Become Human-Centric: How Nontechnical Managers Can Run Database Teams

Working with databases causes friction. On one side, nontechnical managers want data pros to skip the jargon and clearly describe their needs. On the other side, data pros wish their managers had a deeper understanding of the tech involved.

Nontechnical managers may think they need to understand the technology better and get into the weeds to close this inherent trust gap. But this isn’t the case—managers are busy tracking resource allocations, Gantt charts, project plans, and punch lists. They must also fill open slots, upskill employees, and keep people from falling prey to the Great Resignation.

More than 70% of tech pros are looking to change careers right now, according to Gartner. Gartner also says the best way to reduce turnover is to adopt a more “human-centric” work model focusing on human connection and respect through continuous feedback, both individually and in groups. A recent McKinsey article has come to a similar conclusion, adding that no matter the industry, employee retention is directly tied to a sense of being valued by a manager.

I’ve seen plenty of healthy (and not-so-healthy) working relationships between hardcore database engineers and nontechnical managers who don’t know their SQL from their elbow. Healthy relationships come down to four areas where managers can improve interactions with their direct reports.

Avoid Needless Interruptions

Distractions and “quick meetings” kill productivity because humans don’t multitask. If you have a review or a status meeting, make sure it abuts lunch or some other natural interruption.

Limit distractions and walk-ups from outsiders. You want your direct reports to reach a “flow state,” a sense of intense focus where the world falls away. Resist any temptation to gum up the work with toe-tapping and endless check-ins.

Give Employees a Heads-Up on Important Group Decisions

When you have a meeting where you must all decide on an issue, inform employees 24 hours before. Tell them they must each state whether they’re for, against, or neutral about the initiative under discussion.

This tactic isn’t to badger the introverts but to avoid groupthink. Introverts prefer time to think things through, not speak extemporaneously. As psychologist Susan Cain points out, “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” Don’t fall for an impassioned speech from your “best talker.”

Understand Your ‘Simple Request’ May Take Days to Execute

A requested change may be simple to execute early on, but those changes become increasingly difficult to make as the project progresses. Nontechnical managers often don’t understand the complexity behind their “simple” task assignments. They don’t know adding an extra field to a form requires documentation. It also calls for QA, testing, and updating the database project plans.

Trust your team when they say your requests aren’t easy to fulfill. Some agile teams use this trick: Your technical team hands you a pile of Monopoly money. Every time you ask for a feature or a deliverable, they charge you a varying amount for the request depending upon the difficulty of the task. As your pile of fake money runs down, you soon realize each request has a price.

Use Database Monitoring to Make Your Databases Better

Slow-performing applications or unresponsive systems can indicate an underlying issue with the database. Mediocre performance can come from inefficiently coded SQL statements, flawed database structures, or suboptimal application codes. Additionally, inefficiencies can accrue from accumulated changes. Database monitoring helps your team see which function isn’t keeping up and where you should review the SQL code. With database monitoring, you know where the weaknesses are.

Managers with a solid understanding of monitoring in other environments must understand database monitoring is different. What’s essential in settings such as IT operations doesn’t matter as much with databases because databases aren’t large-scale Excel spreadsheets. Instead, they’re a complex way for thousands of users to work simultaneously with the same mission-critical data.

In my experience, data pros and managers can establish healthy, high-trust relationships across the technical divide. But the fix doesn’t come from one side working harder than the other to communicate. The solution instead comes from good relationships and mutual respect.

As a nontechnical manager, you may not need a deep understanding of databases. But if you thoroughly understand how humans operate, you can run a successful database team.