How to Become a Chief Engineer [+ Career & Salary Guide]

6 min read

When you think about your future career options in the engineering field, how high of a position are you interested in? Senior engineer? Director of engineering? What about the position of chief engineer, executive engineer or vice president of engineering? 

The truth is, when you start looking at executive-level engineering positions, things can get a little muddy. That’s because different companies use these titles in different ways, and some titles (such as principal engineer or chief engineer) can refer to different positions, ranging from head of the engineering department to more executive-level leadership.

If you enjoy leading teams of other engineers, there are a host of positions you can aspire to, from engineering manager to VP of engineering. This post takes a closer look at the role of chief engineer, a high-level position that sits between engineering manager and more executive-level leadership positions. 

For some organizations, chief engineer will be the highest-ranking engineering position within a company and is responsible for overseeing the entire engineering department. If this sounds like a role you’re interested in, here’s what you need to know about the responsibilities and requirements to become a chief engineer.

What Is a Chief Engineer?

Not every organization will have a chief engineer position, and those that list the position may have different responsibilities or requirements. Generally, the chief engineer position is the head of the engineering department, responsible for overseeing other engineering managers, lead engineers and/or operations managers.

Chief engineers oversee all engineering operations, ensuring:

  • All projects are on time, on task and on budget
  • That company objectives and initiatives are communicated and understood
  • The technical quality of all engineering projects and products meets or exceeds standards
  • All operations are in strict compliance with safety standards and regulatory procedures

Chief engineers will work closely with other department heads to coordinate the operations of the engineering department. They’re expected to report directly to executive leadership.

Chief Engineer vs. Chief Engineering Officer

It’s important to distinguish the chief engineer position from the chief engineering officer position, also known as the CEngO. 

As the department head, the chief engineer will be on the ground with the engineering team, directly overseeing projects or the product vision. Their priority is to drive team leadership and collaboration by delegating tasks, setting work standards and ensuring the successful execution of goals.

The CEngO is more analogous to a Chief Technical Officer (CTO), a top-level executive responsible for the overall technical vision of a company. A CEngO’s role is to devise top-down strategies on how to implement technical innovation, improve business operations and shape the engineering culture of an organization.

A chief engineering officer takes on greater responsibilities outside the engineering department, and will often divide their time focusing on tactical operations, collaborating with other executives, managing relationships with stakeholders and developing the company’s business strategies based on what’s happening in the market. 

Also make note that a chief engineer position within a company is distinct from the Navy chief engineer position, which is responsible for the safety and performance of ship operations. Context is important, so always carefully read a position’s description and requirements when you’re searching for jobs.

What Does a Chief Engineer Do?

Because the chief engineer role is so variable between different industries and organizations, each position will likely have unique responsibilities. In general, a chief engineer will be responsible for:

  • Monitoring the hiring, training and development of engineers
  • Ensuring that workflows run smoothly and the team delivers projects on time
  • Maintaining quality assurance processes so that projects meet every standard
  • Effectively allocating resources for optimal productivity and efficiency
  • Delegating responsibilities to different team leads and managers

Depending on the position, additional responsibilities can include:

  • Overseeing the development of new products or product enhancements 
  • Communicating company goals to all of the engineers within the department
  • Determining the cost of labor and materials for each project
  • Managing relations with clients and vendors
  • Examining available data to create reports for organizational leadership

What Types of Projects Do They Oversee?

Again, the specific projects a chief engineer will be responsible for varies depending on their industry. Some example projects could include:

  • Planning the expansion of the engineering department, including necessary construction or renovation as well as hiring and training personnel and ensuring that the process meets established goals, is completed on time and is overall cost-efficient
  • Updating the organization’s mechanical/electrical/computer systems, which can include developing and implementing preventative maintenance schedules, establishing emergency backup plans and managing budgets
  • Managing physical plant operation and assisting with facilities management, delegating responsibilities and solving problems as they arise to ensure that day-to-day operation is smooth

How Much Does a Chief Engineer Earn?

The exact salary for a chief engineering position depends on where in its hierarchy an organization defines the position. Department lead positions will be in the high five figures, while organizations that have chief engineers in more of a director or VP position will offer higher, six-figure salaries. As of March 2024, the following job aggregate sites listed the following estimates for a chief engineer salary:

  • Indeed — average base salary of $72,533
  • ZipRecruiter — average salary at $92,945
  • Zippia — average pay range of $65,000 to $177K
  • Glassdoor — average pay range of $136K to $243K

As with any position, the amount of compensation you earn will vary based on your experience, skills, certifications, education and employer.

