Management Track vs. Technical Track: Choosing the Right Engineering Career Path

6 min read
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As you progress in your engineering career, there comes a point when you’ll need to choose whether continuing on with technical work or transitioning to a management role is the right next step. For those who have clear visions for their careers, this decision can be easy, and depending on personal goals may even be made at the outset. But for others whose plans aren’t quite as firm, or anyone reconsidering their initial career choices, arriving at a decision can be more challenging.

If you find yourself in the second group don’t worry, deciding which path to take doesn’t have to be difficult. Knowing what you’re good at, where your interests lie and what you want out of your engineering career makes all the difference, which is why we wrote this guide — to help you figure out which track is the best fit for you.

All About Engineering Management

It’s an engineering manager’s job to oversee projects, guiding them from concept to delivery, all while supervising the team of engineers who bring these projects to life. Exact duties and responsibilities will vary across jobs and companies, but some of an engineering manager’s core duties include:

  • Planning strategies to ensure that projects are completed on time and within budget
  • Hiring new team members as needed
  • Coaching, supporting, evaluating and supervising direct reports
  • Communicating and collaborating with stakeholders and other managers across teams
  • Weighing in on big-picture questions and technical decisions

Now that you have a better idea of what an engineering manager does, let’s take a look at the management track overall, including the skills and qualifications you’ll need to become one, potential roles to consider and how to best pursue this career path.

Skills and Qualifications for Engineering Managers

While engineering managers occasionally help their teams with technical work, the majority of their days are spent interacting with other team members, stakeholders and upper management. Keeping this in mind, it’s important to have a varied skill set that encompasses both technical and interpersonal strengths if you’re considering the management route.

Additional skills needed to be a successful engineering manager include:

  • Communication
  • Strategic planning
  • Decision-making
  • Leadership
  • Delegation

As for the qualifications you’ll need to pursue this career track, an undergraduate degree in a related field is required (along with technical experience) while some roles may prefer a master’s degree.

Who Is a Good Fit for the Management Track?

In the engineering field, there is always a need for people who both understand technical concepts and are effective communicators, so if you have the ability to explain complex concepts in easily understood terms, you already have an advantage. Management is also a worthwhile consideration if you enjoy taking on leadership roles or building relationships.

How to Become an Engineering Manager?

If the management track sounds like the career path for you, there are a few different ways to start your journey toward becoming an engineering manager. While many people land their first jobs after earning an advanced degree — such as the University of San Diego’s Master of Science in Engineering Management and Leadership — others arrive at the position through a combination of passion, experience and on-the-job learning.

6 Common Engineering Management Jobs

  1. Engineering Director
    Average salary: $162,252
    An engineering director is the head of a company’s engineering teams and typically oversees all aspects of the engineering department. This includes ensuring that departmental goals ladder up to company goals, overseeing budgets and collaborating with company leaders.
  2. Research and Development (R&D) Manager
    Average salary: $117,507
    Research and development managers are responsible for leading important research projects that help inform the designs of a company’s products. Other common duties include implementing R&D strategies, analyzing results and making recommendations based on findings.
  3. Process Engineering Manager
    Average salary: $124,640
    This type of engineering manager oversees teams that design and develop different manufacturing processes and equipment as well as identifying areas of improvement. In addition to managing teams, other responsibilities include leading projects and resolving problems.
  4. Quality Manager
    Average salary: $91,357
    It’s a quality manager’s primary job to make sure that the products, software or processes that the engineering team create meet a certain standard. Other responsibilities include developing quality control protocols, collaborating with other departments and identifying areas for improvement.
  5. Engineering Operations Manager
    Average salary: $122,682
    Simply put, engineering operations managers are responsible for overseeing an organization’s engineering processes and activities. Some of their key duties include developing process improvement strategies, identifying new project opportunities and coordinating the employees, contractors and subcontractors working on varying projects.
  6. Engineering Lead
    Average salary: $84,927
    Most people stepping into engineering management roles are asked to leave their technical duties behind when they take the reins. However, for engineering leads, this isn’t the case. Unlike the other jobs on the list, this one is primarily focused on the technical side with a few management responsibilities added. This way, engineering leads can help alleviate bottlenecks, find efficiencies and lead by example.

The Technical Track Explained

If you don’t think management is the right fit, another option is to remain on the technical track. Like its name suggests, this engineering career path is primarily focused on technical work — such as coding for software engineers or designing machines for mechanical engineers. And while leadership opportunities exist as you begin to take on more senior roles, you won’t be expected to oversee a team or take on other managerial responsibilities.

Could the technical track be the one for you? Keep reading to find out more about what it entails.

