An engineer’s most common fear is taking on a management role, but with some self-assessment you may find a leadership position is more suited to you than you realize.

February 28, 2016

6 Min Read
What Happens When An Engineer is Asked to Be a Manager?

It's no secret that engineers often find ourselves at odds with their managers. The recent Design News article on engineering humor speaks specifically to that particular scenario. So what do you do when you're asked to be manager of test engineering? It's quite a conundrum; one that most engineers do their best to avoid. However, it does happen despite one’s best efforts to evade it. I am living proof of that.

How the Heck Did I Get Here?

I believe a very important question for companies to ask is: do you want a businessman or an engineer to fill the role? I think it depends on how close the manager will be to the actual working layer of engineering. At my particular company having a nontechnical upper level manager directly over the engineers would not have made sense, because they probably wouldn’t be able to quickly grasp the issues that the engineers would be trying to explain, as well as their solutions.

When I first came on board we had a first-class engineering manager over our department. He did an awesome job and was well respected, so when he decided to leave there was a big void to fill. After some false starts with a few replacements, I was asked to take on the position.

I wasn’t too thrilled. Up to this point, my boss, an upper-level manager, served as a buffer between me and the other upper level managers. He trusted my judgment and technical proficiency and handled the decision-making that was beyond my expertise. It was great being able to concentrate on test engineering as part of the team rather than having to worry about interdepartmental concerns that would take my time away from working on projects.

The Bad, the Good, and the Better

Still, I had to accept that management was a part of my skill set -– a part I'd been avoiding. The advantages may not have outweighed the disadvantages, but from my perspective the scales were pretty even.

On the downside there was the very real concern that the job wouldn't be fun anymore. The big secret about being an engineer is that we are paid to have fun! Typically we can’t wait to get to our jobs so we can work on our projects and we are reluctant to leave. The thought of being pulled off projects to manage instead is truly horrifying. It is a cold hard fact: when you become manager, you no longer get to have fun all day.

I also failed to foresee how my coworkers would react to my promotion. My relationship with individuals I considered peers changed drastically. One person in particular let me know, in no uncertain terms, that the idea of working under a woman was an insult to him. I eventually alleviated this issue by appointing another engineer as this person's supervisor to serve as an intermediary between us. This solution worked well, although I wish we could have gotten along without it.

All that said, you have to be prepared for changes in your relationships with others that may occur through no fault of your own, but due to their changed perceptions of you. How you handle those changes is up to you, but they most likely will occur and if you treat each situation individually, you will at least be able to come up with some type of workable response.

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But the position was not without perks. For starters I was now in a position to implement new initiatives –- like an employee recognition program for our department. I began a monthly test engineering department meeting and used it as an opportunity to publicly affirm the members of our department with an employee of the month award. It wasn’t anything fancy –- basically a gift card for movie tickets and popcorn -– but it was very appreciated. The meeting was also a chance for everyone to gather and express their concerns or offer suggestions on various projects.

I also found that my concerns about project deadlines now carried more weight. My prior experience allowed me to set deadlines that satisfied the customer while giving our team breathing room in case problems cropped up. I even created a website on our company intranet where anyone in the company could check for daily progress updates on any project.

Taking an administrative role actually suited my personality well. I enjoy mentoring others and being able to assign projects that would help our less experienced engineers grow, and to be available to encourage and help when needed was very satisfying. I am a people person and being manager also allowed me to use my oral and written communication skills to the benefit of our company.

In Conclusion …

If the Grim Reaper appears, asking you to take on a management role, know that you can still have fun but it would be best to do some personality and skill set checks to see if it makes sense. If you know you won’t have longevity in the position due to your personality and/or skill set, then accepting it because you feel like you have to will only make things worse.

Sometimes other people may make you a job offer based on an inaccurate perception of you. In cases like these it's important to communicate reasons why you believe you aren't a good fit. However, if the job does suit your personality and skill set, maybe take a shot and step into that leadership role. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised (like I was) at how fulfilling it can be.

[Image source: FreeDigitalPhotos.net / imagerymajestic]

Nancy Golden started her electronics career at Dallas Semiconductor and moved to Optek Technology where she was a test engineer for several years, eventually moving up to test engineering manager. Nancy became especially experienced in hall effect characterization and test and also gained experience with photologics, LEDs, VCSELs, and fiber optic transmission. The first person to become a Certified TestPoint Application Specialist (CTAS) by Capital Equipment Corporation, she has done contract work for Hitachi and Andrews Corporation and control room software for NBC in Testpoint. Nancy owns a small business called Golden Technical Creations, a service oriented company that provides consulting, teaching, PIC programming, curriculum development and web design for its customers. Between engineering projects she writes fiction and nonfiction for different venues. You can learn more regarding her writing efforts at novelwrites. Nancy also owns a small business where she and her husband Phil, who is an electrical engineer, design trail obstacles for horses, which can be found at Golden Cross Ranch and she is an adjunct faculty member at Dallas Christian College.

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