A former boss of mine, a mechanical engineer by background, said, “I never hire anyone who says, ‘If you can manage one thing, you can manage anything.’” He had little patience with marketing, business development, or client operations managers who thought they’d become tech or engineering managers because (1) they were sure they could do it better than they’d seen it done, since (2) they were, after all, managers and management is management, no?
No. Management is not management. That is to say, just because someone is great at managing customer service, warehouse operations or HR doesn’t mean they’re prepared to lead teams engaged in the interdependent, creativity-meets-science, sometimes trailblazing work of engineering teams.
Case in Point
In a utility company, a woman who’d been wildly successful managing multi-million dollar projects to construct new substations was assigned to manage a similarly expensive IT project. The goal was to automate work crew scheduling in the field and integrate remote handheld devices and work tracking technology with a multitude of backend systems.
She was quickly swamped by the fragility and complexity of the whole integration process, combined with the vaporware that hopeful vendors claimed to offer. Vaporware and fragility were not characteristics she’d had to deal with in substation construction. Add to that the disconnect between client expectations and IT realities, and she found herself facing more than one significant problem.
Who Should Manage Engineering Teams?
Putting business managers in charge of tech departments and projects is one way of addressing a particular problem – that is (and I realize I’m generalizing here) that great tech professionals and engineers often don’t make the best managers. So some companies are left with two choices: having an engineer who isn’t a great manager manage engineering teams; or having a business manager, who’s a good manager, manage engineering teams.
Either choice has its shortcomings.
A Better Alternative
Many universities have noticed this problem – that engineers are under-prepared for management but are much-needed as managers. These schools have responded by creating post-graduate programs aimed at preparing engineers and tech professionals to manage projects, ascertain business risk, analyze financials, and delegate and coordinate the work of others.
The programs go by various names – Engineering and Technology Management, Engineering Management, Management of Science and Technology, among others. Some programs are residential cohort programs. Some are online only. Some programs require that students have work experience. Some don’t.
But the general idea behind all of them is to equip engineers with the business skills and leadership abilities they need to direct engineering work and run the business of engineering as a business.
Many of these programs were developed with input and guidance from industry, listening to business and tech leaders identify the specific financial control, and organizational and management abilities their engineering managers need on the job every day.
“The environment of today demands a broader skillset,” said Eric VandeVoorde, director of the program at Purdue University. Theirs is a full-time residential program, and 90% of the participants have bachelor’s degrees in an engineering discipline. About half of their students have work experience.
“We’re helping students accelerate their career trajectory,” he said, building on their undergraduate education, getting them ready for tech leadership roles.
I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask how their students were prepared with “soft skills.” Forgive the expression, I’ve always hated that phrase but you know what I mean – communication, handling conflict, working across cultures, for example. I was surprised to learn from Mr. VandeVoorde that Purdue has one of the largest international populations of all public universities in the United States, and in particular that their program works with Purdue’s Center for Intercultural Learning Mentorship Assessment and Research (which, fortunately, goes by a short acronym: CILMAR), helping their students learn, for example, to negotiate business deals with other cultures.
“What’s the difference between a Masters in Engineering Management (MEM) and an MBA?” I asked Dr. Nil Ergin at Penn State.
An MBA requires no technical background. An MEM does. That’s for starters. To get an MEM, students come from engineering-focused backgrounds. An MEM is a mixture of business and engineering, a leadership program weighted toward engineering specifics.
Penn State’s is an online cohort program: students complete the program with the same class they started with. All students are working professionals and must have three years of work experience before being accepted into the program, in addition to a background in engineering, science, or other STEM discipline. (Calculus is required.)
The Penn State program emphasizes areas like communication and teamwork, project-based teams, as well as two courses in creativity and problem solving. Of the latter, Dr. Ergin said, “Our students love those courses!”
Kansas State University has had their Masters in Engineering Management program for twenty years. They’re “helping technical professionals take their first step into management,” Dr. Bradley Kramer, Department Head, told me.
“It’s important for any engineer to understand the business and to grow their management skills,” Dr. Kramer said, then added, “We’re more concerned with that first step, a person who will be managing other engineers.”
The KSU program isn’t offered to full-time students. It’s for working professionals and, like the other programs, requires an undergraduate degree in engineering, science, or math. The KSU MEM is not a thesis degree. Instead, students present a career project at the end bringing together things they’ve learned in at least three courses and applying them to a practical problem at work.
MEM vs. MBA
Engineering Management programs are not MBA programs for engineers. Instead, these programs are designed to prepare current (or in-the-near-future) individual contributor engineers to organize and lead technical work. Not just any work. Engineering work. These programs integrate a task-level understanding of engineering with managerial concerns like strategic planning, financial analysis, risk assessment, and organizational behavior.
In general, engineering management programs are addressing a problem industry has identified – that is, the need to better integrate management objectives and practices with engineering objectives and practices.
One way to approach that problem might have been to try to equip managers with engineering backgrounds, but it’s not hard to see why that’s not feasible! Instead, equipping engineers with management skills is a faster and more practical course, which is why engineering management and leadership programs are growing in popularity.
Thirty years ago, only a handful of schools offered these programs. Now they’re everywhere – even Alaska – which in and of itself is a testament to the growing demand for qualified engineering leadership.
Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.