Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Technical Direction Question...

There was a question on linkedin that I thought was relevant and interesting. The question was “Can techies be good/ successful Product Managers?” I think that translates well into the carpenter / technical direction debate that often occurs. As is with theatre, Linkedin produced multiple answers.

I think that it is a great question because it makes you think, and there are multiple answers. I think there are a variety of ways to approach the question.

First, the skill sets for the two jobs are not universal. Each location, venue, organization ans so forth may define the jobs differently that will impact the answer. A touring TD or carp has a different skill set than one who produces shows. A road house TD may have another set of skills, and the TD of a grand opera has different skills as well. In addition, the skills sets for each position differ. The TD at a LORT may be more managerial and the carpenter is only a craftsman, or the TD may be in the shop swinging a hammer next to a carpenter. The carpenter may be very skilled and work from designer plates needing little interaction from the TD other than supplies. While there are lots of contradictions I have worked in many varieties of these situations, and the answer to the above question cannot be answered universally.

There is yet another item to mention, and create some base assumptions with. Historically in our industry you had to pay your dues to get into the good positions. A TD had to be a good carpenter. Today, I think it is easier to start very young as a TD in small locations and work your way up too bigger facilities without nearly as much time spent as a carpenter (except as all the times when as TD you were the shop). With advanced technical training becoming the standard for TD’s, more come out of grad school with very different positions than I saw in the industry 15 years ago. Part of this I actually believe has to do with the very question I am discussing.

So to answer the question you must make some assumptions. Let’s say that the TD is more managerial and is not on the floor building scenery, and that the carpenter relies on the TD to provide structure and information. For the fun of it, lets also say that the TD (or perhaps even production manager) manages more than 1 area – whether its props, paints and scenery, or simply manages a carpentry head and a metals head. This puts the TD is the wonderful land of middle management.

Getting to the meat of the question, the TD and the carpenter require different skill sets to succeed. I will not hash out the carpentry skills here, and instead focus on TD skills. I think a good TD has to have a very diverse set of skills: communication, problem solving, team building, time management, fiscal management, collaboration, problem solving, and technical skills. For the technical skills a TD needs to know about drafting, reading drawings, carpentry, metalworking, paints, tool maintenance, engineering, structural design, motor control, pneumatics, plastics, and more. That’s a pretty large list of skills, particularly since most of this skills can be a full job (with advanced degrees) in and of themselves. It makes the position hard to fill.

I think the industry has a culture that expect all of this from the TD’s. I think some are very successful. Yet I think what happens is that the TD sometimes leans towards the shop – their silo, and doesn’t have the same management skill as they have technical skill. Perhaps that can build the fanciest wooden, steel, plastic thingy that spins on cue, but can’t talk to the board of directors efficiently. This, to me, leads to the path of us versus them and creates a separation in the theatre between technical and nontechnical people. I believe that the TD needs to bridge that gap.

I think that the TD needs to know enough about welding to know a good weld from a bad weld. The TD needs to have a good welder on staff. He or she needs to understand the difference in construction that steel and wood need. But they don’t need to be the best carpenter on the floor. If they are, they are wasting their skill by not doing what they are best at.

I think there are very few people that really can excel at every area a TD normally covers. Many will have a few topics in which they excel, and they will work towards increasing the others. And some are jacks of all trades, masters of none. I believe that TD’s today are gearing more towards soft skills, intellectual skills and management skills. They then can fill out their staff with skilled craftsmen. You don’t need to be the best welder in the shop to hire a great welder – you need to know the signs of good welds, and good steel fabrication techniques. From another point of view – I can’t sew very well, and I certainly couldn’t make a costume, but I can tell when one is well constructed.

So to answer the question – sure a carpenter can be a good TD. But, they need to adapt their skill set to the position. The new skills set could include different communication styles, leadership, estimating, maintaining budgets and resources and so forth. If a TD starts in the technical side they are likely to understand what good carpentry and set construction looks like, which gives them a leg up there. The interesting part of the question could be could you take a project manager unfamiliar with theatre into the role of a TD, and would t hey be successful. Then theoretically they had the soft skills, but no knowledge of the technical needs of the shop or scenery. While that is certainly a question for another day, I can easily say that a carpenter has a better chance at succeeding than someone with/out any technical background.

You can check out the question and the answers given at linked in here:

I know this question likely has a variety of answers feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you think.

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