Whether you’ve had your sights set on becoming an engineering manager from the beginning of your career or recently decided that the management track is the right path for you, it’s important to have a clearly defined set of steps that leads to landing the role you want. One of these stepping stones is understanding the skills you’ll need to not only become an engineering manager, but to be a successful one.
Keep reading to find out what these skills are and learn how you can develop them — or build them from scratch — to ensure that you have the best possible chances of achieving your career goals.
What Does an Engineering Manager Do?
Before we take a more focused look at the skills needed to lead an engineering team, let’s first get a better idea of what an engineering manager does. As with any role, engineering managers have a set of overarching responsibilities that they’re held accountable for. These can include (but aren’t limited to) the following:
- Analyzing, proposing and managing project resources and budgets
- Planning strategies for keeping projects on-schedule and on-budget
- Collaborating with other team members, managers, stakeholders and contractors
- Delegating and supervising tasks and deliverables
- Evaluating team members’ performance
- Hiring and employee development
- Providing input when faced with challenges
- Creating technical documentation and project roadmaps
In addition to these, engineering managers also have day-to-day duties, which encompass the activities, meetings and tasks that fill up most of their time on a daily basis. Common duties include:
- Leading daily standup meetings
- Keeping the team on track
- Preparing for and running one-on-one meetings with team members
- Project management
- Administrative duties (e.g. tracking performance metrics, preparing reports and performance reviews, improving processes, staying up-to-date on best practices)
- Attending stakeholder meetings
11 Engineering Manager Skills Needed for Success
Now that you know what engineering managers do, here’s what they need to get the job done. To be successful in this role, having the following set of skills is key:
As a leader, it’s not a matter of if your team will come to you for help with problems or issues, it’s a question of when it will happen. Whether it’s a personality clash between co-workers, reigning in a project that’s fallen outside of scope or placating an unhappy stakeholder, thinking critically to come up with effective solutions is an important part of the job.
- Project Management
Even though most companies work with dedicated project managers, having project management skills is still an important part of the role. As an engineering manager, part of your responsibilities will be to oversee all stages of a project — from concept to finished product — and that includes resource allocation, staying organized, ensuring deadlines are met, budgeting and more.
This goes without saying. As the head of your team, it’s your responsibility to provide direction for the engineers you oversee as well as provide the support and motivation they need to do their best work. One of the best ways to lead is by example, and a confident manager who works toward positive outcomes will inspire their team to do the same.
The ability to make confident and informed decisions is an important part of being a team leader. As the person in charge, your team will look to you for guidance and answers to important questions such as “how should we proceed?” or “what should we do to fix this?’ when faced with obstacles or challenges. You’ll need to be able to inform your decisions with the right data and be able to clearly and directly explain your reasoning.
Ensuring that channels of communication between team members, stakeholders and senior management remain open and cordial is one of the most important jobs you’ll have as an engineering manager. All engineering disciplines are highly technical and you may find yourself needing to explain complex processes to people who aren’t technically savvy, so being clear and concise is equally crucial.
While it’s ideal for an engineering manager to have a background in the discipline they’re managing, at the very least, you should have a working knowledge of all of your team’s disciplines. That includes technical know-how and skill — such as knowledge of best practices, processes and frameworks. You don’t need to be a technical expert in every field, but be capable of understanding diverse and dynamic teams. Not only does this help when justifying the value of your team’s work to higher-ups, but it builds credibility with your staff as well.
Strategically distributing tasks, responsibilities and projects across staff members is a great way to ensure that your team runs like a well-oiled machine. And when done well, sharing the load in this way can have benefits for your direct reports — opening the door for possibilities like skills development, learning opportunities and professional growth.
People skills are one of a manager’s most valuable assets. Being able to build a good rapport with the employees you oversee and others enables you to establish strong working relationships between your team and project stakeholders, foster a positive work environment and build trust.
- Strategic Thinking
The ability to think strategically makes it possible for engineering managers to anticipate the outcomes of the decisions they make and how those decisions can impact both their teams and the projects they work on. We’ve already touched on how this skill impacts decision making, but it’s also especially useful when it comes to delegating responsibilities and solving problems.
- Giving Constructive Feedback
A good manager is invested in both the success of the projects they oversee and their employees’ professional growth; from time to time, these responsibilities involve providing constructive feedback. This feedback can be positive reinforcement (such as congratulations for a job well done) or a critique (highlighting areas for improvement or addressing mistakes, for example) — but no matter the nature of the criticism, thoughtful delivery is key.
As the primary decision-maker for the team, engineering managers assume most of the responsibility for the results of those decisions — both the good and the bad. In this role, you should be equally prepared to celebrate the successes with your team and to own up to and learn from the mistakes you make.
3 Ways to Build the Skills Needed to Be an Engineering Manager
Don’t have all (or any) of the skills mentioned above? That’s ok! It’s possible to improve on the ones you do have and develop the ones you don’t. Some of the best ways to do this include:
- Earning an advanced degree in engineering management. Going back to school to pursue a master’s degree is a big investment in terms of both time and cost. However, if you have your sights set on landing a job as an engineering manager, it’s one that’s worthwhile. By enrolling in a specialized engineering management program, such as the University of San Diego’s Master of Science in Engineering Management and Leadership, you’ll benefit from a targeted curriculum that’s specifically designed to build the skills needed for a career in engineering management.
- Proactively looking for on-the-job experience. There’s no substitute for first-hand experience, and if going back to school isn’t in the cards, it can also be a valuable alternative to formal education. Look for opportunities at work to develop the skill set you’ll need in your future role as an engineering manager. Volunteering to help head up a project, lead a meeting or manage a budget are all great places to start.
- Pursuing continuing education. Aside from advanced degree programs, continuing education can take the form of specialized courses, workshops that focus on building the kinds of skills you’re hoping to improve or even certificate programs that show future employers that you’re committed to advancing your career.
Engineering Manager FAQs
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