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09.11

Career Profile: Engineering Management

By John R. Platt

Into every life, a little responsibility must fall. For engineers, that might mean leading projects. For others, it might mean advancing up the corporate ladder to become a manager or a corporate officer. It could even mean starting your own company and becoming the boss.

But taking those first steps into management can be difficult, and there are many questions you might ask before moving forward. Is going into management the right career path for you? Are you right for management? Do you need extra training or skills to become an effective manager? What if it doesn't work out for you? Are the best paths for career growth with your current employer, or must you switch companies before you can advance?

Don't worry. The answers are just a few paragraphs away.

The Manager's Role: From Doer to Influencer

The first thing potential engineering managers need to understand is that their role will change, and that change is quite dramatic.

"Your job is no longer to get the work done," says Stephen Balzac, president of 7 Steps Ahead, LLC. "It's to enable others to get the work done."

Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better, LLC, takes that into more detail: "The biggest thing engineers need to understand before moving into a management role is management involves getting great work done through others. A manager moves away from doing the actual day-to-day work and instead helps others through allocating resources, facilitation, mentoring, etc."

Robert Schultek, principle of GrowthPointe Group, says he moved from engineer to manager "many years ago," but the lessons he learned making the transition still apply. "The most profound challenge in making this move is learning to change perspective from 'doer' as an engineer to 'influencer'," he says. "I became an engineer to help others by using technology to solve problems. When moving to management, this mission is sustained, but the means of its achievement becomes more complex since you work with and through others. As a manager, you are primarily a facilitator your job is provide the direction, tools and training necessary for your associates to achieve the goals."

That doesn't mean you can let your engineering knowledge slide. You might not be in the trenches, but you still need to know enough about the current state of technology to keep your employees' respect and give them the support they need. "Stay semi-current in your field by studying the journals, trade magazines and blogs," says Stephen Granade, director of projects and lead scientist for Advanced Optical Systems. "Stay plugged in and listen to what people are saying so you can understand why they are making the decisions they are making." If you don't, he cautions, "You can quickly be the pointy-haired boss from Dilbert. Stay relevant, continue to learn, otherwise you're going to end up rubber-stamping engineering decisions without any feel for whether they're good ideas or not."

But even as you stay plugged in, a little intentional ignorance can go a long way toward helping your people and your projects. "You are no longer the expert. You are now the village idiot. Embrace that role," says Balzac. "It is how you build up your team: as a manager you are in the position to ask the stupid questions that no engineer would ask for fear of looking bad."

So, What About that MBA?

But while you may not be training in the nuts and bolts of the latest wireless technologies, you might still need some additional training or education to become an effective manager.

Does that mean you need to get an MBA? Maybe. Maybe not.

"I do not believe an MBA is required for technical management," says Jeanine Swatton, CTO of ApptheGame. "Not once have I come across a manager or tech lead with an MBA background. In a majority of cases, I was the only technical lead with a Masters degree in Computer Science."

"MBAs generally do not prepare engineers to manage people," says Steere. "Learning how to prepare balance sheets and marketing plans doesn't translate into how to have tough conversations with underperformers or how to diagnose morale issues."

Several people I spoke with recommended classes in leadership and public speaking. "I needed to build some skills in order to become an effective manager," says Jenson Crawford, director of engineering at Fetch Technologies. "First I needed to learn how to communicate more effectively. I took a course from Dale Carnegie Training that helped me immensely in this regard." He also recommends Toastmasters as a way to build communication skills.

But don't put that MBA completely out of your head. "Your need to have a MBA should be clarified with your supervisor," says Schultek. "The MBA process teaches management techniques, advanced problem-solving and opportunity evaluation," all of which may be essential in the big-picture aspects of your new job.

Some of those skills can be learned through experience, but an MBA might also be something your potential future bosses are looking for in their ideal candidates. "After becoming a manager, I elected to get an MBA," says Jonathan Potter, delivery manager for Ford Motor Company. "The degree is not mandatory for management and some have succeeded without it. However, it is an accelerator for your career. Not only does formalized learning improve your skill set which will lead to greater results on the job, but it also serves as a differentiator when looking for that next job or promotion."

Managing is About People (aka, Soft Skills are Hard)

"Engineering is about things. Management is about people," says Balzac. But not every engineer is a people person. "Based on my past experiences," says Swatton, "engineers who are currently working toward management-level positions need to become more extroverted and genuinely care about their employees in order to succeed. There are many talented engineers out there, but very few who can handle the social aspect of management."

Gaining the skills necessary to manage people who, by nature, are far less predictable than machines or computer code can take some work. "People are neither concrete nor deterministic," says Crawford. "Project planning, budgeting and risk analysis are all very easy parts of the manager's job for engineers to handle. The people, not so easy."

Crawford's father was an engineering executive who told him that the toughest challenges came from people issues, so his changing role did not surprise him. But he still found himself learning on the job. "One of the key things for my success was learning that different people have different preferences about communication methods." He says that some of his staff preferred verbal communication, while others liked to see something visual, like a diagram or a written-out description. "I had to learn to communicate to people in multiple ways. I try to observe how individuals communicate with me phone, email, face-to-face and use that same method in my communication back with them."

