Engineering managers are usually responsible for supervising teams of engineers and may also be asked to oversee technicians, contractors and skilled labor. It’s a career that comes with great responsibility, and an excellent paycheck as a reward, which is why it’s often seen as a natural progression in an engineer’s career.
However, this is a job that comes with a great deal of stress, with more than half of engineering managers working well over 40 hours a week. This is also a career that requires a special type of individual to deal with the special conditions engineering managers have to deal with on a day to day basis. Here are some of the top skills and qualifications you need to succeed in engineering management.
This is rarely an issue for engineers moving into management because their background in engineering meets this criterion. However, technical project management requires far more than understanding how circuits and mechanical assemblies work. You must also understand how every aspect of a technical team works and how to manage other engineering professionals.
In addition, you will have to stay up to date on the project management software or software development framework your team is using. Project management skills are a must and it will be your responsibility to ensure that deadlines are met while ensuring you also keep up with engineering standards and government regulations.
Engineering managers have to balance attention to detail with the big picture. You must be able to communicate a vision, such as a completed building or final product in production while letting your team flesh out these details. You also have to pay attention to the details yourself, whether this is through picking up on little details during a job interview or catching mistakes in a submitted design.
As a manager, you will need to be clear and concise in your communications so that people don’t waste time and money working on the wrong thing. You’ll also often have to sort through the vague requirements of clients and customers to come up with detailed task lists for your team members.
Another thing you’ll need to know is how to communicate with managers and subordinates and how to coordinate communication across departments and teams. You’ll need to learn how to master the art of nonverbal communication as well.
Management / Leadership Skills
Some engineering projects are too large and complex for any one person. This is why engineering managers oversee such teams. The problem is how many would-be managers try to take on too much of the work themselves.
As a leader and manager, you need to know when to delegate and how to determine who you should delegate to. This requires knowledge of each person’s strengths and weaknesses as well as their expertise. It’s also important that you learn how to give people the information and resources they need to get the job done.
Another role engineering managers often need to adopt is that of a mentor. A good manager should know how to cultivate talent within their team so that they can make good decisions without assistance. They need to teach the engineers on the team to take responsibility so that they don’t have to do it all. Their job will then be to concentrate on providing guidance and direction as required, as a manager should.
The good news is that management and leadership are both skills that can be taught. For example, online engineering management programs like this one will give you all the tools you need to manage human resources, from resolving conflicts to setting reasonable goals. This is on top of learning how to manage budgets and schedules. The best part is that courses like these will allow you to integrate and use those skills while maintaining your current job, and even position yourself as a prime candidate for leadership roles within your organization.
This is an area where many engineers fall short, and why some can never truly make the jump from engineer to manager. While the idea that many engineers lack emotional intelligence may seem stereotypical, it can be true in many cases.
Being able to manage teams is all about being able to mix and match different types of personalities all with their own strengths and weaknesses. Managing engineers is also not like managing your average worker.
Engineers usually have clear ideas of what they think is best and might disagree with your direction. They might also disagree with how others are working. It will be your job to notice that and get them involved. You will also need to be open enough to actually accept suggestions and sometimes act on them without being too conciliatory.
Engineers usually work within very strict parameters and exact data. Being precise down to the last detail is what makes a good engineer, and there’s not much space for gray areas. Being a manager, however, is a whole different thing. You aren’t dealing with programs here, but people. You not only have to deal with different personalities, but with ambiguities as well. You don’t know who’s going to show up this morning, and you sometimes will never be able to get a clear answer from somebody, and this is something you have to be prepared to deal with.
Another soft skill that will be essential for you to master as an engineering manager is conflict resolution. Managers need to understand that conflict is part of working as a team, and is neither good nor bad. It’s really how conflict is handled that will make the difference. A good manager knows that being empathetic is often a better solution than being defensive, and knows how and when to be assertive instead of aggressive or too passive.
Good managers are able to recognize when something is wrong, even if a team member says everything is fine. When left unattended, silent conflicts within teams can end up deteriorating and could lead to things like sabotage or mutiny. By being able to pick up on non verbal cues, you’ll be able to see emerging problems even when nothing seems wrong at the surface level.
Even things like learning how to control your body language could make a huge difference. Incongruent body language could be enough to raise doubt within your team, and affect their performance. Understanding how to use body language will improve your communication skills, whether this is tailoring your message to the audience or reinforcing your intended message. You’ll also be able to adapt your message in response to the intended recipients’ responses.
Becoming a licensed professional engineer is beneficial if you want to become an engineering manager. The first step is earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering from an accredited school. The next step is passing the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying Fundamentals of Engineering exam. When you pass this, you will become an Engineer in Training or EIT.
To become a licensed professional engineer or PE, you must work for at least 4 years under the supervision of a professional engineer. Earning a master’s degree in engineering management can count toward this requirement. Then you can take the NCEES Principles and Practices of Engineering exam.
Licensure is an ongoing process in many cases, because you may be required to meet continuing education requirements. One of the benefits of a Professional Engineering license is that it proves your engineering expertise. Another is that you’re qualified to sign off on project drawings. This makes a PE license valuable if you want to move up from staff engineer to project lead. For example, companies prefer licensed engineers who can check the accuracy of drawings and verify calculations are correct.
An engineering manager’s job is to make decisions. Engineers often make concrete decisions every day, but this tends to be based on clear-cut analytical criteria. In contrast, managers are asked to make judgment calls that are not as cut and dried.
You may need to choose between many competing projects to decide who gets the additional funding or becomes the top priority for the team, for instance. You may also be asked to decide where to make budget cuts or whom to lay off when money becomes tight.
Big picture thinking is another skill you’ll have to develop and requires advanced problem-solving skills. As a manager, you’ll frequently have to deal with changes in customer requirements and deal with problems as they arise. Not only that, but you’ll be the one considered responsible for the results, good or bad. You need to be honest about the mistakes you make while being able to address those your subordinates make. You must also know how to learn from them and make changes to help the organization evolve.
Success in engineering management depends as much on non-technical knowledge and skills as it does engineering knowledge. This is why engineers must cultivate a broader skillset if they want to move into a leadership role. Know, however, that many of those skills can be learned if you have the dedication and discipline.