What Skills Are Needed to Be a Chief Engineer?

As the head of the engineering department, a chief engineer will need to show strong technical skills, team management abilities and possess several years of leadership experience within their field. Industry knowledge, business skills and success in bringing products to market are also desirable. 

If you want to earn the position of chief engineer, you should be able to demonstrate strong skills in the following areas: 

  • Leadership — You should be able to set a vision and direction for a team to follow, and be able to inspire and motivate engineering teams. You will also need to provide mentorship, encourage continuous learning and support professional skill development.
  • Communication — You’ll need to be able to convey larger business goals and strategies to your engineers, while also being confident in explaining complex technical concepts to non-technical stakeholders. 
  • Resource Management — As the head of the department you’ll need to prepare budgets for all projects, staff compensation and equipment purchases and effectively allocate human and material resources to maximize efficiencies. 
  • Strategic Thinking — You’ll need to take a larger look at the purpose of the engineering department, anticipating and planning for future technological developments and disruptions. You should be equally able to consider the technical feasibility of a project, as much as its impact on the organization or its market viability.
  • Technical Proficiency — Though you often need to apply your technical skills, you’ll need to draw upon your understanding of technologies and processes to help resolve issues, make informed decisions and provide guidance to others.
  • Project Management — You’ll need to oversee all of a department’s projects to ensure their successful delivery. This can include delegating tasks and responsibilities to other managers in order to ensure engineering projects are finished on time and within budget.
  • Problem-Solving — Innovation and critical thinking skills will be essential in addressing different challenges. You’ll need to be open to all effective solutions by creating work environments that encourage innovation and adaptability from your team.
  • Ethical Leadership — You should strive to promote a culture of integrity, inclusivity and responsibility that meets all established ethical, social and environmental standards. You must always ensure that all employees feel included and supported within the engineering department.

What Qualifications Are Needed to Become a Chief Engineer?

Being among the highest career positions an engineer can achieve, the chief engineer role requires significant qualifications and experience. 


The absolute minimum educational requirement is a bachelor’s degree, preferably in an engineering field that is specific to your organization’s industry. 

Many positions will prefer, or even require, an advanced degree such as a master’s of engineering or a master’s of engineering management and leadership degree. Advanced degrees are effective ways to demonstrate mastery of specific skills and showcase your understanding of technical management and leadership concepts. 


Some industries and positions may require you to obtain a certification or license, such as your professional engineer (PE) license. Depending on your industry, you may need to show that you are certified to comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements.

For the chief engineer position, you could also consider earning a certification in engineering management, such as the Certified Professional in Engineering Management (CPEM) certification offered by the American Society for Engineering Management.


The amount and type of experience you need will vary by position, but expect most jobs to require up to 10 years of experience managing teams as an engineering manager, senior engineer or director of engineering.

You’ll also need to show that you have technical expertise in your field, whether it’s with mechanical equipment, HVAC, electrical systems or software development.

Who Is Hiring for this Position?

A review of different job aggregator sites in March 2024 found hundreds of listings for chief engineer positions, including from companies such as:

  • GE Appliances
  • Smart Wires, Inc.
  • LiquidPiston
  • John Hancock
  • Aegis Worldwide
  • Daniel Corporation
  • General Dynamics Mission Systems
  • Amazon Data Services
  • Mt. Sinai Hospital
  • State of California
  • Paragon Services, LLC


What is the difference between CTO and chief engineer?

A chief technical officer is a top-level executive responsible for the overall technical vision of a company. Sometimes known as a chief engineering officer, the CTO’s role is to devise top-down strategies on how to implement technical innovation, improve business operations and shape the engineering culture of an organization.

The chief engineer is the direct head of an engineering department, and is responsible for day-to-day operations and overseeing other engineering managers, lead engineers and/or operations managers.

What is the top salary for a chief engineer?

The exact salary for a chief engineering position depends on how an organization defines the position. Organizations that have chief engineers in roles similar to a director or vice president will offer six-figure salaries, with some job aggregate sites listing a potential salary of $243K.

Who does a chief engineer oversee and report to?

Who a chief engineer manages and who they report to will depend on the size and structure of an organization. If an organization has a chief engineer position, they will usually oversee engineering managers, senior engineers and lead engineers. They will report to executive leadership, either a director of engineering, a vice president of engineering or the chief technical officer.

Which online master’s degree program could help you advance your engineering career? Get our free eBook Choosing an Online Master’s Degree for tips and guidance. 


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