Skills and Qualifications for the Technical Track

Let’s start with some good news — if you have experience working as an engineer, you’re already qualified for the technical track. If, on the other hand, you’re thinking about becoming an engineer as part of a career switch or your post-graduation plans, you’ll need to earn an undergraduate degree in a related subject.

As far as competencies are concerned, professionals who choose the technical track typically rely on the following skills in their day-to-day:

  • Attention to Detail
  • Problem-Solving
  • Analytical Thinking
  • Creativity
  • Innovation

Who Is a Good Fit for the Technical Track?

This option is a strong one for those who enjoy the work that they do as engineers and want to continue improving their technical skills. Another good way to tell whether this path makes sense for you is through the process of elimination — if you’re certain that pursuing a management position isn’t the right move, then there’s a good chance that staying in a technical role is.

How to Advance Your Career in the Technical Track

Moving into a senior engineer role is one of the primary career advancement opportunities for those on the technical track. These promotions come with added responsibilities and opportunities to mentor junior staff members. Earning relevant certifications or becoming an expert in a certain specialty or process can help you stand out to management when promotions are available.

6 Common Technical Track Jobs

  1. Mechanical Engineer
    Average salary: $95,300
    Mechanical engineers are responsible for designing, building and testing machines or mechanical systems. Some of their day-to-day tasks include troubleshooting issues, conducting research and reviewing plans and technical documents.
  2. Chemical Engineer
    Average salary: $105,550
    The primary job of a chemical engineer is to design and develop equipment and processes related to the production of chemical agents, fuel, pharmaceuticals, etc. Responsibilities include conducting tests, ensuring that manufacturing processes meet safety and environmental regulations and analyzing test results.
  3. Civil Engineer
    Average salary: $88,050
    Civil engineers plan, design and oversee construction of buildings and infrastructure (e.g. roads and bridges). Their responsibilities generally consist of providing technical advice, surveying potential construction sites and calculating load and grade requirements.
  4. Software Engineer
    Average salary: $109,020
    It’s a software engineer’s job to develop, maintain and update computer programs and applications. Duties of this role typically consist of writing and testing code, coming up with system improvements and fixing bugs.
  5. Electrical Engineer
    Average salary: $101,780
    Electrical engineers are tasked with designing, developing and testing electrical equipment. Their on-the-job duties include completing technical drawings and plans, overseeing equipment installation and performing maintenance.
  6. Systems Architect
    Average salary: $103,764
    Systems architects are tasked with designing and implementing computer systems and ensuring that those systems are secure, scalable and easy to maintain. Their list of duties and responsibilities also includes identifying system upgrades, establishing system requirements, finding workarounds to system limitations and collaborating with other development teams.

Comparing Engineers & Engineering Managers

To get a more complete picture of how both tracks measure up, take a look at the chart below.

Management TrackTechnical Track
Skills NeededCommunication Strategic planning Decision-making Leadership DelegationAttention to detail Problem-solving Analytical thinking Creativity Innovation
Required QualificationsBachelor’s degree, Master’s preferredBachelor’s degree
Who Is it Good for?Professionals who have a technical background and enjoy taking on leadership roles and building relationshipsEngineers who prefer technical work or those who know they don’t want to become managers
How to AdvanceEarning an advanced degree or a combination of passion, experience and on-the-job learningProgressing into senior roles, earning certification or specialization
Top JobsEngineering Director R&D Manager Process Engineering Manager Quality Manager Engineering Operations ManagerMechanical Engineer Chemical Engineer Civil Engineer Software Engineer Electrical Engineer

Management vs. Technical Track: Which Is Right for You?

Still not quite sure which career track to take? If you’re struggling to make a decision, try asking yourself the following questions:

  • What are your career goals?
  • Would you prefer to lead an important meeting or work independently on an interesting problem?
  • Would you rather explain the inherent value of technical work to others or work on technical challenges directly?
  • Do you enjoy keeping up with advances in your chosen field and applying those innovations to your own work?
  • Do you prefer diving into administrative details or figuring out how to help others succeed?

If you’re honest in your answers, you should begin to have clarity surrounding the right path forward.

Advance Your Engineering Career With USD

Choosing the right engineering career track is one of the most important decisions you’ll make, so it’s important to evaluate your goals and carefully weigh the options. No matter which path you end up taking, you’ll need to come up with a plan to reach your goals — and if those plans involve earning an advanced degree we’re here to help. Our free eBook, Choosing an Online Master’s Degree, has everything you need to know when comparing potential programs. Download your copy today!

Or, get in touch if you’d like more information about our 100% online Master of Science in Engineering Management and Leadership program.

From Engineer to Leader: How to Transition from the Technical Track to Management Path

Are you thinking of taking on a leadership role? Download our free eBook for the questions you need to answer to make an informed decision.

From Engineer to Leader