How to Become a Manager From an Engineer?

How to become a manager from an engineer? This is a jump some engineers endlessly strive for, while others want to avoid at all costs.

If you’re part of the former group, I’m going to go over how you can successfully make the leap.

To point out, my discussion focus is on becoming a great engineering manager. In other words, leading other engineers.

Now, this doesn’t make the transition any much easier. Because still, you’ll be managing people. Even if these people are your fellow engineers.

If you haven’t realized, there’s a big difference between managing people and machines. For this reason, I want to first discuss some questions you need to answer about becoming a manager.

Until you answer these questions, you can’t definitively decide to make the jump.

6 questions to ask yourself before you decide to become a manager from an engineer

management is like playing chess

As an engineering manager, you get all the following perks:

  • Awesome new office
  • Increased pay
  • Respect from your peers, or at least that’s the goal
  • Deep influence over projects
  • One step closer to an executive position

Sounds like a sweet new gig, right?!

Plus, how hard can it be? You’ve designed complex engineering projects and worked with plenty of engineers yourself over the years. You have plenty of skills!

But, you’d be in for a rude awakening if you’ve never managed people before.

Because you’re no longer dealing with computers, but people with emotions. A LOT of emotions!

It’s why machines are better than humans at work. Of course, when the work isn’t apples and oranges.

So, let’s get started with the six important questions.

#1 Are you okay with becoming an extrovert?

Many engineers are introverts by nature. So, management positions can create a lot of friction with your personality.

You can’t just shut yourself down and shut your door whenever you choose.

You need to keep your door open, and actively interact with people. Even if you’re having a bad day.

Because your mood and voice heavily impact your team.

Now add to the fact, you’ll need to make decisions on people’s ability to make a living. Yes, you may need to fire people.

Are you okay with this level of responsibility?

It’s a huge load to place on your shoulders. Especially when you naturally don’t want to deal with external issues as an engineer.

#2 Can you handle and thrive with office politics?

You may have no interest in politics, but you’ll become a semi-politician in the workplace.

Politics isn’t necessarily bad though, despite the new-age connotation of the word.

But the crux of the matter is, you’ll need to learn to compromise. At the same time, you’ll need to hold people accountable for their actions.

All the while, you can’t take sides. You need to stay neutral and be equally fair to everyone.

So yes, you’re stuck in the middle pulling all the strings. Your work can certainly become chaotic!

Now you ask, what’s the end goal of all this chaos?

To foster a positive non-chaotic work environment. This way, engineers can efficiently get work done.

I will say though, if you hated workplace politics as an engineer, you’ll probably hate it even more as a manager.

#3 Do you have a high level of empathy?

A machine you can reboot, or give a kick or two to when it’s not working. But you can’t do this with a human unless you want a lawsuit on your hands.

To point out, engineers as a group are fairly level-headed. They don’t have too many outrageous emotional outbreaks. I speak from experience.

But, engineers are still all humans despite how robotic some engineers appear. And yes, each engineer has a life outside of the office.

So even the most stoic engineer will have emotional swings from time to time.

Now, this is where you enter the picture as the manager. You need to be a good listener and see the situation from the shoes of the other person.

Yes, you need to emphasize and navigate through hairy emotions, whether you like it or not.

Hence the importance of soft skills as an engineer. An unmastered skill that’s not too common among engineers.

#4 Are you okay with treating people as chess pieces on a chessboard?

This doesn’t sound politically correct at all, but it’s a reality!

Managing different groups of people with different agendas is like playing chess.

For example, you’ll have one engineer trying to get a salary raise at all costs. While another engineer thinks this engineer is a fraud and should be fired.

Your job is to quell any Machiavellian workplace activities. All the while, keep everyone happy.

What’s more, you’ll need to employ strategies to motivate people and to keep problems at bay.

As an engineer, you already do a lot of strategic thinking to bring concepts into the real world. BUT, you’re not directly working with people trying to influence their decisions.

In short, as a manager, can you answer all the following questions:

  • How to organize your team to efficiently and effectively complete projects?
  • What’s the best way to set up the work environment to maximize productivity?
  • How to increase workplace morale with the least amount of employee kickback?

