Route to Project Management

Last week I talked about what an engineer was. And it provoked an interesting debate. My conclusion was that the behaviour and thought processes you demonstrate set engineers apart from others. Experience and education were also things most people felt set engineers apart from other roles.
The career progression of an engineer has troubled me for a long time. Many engineers have become project managers. Why does this happen, and is it the right path?

It is rare, and in my opinion wrong, for someone to start their career as a Project Manager. Yes you can now do degrees in project management but leaving school at 18, then getting a degree in project management does not set you up to manage a project. No way. But lots of people at 21-22 come out of Uni with an engineering qualification and become a Mechanical or Project Engineer. They work hard, gain experience, prove themselves, and get promoted into the Senior role. This sometimes brings with it responsibilities for checking or mentoring junior engineers. But usually the promotion is simply a way of paying the person more money, with the goal of retaining them for another few years.

Now comes the problem. Companies have rigid salary structures, especially for internal pay rises, and when an engineer reaches the top of the salary band, what do you do? I think often they are promoted into the role of Project Manager. Is this a mistake? Yes, it can be. The role of a PM is completely different from an engineer. Don’t get me wrong, having the mindset and problem solving skills of an engineer (What Is An Engineer?) is extremely useful, but being an engineer at heart can have a downside for a Project Manager. It is easy to fall into the trap of doing what you are comfortable with – so a PM with an engineering background gets stuck into the detail of an engineering problem when it occurs. But that’s the engineering dept job. A PM needs to see the big picture. During the design review stage they get stuck into the workings of a product, as that is where they are comfortable. But the design or function of a product or project is only one aspect to it, and a PM has to look at all aspects – cost, schedule, risk etc.

Going back to an earlier point that good engineers become project managers to progress up the career ladder, this problem can get worse. What management training has the PM had? What finance exposure have they had? Risk management?

I guess the real question I am asking is, what makes a good project manager? And also, how do you retain and reward very good engineers, and keep them engineering?

How to retain/reward engineers?
More flexible salary scales. An engineer should not need to completely change job function to progress through salary bands. An engineer on a project is just as critical as the PM.
Reward with tech – engineers love gadgets and technology. They can be personal e.g. laptops or the latest CAD software or they can be resources like plotters or a 3D printer for example.
Reward with flexibility – companies need to realise the 9-5 Mon-Fri office schedule is dead. More working from home, flexible hours, trust is what is required.

What makes a good project manager?
When I gained my Prince2 qualification it was the “Manage by Exception” section that interested me the most. And when I was starting out in a new company in a new project it was what I found hardest to do. It’s basically trusting the team. You only get involved in something when it goes wrong. You don’t manage the detail and you don’t interfere. You deal with things when they are escalated to you. You need to be confident in your own ability to do this, and you need to have the right team around you.
You need to have a reasonable level of engineering knowledge. But being an expert in one aspect of the project is a bad thing. It will lead you to neglect the other areas, and you will annoy the people truly responsible for the area you are expert in, as you micro manage and interfere with them.
A good project manager is a jack of all trades, and a master of trusting people, decision making and calmness. To see how Alan Kelly Projects can help manage your project better please have a look through the rest of my website. Or get in touch to discuss your specific needs. Thanks for reading, all comments are welcome.