Whether you work in chemical engineering, software engineering, electrical engineering, environmental engineering, or even aerospace engineering, someone needs to oversee projects and manage personnel. That job falls into the hands of the director of engineering, who is responsible for keeping projects on track, meeting short- and long-term company goals, and managing human resources (i.e., the engineers).
Becoming a director of engineering means deciding to step back from project work; this is mostly a supervisory role. Because you’ll deal more with people and the details of projects, you’ll need technical skills as well as soft skills.
If that sounds like a change you want to make, keep reading.
In this article, we’ll cover:
A director of engineering’s responsibilities depends to some extent on the field in which they work. The day-to-day work of a director in chemical engineering will likely look very different from that of a director of software engineering.
Most directors of engineering handle some or all of the following duties:
Don’t confuse the director of engineering with the engineering managers. Managers tend to oversee projects from within; they’re usually still on a team and still very much part of the technical processes involved in completing a project. It’s an excellent job for those who want to advance in their career without giving up day-to-day engineering work.
When you become a director of engineering, on the other hand, you’re never working on just one project. Instead, you are overseeing the work of multiple engineering managers working on numerous projects. You’re not going to be keeping track of individual deliverables or the smallest project milestones. Instead, you’ll track the progress of significant milestones, helping managers meet their project goals.
When quarterly goals are missed, or a project goes off the rails, the director of engineering is responsible for finding and eliminating roadblocks. While your team will, of course, help identify what is and isn’t working, but it will be your job to guide those managers toward the right solutions.
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The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t track statistics for this role, but you can get an idea of where a director of engineering might work by looking at the statistics for architectural and engineering managers (a related role). Most architectural and engineering managers work in offices even if the people they’re supervising work in research laboratories, in industrial production plants, or at construction sites.
The majority of engineering directors work in manufacturing, architecture, software, and engineering companies. There are fewer roles in scientific research and government. An engineering manager earns on average $140,760 per year.
Payscale.com reports an average annual salary of $140,474, plus bonus, commission, and other incentives, for directors of engineering. Salary.com offers even sunnier prospects, reporting that engineering directors earn $164,164 in salary, plus another $14,635 in annual incentives.
Director is not an industry-specific title, so the educational commitment for becoming a director of engineering will vary depending on your field. A director of aerospace engineering will need a very different educational background from a director of mechanical engineering.
In general, though, you will need at least a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree to step into the role of director of engineering.
You’ll start by choosing a bachelor’s degree program that’s relevant to this career path. For instance, if you want to become a director of engineering and you love chemical engineering, you should earn a BS in chemical engineering. You’ll probably go to engineering school, but if there are opportunities to take business courses or you feel up to minoring in business, do it. As a director, you may spend more time flexing your HR, project management, and finance chops than thinking about engineering puzzles.
After racking up some work experience in your field, you’ll head back to university for some more education. You have three options at this point. You can earn a master’s degree in your field before becoming an engineering manager or a product manager. You can also receive your engineering MBA or a Master of Science in Engineering Management (MSEM or MEM). If you feel that you still have room to grow as an engineer before you move into management, then a master’s degree might be the best choice.
If, on the other hand, you want to transition into a managerial role now, then the MSEM or engineering-focused MBA might be the better choices.
The MSEM is the more technical degree and may have a stronger project management component, while the MBA will have a curriculum more focused on general management principles. MSEM students spend more time studying operations management, technology strategy, and product innovation, all of which will prepare students for management positions in technology or engineering. An MBA, even when there’s an engineering or tech concentration, is still an inter-industry degree (which might be a plus if you’re not sure you want to stay in engineering for your whole career).
In terms of coursework, there’s plenty of overlap in these two pathways. As you pursue either degree on your way toward becoming a director of engineering, you’ll take classes in:
Is the fear of missing out keeping you from making a decision? Then you may also want to look at dual MBA-MSE programs. You’ll be studying in both the engineering and the business school of your chosen university to earn two separate degrees—one technical and one managerial. It will mean being in school longer—usually about three years—but that’s still faster than earning two back-to-back degrees. In the end, you may be better prepared to step into a directorial role because you’ll have taken your engineering knowledge up a notch while diving deeper into business.
Check out the programs at Cornell University‘s SC Johnson College of Business (a two-year full-time sequential MEng/MBA) and Texas A & M University – Kingsville (an online, concurrent part-time MSE/MBA) to see how different these degree pathways can be.
Then again, maybe you already have a master’s degree in engineering (or even a Doctor of Engineering degree), and you want a credential that sets you apart. Cornell has a certificate program for engineering leadership designed to help engineers grow as managers.
The typical advancement path for a director of engineering involves working as an engineer and then a manager before stepping into the role of director. Across industries, many job listings for director of engineering roles require candidates to have at least five years of experience working in an engineering role, and ten years of experience in a managerial role (specifically in positions like head of engineering), plus the technical and computing knowledge and required certifications. You’ll need a successful track record showing your experience managing people and projects alike.
Finally, you’ll need persuasive writing and communication skills that allow you to work smoothly with a wide variety of people, from coders to board members to clients.
Consider the following question: Do you want to be an engineer? Alternatively, do you want to make a career out of helping other engineers grow in their careers? You can grow in both roles. You’ll even manage in both roles. However, when you become a director of engineering, your job will ultimately be to empower others to engineer the future. You’ll be responsible not only for deliverables, but also the job satisfaction of those under you, how turnover affects projects, and the professional growth of the people on the teams you oversee.
The main con is that this is not a nine-to-five job. Achieving work-life balance will be tough—like when you’re short-staffed, or if someone transposes a couple of numbers and the whole system goes down. For this, however, you’ll be paid handsomely, as discussed above. Many people also derive much satisfaction from nurturing other people in their professional development and inspiring them to new heights of innovation, creativity, and productivity.
Jill Wetzler, a director of engineering in Lyft, told USA Today what she enjoys most about the job: “I love when engineers and managers do something brave and do something that is outside of their comfort zone and then to see them get rewarded for it. It’s all part of the professional development process. Ultimately my job is to unlock the potential of the people who work for me. … It’s really the most satisfying part of my career.”
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