There are many other questions you need to think over as well.

Clearly, management work isn’t a cakewalk. It’s because you’re dealing with all types of different personalities.

#5 Are you okay with having less time to do technical work?

You may not even get around to doing technical work anymore. Your day may only revolve around people management.

This can be a difficult reality for many engineers. Because maybe you became an engineer to only get your hands dirty in technical work.

But now as a manager, you need to worry about the work of others too. In other words, you need to consider the work of the entire team you’re now managing.

This means more meetings and paperwork. All the stuff you swore you’d stay far away from as a young budding engineer.

#6 Are you able to make important decisions with little preparation time?

As an engineer, you do make big technical decisions. But in most instances, you have breathing room to make your decisions.

In other words, you’re not rushed to make a decision on the spot. As a manager though, you may constantly need to make instant decisions.

These decisions you may not have much data on either. And data is key in decision making. The more data you have, the more informed decisions you can make.

For example, let’s say your managing a bridge construction over a river. All of a sudden in construction, one of the submerged pillars cracks.

You now need to make a decision on what to do while considering the potential consequences. You don’t have much time and data to make an informed decision though.

Some engineers can’t handle this level of pressure and accountability.

Are your eyes still set on becoming a manager?

Did these questions strike fear in you?!

If you answered ‘yes’ to most all the questions, you’re now ready to transition from an engineer to a manager.

And don’t worry if you answered ‘no’ to some of the questions.

Because most engineers aren’t primed and ready for this transition out of the gate. That’s totally okay.

As long as you’ve mentally made the decision to make the transition, you can do it. You’ll learn the ropes along the way.

How to become a manager from an engineer

people management as manager

Finally, let’s go over how you can become a great engineering manager.

As we’ve learned already though, it’s not an easy transition. So, if you were an amazing engineer, it doesn’t mean you’ll become a great manager. Far from it!

But by following these 13 tips, you can better transition into management positions.

#1 Be an amazing engineer

Who would have thought?!

I find this to be one of the most important traits for an engineering manager.

Now, you don’t need to have been an amazing engineer to become a 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. This then allows you to better set project schedules and budgets. The engineers you manage will then respect you for your real-world awareness.

In the same vein, engineering teams will accept you when you “get it.” In other words, when you speak the engineering lingo while understanding hairy concepts.

What’s 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.

But, when you’ve done that task before as an engineer yourself, you’ll know it should only take one day to complete. This in itself is a priceless ability!

#2 Think through the lens of the business world

handshake in business

Yes, you’re an engineer. You understand all the nuances of all parts of the technical world.

But, as a manager, you can no longer only view work from this technical lens.

What I mean is, you now need to make decisions based on the realities of the business world too. It’s a messy reality that requires a lot of careful navigation if you’re not prepared.

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, shift your mindset towards a global view over projects. You need to think about everything, while not focusing 90% on technical work alone.

Because projects these days are just as much business as they are technical. Even though the engineering work you’d think is the most important.

For example, I’ve been a part of some amazing large-scale engineering projects. One, in particular, was a half a billion-dollar-plus project.

We did some amazing engineering work for this project.

BUT, two years into the work, investors stopped funding the project. On news media, the story was the project budget had dried up.

The money and investment train didn’t just dry up for no reason though. The management was horrible for the following reasons:

  • Endless spending on food and added perks
  • Constant design changes
  • Poor project planning
  • Poor evaluation in the hiring of sub-contractors
  • Hard 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 that don’t talk back to you. As a manager, you’ll now deal with sentient beings who have deep emotions.

Thus, you need to listen to the issues people have. See issues from their eyes and then figure out how to address their issues.

Because if one person’s morale dips, then the entire team’s productivity can take a hit. Thus, you need to nip issues before they start.

This begins by understanding problems from a human level, so you can quickly address them.

#4 Build trust with others

No one will listen to you if they don’t trust you.

A great way to build trust is to get your hands dirty. Dive into the trenches and do 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.

This way, you’ll better understand the complications your engineers are facing.

At the same time, you can interact with the engineers you’re managing. Because you’re not above them, rather you’re leading alongside them.