Ford Motor's Potter also learned as he went. "Dealing with people involves building relationships, managing emotions and influencing others toward a common objective. These are skills that were not in my toolbox as a computer scientist. I picked up these skills through the practice of working with people as well as independent reading of books on these topics."

A Manager's Career Path (or, How Do I Get to Be a Manager?)

Getting into management often means switching employers, says Shane Bernstein, managing partner of Q, an IT staffing agency. "Typically, if you're a developer or a lead developer or software engineer, sometimes you'll get promoted into management, but it's usually a lower-level management role rather than senior level." He says that most companies want to bring in new managers from outside, which can serve to inject new perspectives and new points of view to their management team.

If you're looking to advance up to the VP role or higher, Bernstein says you have a better chance being brought into a company than staying where you are. But this also means you may not stay at a company for very long. "Companies don't expect you to stick around," he says. "These days, a manager or executive tends to stay with a company for three to five years, max."

Your experience might be different in a smaller company. Granade had only been working at Advanced Optical Systems, a small company with about 25 employees, for three years when one of his coworkers left, opening up a project management slot. "They came to me and said, okay, you're managing this project! That was the start of my management career."

Before you start applying for management positions, you might want to take a close look at yourself and your work styles to see if management really is for you. Steere has two "acid test" questions she asks engineers who are considering management roles:

  1. Do interruptions irritate you? Once you are a manager, your direct reports will be coming to you with questions. They will need your involvement. Is this something you will enjoy, or do you thrive on heads-down project work?

  2. What attracts you to a management role? A person well-suited to be a manager will respond with an answer like: "I enjoy coaching people and helping them grow professionally." If an engineer's response to this question does not in some way involve people, that's a red flag for me.

Making the Transition  

The transition from engineer to manager can be a difficult one, as you move beyond your peers and your existing support system. "Don't be lonely at the top," says Balzac. "Get an advisor, coach or mentor, someone you can bounce ideas off of. Going it alone is how you make mistakes. Having a coach is how you learn from them."

Another transition that many find difficult is realizing that they are no longer the engineers completing the engineering assignments. "You're no longer the person doing the work," says Granade. "If you're managing, you need to trust the people you're managing to do the work." That trust becomes more and more important the longer you are in management. "After about six months or a year away from doing hardcore technical work, you're no longer that guy. Your skills are out of date." But your team's skills are still up-to-date.

If you think you can make those transitions, and you're ready for new career avenues, then management might be for you. And there are plenty of opportunities out there. "The need for managers who have the disciplined thinking process of an engineer and the empathetic, collaborative skills of modern leaders will continue to grow in the future," says Schultek.

Onward and upward.

Additional IEEE Resources

 

Is Management for Everyone? (Failure is an option)

Not everyone who goes into engineering management ends up enjoying their new career. Take Dan Nainan, for example.

Formerly a senior engineer for Intel Corporation, Nainan's job was to travel the world with Chairman Andy Grove, helping to give technical demonstrations on stage at various events. "I was incredibly nervous about speaking on stage," he says. To help him get over that fear, he took a stand-up comedy class, which improved his presentation skills. He soon found himself loving the part of his job that used to terrify him.

"I was traveling the world, speaking on stage at fantastic high-profile events, playing with the latest technology, and I got to see hundreds of my closest friends every day at Intel headquarters. I loved that job so much I wouldn't even have to set my alarm, because I couldn't wait to get up and get to my job, have my oatmeal and fruit and start my day."

But Nainan was so good at his job that he got promoted into management, a move he quickly regretted.

"In my management job, I was home-based, didn't get to play with any technology, and the only socialization I had was conference calls and the occasional customer meetings.  It was so boring, and I really hated it."

After a year as a manager, he realized he was at a crossroads. He could either continue in a job he didn't like or make a radical change. He decided to go back into comedy.

It wasn't an easy transition. Nainan says the first few years were tough, and he barely made any money as a stand-up comic. But he persevered. And it paid off.

"I have performed at the Democratic National Convention, at a TED Conference, at three presidential inaugural events, for Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and many similar luminaries." He also appeared in an Apple Computer commercial with Justin Long and John Hodgman last year. "I perform all over the States as well as in many foreign countries. My life is like that of George Clooney in 'Up in the Air', just without the sex."

Would Nainan go back to engineering? He says an Intel manager recently told him he could come back any time, "but I don't think that's going to happen. I'm having too much fun traveling the world in first-class on someone else's dime!"

So if you move into management and decide it's not for you, don't worry. There are always opportunities back on the engineering side s or somewhere else. Just make sure you love what you're doing or you could end up regretting it.

 

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John R. Platt is a freelance writer and entrepreneur, as well as a frequent contributor to Today's Engineer, Scientific American, Mother Nature Network and other publications.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.


Copyright 2011 IEEE