If you’re an engineer looking to move into a management role, here are a few things to know about what managing requires.
With the right skills, any engineer who aspires to be a manager can become one, according to Life Senior Member Oliver Yu, chair of the IEEE Technology and Engineering Management Society (TEMS) innovation and entrepreneurship committee. He has had a long career as a manager in California, including at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto and at the research nonprofit SRI International in Menlo Park. He is now president and CEO of the Stars Group, an online gaming company in Los Altos.
The Institute interviewed Yu and Senior Member Michael Condry, president of IEEE TEMS, who began in management at Bell Labs, in Holmdel, N.J. He went on to become director of Sun Microsystems in Santa Clara, Calif., and then CTO of Intel’s Global Ecosystem Development Division before retiring in 2015.
Here is what they say you can expect once you become a manager.
THERE’S NO I IN TEAM
As manager, you are the bridge between your own manager and your team—you’re expected to deliver on the objectives of your project and troubleshoot problems that arise, Condry says. “Your focus shifts from you as an individual engineer to you as a leader. As manager, it’s all about teamwork.”
With that, you give up stardom, Yu says: “The recognition goes to your team—even if you help it leap over multiple hurdles. You will become the star only if your team members are stars.”
Therefore, he says, it’s key to be a mentor to your engineers. “Instead of you being the smartest person in the room,” he says, “leverage their expertise to help the team deliver outstanding results. You will be rewarded for it.”
And once you’re recognized by your employer, be sure to share that recognition with your team, Condry says. Companies tend to spotlight some employees over others—which dissuades people from doing their best work and reduces the overall effectiveness of the team, he adds.
Also, create an environment in which people want to work for you. Condry suggests welcoming their feedback and demonstrating that you care about them and respect them as professionals.
But that doesn’t mean being easy on them. “Good managers know how to draw out the best in their team,” Condry says.
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
One of the biggest tasks a manager has is to see the big picture and execute on it. That might entail communicating the deliverables from your manager to your team or relaying feedback from customers to top leadership. Whether it’s one project or several, a whole division or an entire company, managers must have a wide-angle lens, Yu says, whereas engineers take a narrower view.
“It is critical that managers speak two different languages: detailed for engineers and high-level for executives,” Yu says.
Managers must learn to communicate concisely with the company’s top leaders about business decisions. “If you can’t say it with three bullets on one slide, you won’t hold their attention,” Condry says. “If they ask for more details, you’ve done a good job at getting your message across.”
Being succinct is often difficult for engineers who move into a management position, Condry says. “If they come from academia, engineers think the more volume, the more effective the message,” he says. “But in industry, you need to make your points fast and crisp.”
It’s important for managers to understand the technology their teams are working on. “If managers don’t know how the technology works, they’ll struggle to lead their teams,” Condry says.
As manager, you have to see how all the pieces work and fit together, including the supply chain and the marketing process. Even if you oversee only one piece of the pipeline, you’re still responsible for moving everything along to meet deadlines, Condry says.
And if you find that your team lacks the expertise needed to complete your project, it’s important to communicate that as well, Condry advises. While at Intel, he says, he saved the company US $1.2 billion when he asked a power electronics engineer from another department for help on his project—expertise he did not have. Together they came up with a patch for a circuit system instead of a complete redesign.
TO GET THROUGH THE DOOR
Before applying for a management position, it would be helpful to take classes in team management, communication skills, business strategy, and similar subjects, Condry says. Courses might be available through your employer; if not, check with colleges, universities, and engineering and business associations.
IEEE TEMS, for example, offers Engineering Management 101 and Understanding an Industry Technical Staff Pipeline, each available for $11 for members or $15 for nonmembers. Check out its website for other resources.
Yu also recommends asking to shadow managers at your company to see what their day looks like.
But if there is no time for classes when you find a newly posted management position, emphasize related experience on your résumé, in your cover letter, and in interviews, Yu suggests. That could include having led a project or organized a conference, as well as tasks that demonstrate your ability to work with a budget and lead a team. Explain the kind of project it was, how many people were involved, and the type of communications required to execute and complete the project, Yu says.
“Emphasize any creativity you’ve implemented in managing a project or leading a team,” he adds. In interviews, be attentive and be prepared to answer questions effectively. “It’s obvious during interviews whether the applicant is a good communicator—which is a must,” he says.
Yu warns that managers have more responsibilities and—more importantly—deal with all types of people. If you cannot work well with people in various roles, he says, becoming a manager might not be the right move for you.