This will help build trust because you “get it.”

As an added bonus, you’ll keep your technical skills 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 set up events and meet people.

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

For example, let’s say you’re buddy-buddy with an inspector.

Then at some point in the future, a project inspection period rolls around. You can then directly speak with the inspector to quickly resolve any issues.

This, instead of trying to interpret hazy emails from a random inspector. You’ll drive yourself crazy and waste boatloads of time.

#6 Build a workplace culture of accountability 

You’re in charge now. You can’t push the puck down the line to someone else.

Thus, your mindset needs to always be in problem-solving mode.

Yes, most engineers already have this mindset ingrained into them. So you probably already have this mindset too.

But in engineering, you make decisions based on hard facts.

As a manager, you’ll need to make all types of decisions without any concrete facts. You need to think of the best solutions on the spot.

This means you need to hold yourself accountable to tackle every problem that comes your way. In return, you’ll help build a culture of accountability.

#7 Maintain positivity even in dark times

maintain positivity against all odds

You may feel like shit one day, but you need to still exude professionalism. Because your attitude will mold the environment around you, as you’re the leader.

This means you need to build a habit of remaining positive.

Now I know, many times you’ll wear a mask to hide dark feelings. That’s totally okay.

BUT, over time you’ll build good habits. You’ll become a cup-half full type person.

In return, you’ll improve the entire office mood too.

Thus, why introverted engineers who aren’t willing to change won’t make good managers. Because you can’t close yourself off to your team when you feel like shit.

If you do, your projects will fall behind. Also, you won’t have anyone’s ear when the time comes.

#8 Create a structured daily plan

Engineers want and have structured workdays. This structure forms around technical work.

As a manager though, your work will revolve around both the technical and the business world. Where business work is more chaotic with little natural order.

This is because you’re dealing with people more versus the laws of nature. One is much easier to deal with than the other. Do you catch my drift?…

Nevertheless, build yourself a structured daily plan that addresses all the following:

  • People management
  • Employee training
  • Maximizing productivity
  • Budget and schedule management
  • Maintaining office culture

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

This set plan will keep you on the right path of what to look out for to keep everything running smoothly. Then if you see things ever begin to stray, you can quickly realign your ship.

#9 Find yourself a mentor

Most great managers have an influential mentor they can turn to for advice.

Mentors are invaluable resources. Because sometimes as a manager you may think you’re alone on an island. But you’re not!

Plus, when times become tough, you’ll have someone to turn to for advice.

Now, 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 people online these days via Twitter alone.

When you do find yourself a mentor, go 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. You need to solve the problems that other engineers bring to you.

Plus, tackling problems head-on yourself is the hands-down best 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.

So figure out what your first priorities are and then go after them. In most instances, your priorities will be to manage people and to ensure projects stay on course.

Thus, your job as a manager is to pour your energy into maximizing your newfound priorities.

#12 Learn from past and existing great managers and teams

tesla corporation management
Photo Credit: Arno Senoner

Find out what makes an engineering team so great. Research other engineering teams, and learn from them.

Then compare other engineering teams to your own. Find out what your team is lacking and then make the necessary changes.

Just like in engineering, you can always level yourself up as a manager.

There are countless books you can read on this subject too. So, find out what companies like General Electric, Tesla, and Apple do.

Then, take bits and pieces from each of them, to create your own super engineering team.

#13 Become an exceptional communicator

I’m talking about becoming a great writer, speaker, and listener.

A lot of engineering problems start with bad communication. Plus, as the leader, you’d set a very bad example if you can’t properly communicate.

Not only that, it’d be beyond frustrating for your engineers. As you’re their workplace lifeline, yet they can’t properly communicate with you.

What’s more, 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 these articles I’ve written:

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

The transition from engineer to manager most always isn’t seamless. But by following these 13 tips, you can more easily make the transition.

At the same time though, you need to constantly experiment, reflect, and learn. Because different managers have different techniques that work best for them.

It’s why so many different engineering management books exist. There’s no one size fits all solution on how to be a great manager.

Find what works best for you and your team, and follow-through.

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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