Transitioning from engineer to engineering manager is a big career switch. You might work in the same office with the same people after you become an engineering manager, but your day-to-day duties will be entirely different. Do you really want to assume the mantle of management? It can be a great gig if you want to use your problem-solving skills on people.
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The engineering profession has many branches and sub-branches. Engineers in every branch, however—from chemical engineering to mechanical engineering to agricultural engineering—use science and math to build and assess technical solutions to problems big and small. Need a bridge built? Call a structural engineer. Need a molecule manufactured? Call a biomolecular engineer. Need to find a way to dispose of wastewater safely? Call an environmental engineer. Need to solve a business problem? Call a software engineer.
Behind every product you use and structure you see, there’s a team of engineers. And behind them? That’s where you’ll find engineering managers.
To succeed in this management role, you have to be more than just a great engineer. You have to be an expert communicator, an effective leader, and a capable project manager. This role isn’t for everyone. If you love digging into technical problems and chipping away at them until a solution finally presents itself, this gig probably isn’t the right one for you. But if you dream of shaping the trajectory of engineering projects and making life that much better for busy engineers, keep reading.
In this guide to how to become an engineering manager, we’ll cover:
Engineering managers are supervisors and planners, motivators and coordinators. They must be experienced engineers because they need to understand enough about the engineering projects they oversee to plan, coordinate, and direct every phase of those projects, from research to production to testing and maintenance.
Project and manpower management gets complicated in all branches of engineering because there are a lot of moving parts. Becoming an engineering manager (or a project engineer, as you may be called at some companies) means:
And that’s not all. You’ll also serve as a liaison between your engineers and other departments. You will report directly to project stakeholders. If a project goes off the rails, you’ll be responsible for getting it back on track.
There’s no way to predict what your exact duties will look like when you become an engineering manager because your day-to-day responsibilities will be driven by your branch of engineering and the specific project. Whether you’re overseeing the design and development of robotics components or computer hardware components for electrical systems or genes for agricultural production systems, however, your primary responsibilities will be keeping projects on track and keeping people on task. David Ives, Engineering Manager at Pusher, put it like this on the Amazon AWS Startups blog: “I would describe an engineering manager as a Sergeant Major. They are very much part of the mission delivery team and manage a group of experts to perform specific tasks.”
It sounds simple enough, but it’s a big job. Everything from assessing the viability of new projects to running quality assurance programs to signing off on systems designs to keeping engineers happy will fall on your shoulders.
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Engineering managers work anywhere engineers work, which means you can find them in offices, research labs, manufacturing facilities, and chemical plants. They bring engineering expertise to the table, but what they do isn’t all that technical. There are a lot of administrative, legal, and staffing issues to deal with in this role. Jacob Baskin, head of engineering at Coord, told the How I Got My Job blog: “None of these things are specifically engineering skills, which is one reason why transitioning from a purely technical role to a managerial one can be very difficult. Conversely, managers often have less input into their team’s technical decisions, which can mean that your technical skills get used less in a managerial role.”
Types of careers for engineering managers vary with the different needs in different branches of engineering. You might end up overseeing teams focused on design, manufacturing, quality assurance, logistics, or automation. After working for one company for a while, you might end up striking out on your own as a consultant, training engineering managers at other firms. And eventually, after you amass enough experience in management, you might become an engineering director or vice-president of engineering.
How easy it is to find a job once you become an engineering manager will depend mainly on what type of engineer you were before transitioning into management. The same is true for your earning potential.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual income for architectural and engineering managers is $140,760, making them some of the highest-paid professionals in the US. Remember, however, that that’s calculated across all branches of this broad discipline. Your actual salary will depend on your branch, your experience, where you live, and economic conditions.
You may have heard that there is healthy job growth in engineering, and that’s true, but it varies quite a bit by branch. Jobs in industrial engineering, chemical engineering, and agricultural engineering are growing at about the same rate as the job market as a whole. There are fewer jobs for nuclear engineers. The job growth for all engineering managers is actually only about half the growth rate for the entire job market.
