometimes relationships break and other times strengthen, depending on whether the support has been reciprocated. This interdependence in helping each other need not involve the same types of support, one may provide informational support to others and in turn receive emotion support.

A statement of how support affects propensity to change was given by Gustafson, Cats-Bariel and Alemi in Systems To Support Health Policy Analysis in 1992:

"Successful change is more likely to occur when those attempting the change believe the people they respect are also changing, wanting them to change, and will help them succeed. Moreover, they need to believe that if they fail, they fail not only themselves but also their social support group. Social ties with people committed to the change need to be established within and between organizations. Ties can extend beyond their own industry."

In a rational world there would be no need for social support.  People would implement the things they believe in. But in reality, social support is essential to continued success. Managers can influence employees behavior by providing them with social support around the change desired.

Let early adopters change imitators

Researchers refer to implementation of innovations over time as diffusion.   Diffusion is assumed to occur in two steps. During the first steps early adopters think through the benefits of the proposed innovation and select to try it. In the later stages, others see early adopters using the new innovation and decide to try it. Implementation of an innovation may fail for several reasons including:

  • Innovation failure. The proposed innovation fails to meet employees needs
  • Communication failure. Employees are not aware of the innovation, how to use it and what to expect from it.
  • Adoption failure. Because of resources or differences in perceptions and values, employees are deciding not to adopt the new innovation.
  • Implementation failure. The organization fails to implement the innovation despite choosing to adopt it. Usually, because the adoption decision was made by people who are not affected by the implementation.
  • Maintenance failure. The organization fails to keep up with changes needed to maintain the new innovation.

Managers can influence employees by selecting individuals who have changed and using them to highlight the advantages for change.  In this fashion, change follows a domino theory where one-by-one employees adopt new procedures.  Some change earlier than others.  These early adopters can influence others by providing them with examples.  Highlighting their success will help bring change to more employees.

Home-based information workers

(Based in part or verbatim on Bailyn L.  Toward the perfect work place?   The experience of home based systems developers in Allen TJ, Morton MSS.   Information technology and the corporation of the 1990's, New York, Oxford University Press 1994).

Research on employees working from home has arrived at different views on the productivity and employee satisfaction with the arrangement.  We discuss this literature in terms of three distinct groups depending on method and type of monitoring:   (1) self employed workers, (2) autonomous workers loosely managed, (3) closely monitored workers.  Data show that closely monitored workers (mostly mothers doing clerical work) chose to work at home not because they wanted to but because they had to.   They were generally not satisfied with the experience of working at home.   Furthermore, when clerical workers work from home their autonomy decreases.   In contrast, some home-based workers (mostly professional men) who work from home report having more autonomy and more job satisfaction.

For self employed, it matters not whether they are doing clerical or professional work.   Self employed workers report high autonomy and flexibility, even when doing clerical work. 

Supervision of remote workers

Contract and self employed workers require a different type of supervision than office-based workers.  A recent survey by Lotte Baylin suggests:

  • "Home based groups was somewhat more experienced, in both years of computer work and the number of areas of technical competence."  These data contradict the myth that office workers have an advantage over home based workers in their access to new training.  It is also possible that home based workers more aggressively seek training so that they could maintain their unique advantages to the firm.
  • The commitment of home based professional information workers "is more to the work than to the company."  Many home based computer programmers are willing to quickly change from one company to the other.
  • The home based workers are more likely to be women, married and with children.  It is possible that employees who select to work at home do so because of flexibility of these arrangements and their ability to attend to their family needs through these arrangements.
  • The home based workers are more likely to be judged based on their productivity than based on their effort.  Most managers rely on seeing the workers as a method of gauging their effort.  Home based workers are not present and therefore need to rely on their output to show their effectiveness.
  • A higher percent of office workers say that their most productive time falls outside of office time.  This suggests that office workers are being interrupted too often.   Many programmers need quiet time for successful editing of the programs.   Office interruptions may reduce their productivity.  Home workers report having more quiet time with their work.
  • A higher percent of office workers say that their work load is irregular, suggesting that home workers engage in more planned as opposed to spontaneous assignments. 
  • Less than 20% of home workers and more than 80% of office workers say that their work requires daily communication.  Of the home workers who ask for daily communication, the vast majority ask for telephone calls and not face to face visits.
  • Home based work is more likely to be organized in smaller self contained activities than office based programming work.
  • Home based computer programmers assumed more responsibility for cost and time estimates for the job, testing the link among programs and training others in use of the programs.
  • Home based groups were more likely to visit customers sites than office based groups.
  • Office based groups seem to put more emphasize on income (pay and promotion) while the home based group seem to emphasize the nature of the work (interesting work, flexible assignments, and keeping up their skills).  Home based groups are more involved in the intrinsic value of the work. These differences in work attitudes are stronger when women work at home. While both groups value money, family plays a stronger role for home based groups.

When managers supervise workers at home or through contracts, they need to keep in mind that these workers seem to put high value on learning, challenges, and family time.   They put relatively less value on money.  They tend to have scarce skills that keeps them in demand. In supervising these workers, managers need to emphasize values they emphasize.  Furthermore, data on monitoring home based workers suggest that the best way to monitor these workers is by their productivity and not by the effort they put in these activities

This page was last edited on 05/16/2013 by Farrokh Alemi.  This page is part of the course on Information Systems.