Are You a Manager or an Engineer?

By Gary Hinkle

 

Jeff’s venture into engineering management isn’t quite what he expected. He manages a group of seven engineers at a semiconductor company, but he continues to work as a hands-on engineer. He’s highly regarded for his technical expertise, which is why he was offered the management position five years ago.

Recently senior management’s been pressuring him to step up his game and become a better manager. This pressure from management leaves Jeff confused. On one hand, management praises his technical proficiency and hands-on contributions, but at the same time they are telling him that he’s not performing well as a manager. They tell him to be more influential with decision makers, to focus more on developing relationships with customers, and to do a better job attending to business concerns.

But they’re not telling him how to do that—how to build relationships, become more influential, and attend to business. They aren’t offering any useful guidance about his professional development. Jeff now wonders if he should go back to being a hands-on engineer and forget management. But he also knows he enjoys the variety of challenges he finds as a manager, and his staff tells him that they like having him as their manager.

What bothers Jeff most about his dilemma is that he can’t see how he’ll be able to spend more time with customers and develop new skills, while fulfilling his technical contributions and serving the needs of his team. There aren’t enough hours in the week!

As I see it, the problem is that management continues to expect Jeff to perform technically as well as to manage his team. An overly proficient technologist in an engineering management role often has a hard time developing the skill set needed to be an excellent manager. When an engineering manager is expected to – or chooses to – be a primary technologist in an organization, this situation describes a full-time job without even considering management duties.

It takes time to keep up with technological advances and stay involved in technical details. That’s what engineers should do. It’s not what managers should do.

Three Essential Management Skills

So what do managers do? What do managers have to be good at? These three things are critical: communication, influence, and understanding business operations.

Engineering managers must provide clear direction to their teams and serve as a communications hub, passing information to and from the team. They must be clear, concise, and efficient in promoting progress.

Developing great communication skills is a lifelong endeavor for most of us, one which requires deliberate focus and actions. Great managers who aren’t natural communicators need to devote time and energy to learning to present to groups, lead meetings, write well, and (very important!) become better listeners.

Another big part of a manager’s job is to influence others—convincing other managers to reach decisions, negotiating with other team members, talking through alternatives until the best decision emerges. And managers should be getting buy-in from their team members rather than dictating orders. The ability to influence others is a core attribute of a good leader.

“Hard” Skills

Some people are natural leaders, but most of us aren’t. Leadership is another area where lifelong learning and growth is in order. Like technology and communication, leadership is difficult. It’s funny that these non-technical skills are sometimes called “soft” skills. There’s nothing soft about them! They’re hard!

Jeff can’t stop there if he’s going to be a successful manager. He needs to learn more about customer needs, finances, planning, and managing the expectations of his stakeholders (including his bosses!). These essential business and management skills will require significant effort and energy, like the communication and leadership skills he also needs to develop.

The Crossroads

Once Jeff has a clear picture of what being an excellent manager looks like and what skills he needs, he can decide if continuing as a manager is what he wants to do. In Jeff’s case, he either needs to scale back his technical contributions or give up his management role. It’s not an easy choice. He enjoys being an engineer, and it took years to reach his level of technical proficiency. Should he give that up and change course? This is a dilemma engineering managers face.

If Jeff decides to continue as a manager, my advice would be to start by delegating and step back from the hands-on work. Leave the engineering work to the engineers. Jeff needs to focus on being a good manager, and he needs to develop a way of guiding the work to be done and reviewing progress, without performing the work himself.

One lingering risk here is that Jeff’s management continues to expect his hands-on contribution—along with everything else they expect. Jeff will have to use his influence to manage his managers’ expectations.

The best way to become a great engineering manager is to delegate technical responsibility and focus on communication, leadership, management, and business skills. Managers who aren’t willing to do that should reconsider a future in management. It’s nearly impossible to be a great engineer and a great manager at the same time.

About the Author

Gary Hinkle is principal consultant at Auxilium, Inc. (http://www.auxilium-inc.com), a company that helps engineering-oriented businesses increase productivity, manage special projects, and develop talent.

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