Don’t shy away from engineering or management just because employment isn’t booming, however. Chances are that no matter what the economy looks like in any given year, there will always be some jobs for engineers and engineering managers, because there will always be buildings to build, roads to resurface, electricity infrastructure to overhaul, bridges to repair, food to grow, medicines to produce, and environmental issues to tackle.
There’s no one set degree pathway for aspiring engineering managers, though you’ll almost certainly need to have a master’s degree to advance to a management position. Before you can get your master’s degree, however, you need to get a bachelor’s degree.
It’s possible to get a bachelor’s degree in engineering management (there are programs at schools like Stevens Institute of Technology, Missouri University of Science and Technology, and University of Illinois at Chicago), but it makes more sense to get a bachelor’s degree in engineering in your specific field of interest, like mechanical engineering or materials engineering. That way, you can graduate and start amassing the kind of work experience that will eventually make you a better manager.
If you do decide to pursue a management degree, make sure you choose a program that includes the kinds of core engineering courses you’d take in a branch-specific bachelor of science program, like:
When it comes to master’s degrees for engineering managers, you have even more options. You can get a Master’s in Engineering Management (MEM/MSEM), a Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a concentration in engineering or a topic relevant to your branch, or a master’s degree in a field related to management in that branch, such as decision and risk analysis, financial studies, or technical project management.
The differences between the MEM and the engineering MBA are not that great. In fact, the MEM is sometimes called the MBA for engineers. Both options cover the skills and knowledge you need to be an effective manager while overseeing advanced engineering projects. You’ll take classes in finance, management, leadership, and human resources in MEM and engineering MBA programs, though these will likely be engineering-specific in a MEM/MSEM program and more general in an MBA program.
The biggest difference between these two degree pathways is that the coursework in an MEM program—like the ones offered by the The University of Tennessee – Knoxville and Duke University—will almost always relate in some way to engineering. In contrast, coursework in an MBA in engineering program—like the one at Georgia Institute of Technology—will include more core business and inter-industry topics.
If your long-term goal is to become the best engineering manager you possibly can, then you’ll probably get more out of a Master’s in Engineering Management program. But if you’re not sure that you really want to become an engineering manager, an engineering MBA can give you the business foundation you need to launch an executive career in any industry. Then again, maybe you want both. Harvard University offers an MS/MBA: Engineering Sciences dual-degree option that confers an MBA from Harvard Business School and a Master of Science in Engineering Sciences from the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Should you decide to enroll in a Master of Science in Engineering Management program, you may have the option of choosing a branch-specific or role-specific concentration like:
Most universities offer just a handful of Master of Engineering Management concentrations. One way you can easily choose the best MEM program for you is to think about your branch and your career aspirations, and then look for programs that offer concentrations related to them.
To work as an engineer, you have to pass the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) Fundamentals of Engineering exam. You also need a license granted by the state you work in (licensing requirements are set by individual states) and branch-specific engineering certifications.
You may be surprised to learn that no specific credentials other than your engineering license are required to become an engineering manager. You can, however, earn your certification from the American Society for Engineering Management. It offers two certification options:
That depends on how connected you want to be with the technical elements of your projects. When you become an engineering manager, you’ll still need your technical chops, but you’re not going to use them as often as you would in an engineering role. If you’re a people person with a knack for accounting, marketing, communication, and project management, this role can be a good fit. But if you’re a numbers person and your IQ is orders of magnitude above your EQ, you may not be happy working in engineering leadership. Sure, you’ll probably make more money as an engineering manager than you will as an engineer, but not everyone likes taking ownership of projects or wants to deal with the kinds of stress that management entails.
“Problem solving is just not as clear cut for managers,” Jean Hsu, Engineering Leadership Coach at Jeanhsu.com, told GitPrime. “The problems are people problems, communication problems, all the things we’ve generally learned to devalue as engineers.”
If that resonates, you might want to stick to technical roles in engineering and leave management to the natural-born managers. If, on the other hand, you love the idea of mentoring young engineers, helping your colleagues get better at their jobs, optimizing engineering department operations, and helping your team deliver on projects more efficiently, you may just love this job.
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