Engineering Management: Demystified

There are two basic paths for engineers to follow as they progress through their careers. One path is to become a technical expert in some specific field. I call this the “Guru” path. The other is to go into engineering management, which I’ve written quite a bit about recently. 

With the advent of numerous Masters in Engineering Management programs, it’s clear that many engineers want to pursue management, and that industry is looking for engineers to join management. The ability to balance technical skills and business knowledge is considered very valuable.

Despite having chosen to pursue the management path early in my own career, what I didn’t realize at the time is that not all engineering managers are created equal. With the growing complexity of organizational structures today, there is a need for several different kinds of specialized manager to deal with specific issues and parts of the organization.

Today, I’m going to talk about two different kinds of manager and offer advice on which might suit you best if you’d like to pursue a career in engineering management.

Functional Management

A functional manager is probably what you think of as a “traditional” manager. These are the managers that are in charge of a certain group of people, like the electrical engineering team, for example. Functional managers are normally responsible for developing the people on their team, conducting annual reviews with their team, hiring and firing, and offering technical guidance to their team. 

In a traditional hierarchical organization, functional managers also assign work to their staff and evaluate it. In these organizations, most engineers only have their functional manager to report to.

In a matrix organization, the functional manager splits their duties with project managers (discussed below). In these kinds of organizations, functional managers decide who gets assigned to a project and how those people are to approach their work, while project mangers decide what work needs to be done, and on what schedule.

Project Managers

Project management has become a profession of its own in the last decade or so. Many engineers work in project environments, where each new undertaking is a unique endeavour with a specific budget and schedule. Given this, the idea of project management should be familiar to many. In project management, your mission in life is to make sure that your project is completed on time, on budget, with the right scope, and to keep your customers happy.

In some organizations, project managers are the top operational authority. That is, a given person would report directly to a project manager. Once the project is done, staff either get reassigned, or in some cases laid off. 

In matrix organizations, project managers work in parallel with functional managers. Project managers concern themselves with what needs to be done on a project and on what schedule. Functional managers assign people to the project and decide how to approach that project. 

Project managers tend to get less into the technical details of the work, and focus much more attention to the business side of things – specifically budget and schedule. 

What kind of manager should engineers become?

If you’re interested in becoming a manager, it’s important to bear in mind that these two management roles can be very different. 

Functional managers tend to me more technically specialized and people focused. If you like the idea of helping people develop and grow over their careers, then functional management is probably more your style. Be warned though, if you aren’t comfortable with the idea of giving a poor annual review, or even firing someone if you had to, then this might not be for you.

If, on the other hand, you’re more interested in the business side of things, and love organizing and scheduling, then becoming a project manager might be more your speed. Project managers tend to need to be technical generalists who understand a lot of different things all at once. The pace tends to be pretty hectic, and there can be a lot of pressure to perform. Some people love this, others hate it. You’ll want to know what kind of person you are before jumping in.

About Pat Sweet

Pat Sweet is a Professional Engineer working in Ontario, Canada. He’s a full-time vehicle engineer focusing on commuter train electrical systems and the author behind the Engineering and Leadership blog, where he shares his thoughts and experiences on leadership, productivity and career advice for engineers. Go to Pat’s blog now to get your free copy of his free career guide and free professional development email course.