How to Become a Manager From an Engineer?

How to become a manager from an engineer? Become a people person, while still retaining your technical abilities.

This is key, to switching to managing engineers. Despite what you may think, all engineers have emotions. So the more you can relate, the better you can manage.

To further support this transition, we’ll go over 13 tips.

#1 Be an amazing engineer

people management as manager

You don’t need to have been an amazing engineer to become a great manager. But, it greatly helps if you have some level of technical chops.

I’m talking about having done real-world engineering work. Getting your hands dirty in the trenches of complex projects.

Only then, you can understand projects from a granular level. In return, you can properly create project schedules and budgets. The engineers you manage will also have greater respect for your real-world awareness. They’ll see you get it.

Even more, you can better call out the bullshit of engineers. Like when an engineer tells you a given task is very difficult and will take an extra 2 weeks. If you’ve done the task before as an engineer yourself, you’ll know it should only take one day to complete.

#2 Think through the lens of the business world

handshake in business

As an engineer, you try to understand all the nuances of the technical world. But, as a manager, you can no longer only view work from this technical lens.

You also need to make decisions based on the realities of the business world. The following are some of the subjects you need to consider:

  • Budget
  • Employee benefits and salaries
  • Project schedules
  • Company culture
  • Office politics
  • Human personalities and shortcomings
  • Lawsuits and liabilities
  • Business results

So, your mindset will shift towards a macro view of projects. Projects these days are just as much business as they are technical.

I’ve been a part of some amazing large-scale engineering projects. One, in particular, was a half a billion-dollar-plus project. Two years into the project though, investors suddenly pulled the funding plug. The news media reported the project budget had dried up.

The reality was much different. The management was horrible for the following reasons:

  • Endless spending on food catering
  • Endless design changes from poor project planning
  • Poor evaluation in hiring sub-contractors and employees
  • Project deadlines not set

There’s always more to the story than meets the eye. The point is, without good business management, engineering work will dry up.

#3 Develop empathy

You’re no longer working with machines, which don’t talk back to you. As a manager, you now deal with sentient beings with deep emotions.

So, you need to be empathetic and listen to the issues people have. See issues from their eyes and then figure out how to address them. Because if one person’s morale dips, then the entire team’s productivity can take a hit.

Understanding the human condition is a cheat code to help manage people’s issues.

#4 Build a rapport and trust

No one will listen to you, if they don’t trust you. And a great way to build trust, is to get your hands dirty. Dive into the trenches and help with real engineering work.

I know, as a manager, your formal job duties no longer revolve around engineering work. But it doesn’t mean you can’t overextend yourself.

In return, you can better understand the complications your engineers face. All the while, interact with the engineers you’re managing. Because you’re not above them, rather you’re leading alongside them.

As an added bonus, your technical skills will remain sharp. Refer to tip #1.

#5 Build up your network

Networking can seem very off-putting to many engineers. But as a manager, you need to grow your network.

This doesn’t mean going to superficial high-end parties and sharing a drink. Rather, go to various industry events, and meet people.

The stronger and larger your network is, the more levers you have to pull. You’ll have access to more people, who can later help you with your projects.

For example, say you’re buddy-buddy with an inspector. At some point in the future, you can directly speak with the inspector, to quickly resolve an issue. This versus trying to interpret hazy emails from a random inspector.

#6 Build a workplace culture of accountability 

You’re now in charge. You can’t push the puck down the line to someone else. So, you need to always be in problem-solving mode. Don’t instantly look to others for solutions.

What’s great is, most engineers already have this mindset. But now, decisions aren’t founded only on hard facts.

As a manager, you’ll need to make all types of subjective decisions. All the while, make decisions on the spot and be held accountable for them. This will help build a culture of accountability.

#7 Maintain positivity even in dark times

maintain positivity against all odds

You may feel like shit some days, but you need to always exude professionalism. Because your attitude as the leader molds your surrounding environment.

So build a habit of remaining positive. Even if it means wearing a mask sometimes. Over time, your actions will become a habit. This will then help maintain a positive mood amongst everyone you manage.

The challenge is for introverted engineers. You can’t ever close yourself off from your team, despite your feelings.

#8 Create a structured daily plan

Engineers want structured workdays to do their technical work. A manager wants the same. But managerial work is more chaotic with little natural order.

As a manager, you deal with people more than the laws of nature. With the latter being much more predictable. So, to help maintain your daily structure, never quit the following:

  • Managing people
  • Training employees
  • Maximizing productivity
  • Budgeting and scheduling
  • Maintaining office culture

Then, create a checklist of what you most need to manage throughout your day, to execute!

#9 Find yourself a mentor

Most great managers have an influential mentor they can turn to for advice. Even if you’re alone in your company, you’ll have someone to lean on. Because two minds are better than one, in tough times.

To find a mentor, look no further than your own previous manager. Or go find someone online – it’s so easy to connect with all types of amazing people.

When you do find yourself a mentor, pick their brain. Go out to lunch with them several times, and hammer out any questions you have.

#10 Don’t run from challenges

When challenges come your way, don’t quickly look for outside advice. You’re now the captain of the ship, despite tip #9.

Tackling problems head-on is a great way to learn. You may crash and burn at first, but your bruises will set you up to become an amazing manager.

#11 Understand and set priorities

Your first priority is no longer solving technical problems. Rather, it’s managing people, while ensuring projects stay on course. This requires pouring all of your energy into maximizing managerial efforts.

#12 Learn from past and existing great managers and teams

tesla corporation management
Photo Credit: Arno Senoner

Like a 10x engineer, you can always level yourself up as a manager.

Research successful engineering teams, to learn what makes them great. Then steal traits you can employ in your team.

There are countless managerial books you can read as well. Find how elite companies like Microsoft, Tesla, and Apple operate. Take bits and pieces from each, to create your own super engineering team.

#13 Become an exceptional communicator

Become a great writer, speaker, and listener.

Many engineering problems begin with bad communication. For one, you’ll frustrate your engineers. You’re their workplace lifeline, yet they can’t properly communicate with you.

Even worse, you’ll become a point of failure for engineering projects. Because you’re calling all the big shots using poor communication.

To help strengthen your communication skills, check out my following articles:

“How to become a manager from an engineer?” wrap up

The transition from engineer to manager is never seamless. But by following these 13 tips, you can more easily make the transition.

At the same time though, constantly experiment, reflect, and learn. Because different workplaces and employees, require different management styles. There’s no one size fits all solution, on how to become a great manager.

What are your thoughts on how to become a manager from an engineer? What do you think makes the transition from engineer to manager the most difficult?

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