Moving into a leadership role is often an obvious next step in many people’s professional trajectory, one of which is engineering leadership. The essential nature of these positions is why Stevens Institute of Technology is focused on training the next generation of engineering trailblazers.
Understanding the difference between management roles is essential in determining how to plot the course of your career. The right graduate degree program for you depends on your strengths, passions, knowledge and skills. Two common engineering leadership roles are tech leads and engineering managers. Identifying which position best aligns with you can greatly affect professional satisfaction and upward mobility.
What is the role of a Tech Lead in engineering leadership?
Tech leads are critical roles on every team. While it is a leadership role, it is also different from engineering management. They work together closely, but the titles are not interchangeable. The tech lead is focused, unsurprisingly, on tech.
In this role, they set the vision for a project regarding coding and architecture. This requires them to be involved in the development and implementation of code. The role is supervisory in nature, but it also involves software engineering and heavy involvement in the project.
Being immersed in the work is critical because the tech lead is part of the problem-solving process. Guiding the quality assurance process simply requires a high degree of involvement by the engineering leadership. This just isn’t possible if the tech lead is hands-off.
This familiarity is also important for setting deadlines. The tech leads are intimately familiar with the scope of the project and are expected to draw upon their experience to be as accurate as possible when developing timelines. The tech lead is the go-to expert for the project.
Becoming a tech lead requires a deep passion for programming and systems engineering as well as leadership. On top of that, they have to enjoy learning since the landscape is always evolving. This position also requires management experience as there are others who report into the tech lead.
For those looking to remain involved in the nitty-gritty of projects, this career path aligns with those interests. While a master’s in engineering management may not be the right fit, pursuing an advanced degree in computer science can expedite the transition into a tech lead role.
What is the role of an Engineering Manager in engineering leadership?
The complementary role of a tech lead is an engineering manager. While it is still technical in nature and requires proficiency in coding, the focus is much different. The engineering manager deals with the team and how milestones are progressing and often works on multiple projects at the same time.
At the same time, engineering managers still need technical skills to best understand the flow of the project and how to advocate it. This understanding allows them to empower everyone working on the project, which forms an important part of the scope of engineering leadership.
At the start of the project, the engineering manager sets schedules and deadlines. They also work with the tech lead to make sure the team isn’t facing an impossible task. As things progress, they identify the human aspects of the project like team dynamics, training and satisfaction.
When milestones are reached, the engineering manager serves as the intermediary between the team and clients and company leadership. It’s important to make sure those investing in the project remain happy. The engineering manager is responsible for maintaining this balance while still advocating for the fair treatment of their team.
This role has a heavy focus on management. Those who thrive in this position find satisfaction in building teams, solving problems and bringing out the best in direct reports. Engineering managers are still technical, but in many ways it’s a support role for those coding full time, with a major focus on leadership.
As the intermediary between different stakeholders, engineering managers like to look at the big picture. Their goal is to unite the people so that when they come together the project goals are met, if not exceeded. People that find empowering teams exhilarating are the best candidates for a master’s of science in engineering management program.
The goal of this advanced degree is to build your manager skills and hone technical prowess. Success in the role comes from developing technical sensibilities, project management, communication skills, and leadership proficiencies.
Why this Engineering Leadership Role Requires Technical Expertise
Being an engineering manager is a specialized role. Those without experience in coding would be unable to effectively lead. The processes and expertise needed just aren’t able to be learned on the job.
In this vein, without first hand experience, setting schedules becomes little more than guesswork. Additionally, while their focus isn’t on coding, there will still be times it’s necessary to offer assistance. If the tech lead becomes unavailable, the engineering manager is expected to step in and keep the project moving forward.
Managing People and Projects
As an engineering manager, staffing the team is your role. It’s important to understand the needs of the project to ensure the right skills and needs are covered. Every person brings their own specialties and skills. Identifying how they all come together is a critical part of engineering leadership to make sure a project is properly staffed.
Understanding team dynamics is also important. Team fit has become more and more important. Knowing a candidate’s skills is only part of the puzzle. It’s important to build redundancy because no employee will always be available, nor should they be expected to be.
How a manager – as a leader – will affect other people needs to be factored in. Will they inspire coworkers or will they introduce a toxic element to the team? Most projects are complex to the point even the best programmers can’t compensate for lost productivity if their attitude is less than desirable.
Once the team has been built, the next task for engineering leadership is maximizing the team’s output. It’s important to give assignments that set reports up for success. At the same time, it’s necessary to find the right amount of challenge to continue fostering their growth.
In addition, allocating resources to training can help transform an employee’s output. Finally, it’s important for engineering managers to know when and how to push boundaries while being receptive and anticipating failure. Without risk, teams become stagnant.
Clients always want the finished product in their hands as soon as possible. As an engineering manager, it’s important to temper their expectations. It can be easy to lose sight of the human side of production, so keeping deadlines realistic benefits everyone. There’s an art to settling a schedule that keeps all parties happy.
Communication is Key
One of the skills that set engineering managers apart from more technically focused roles is their leadership ability to be effective communicators. For the team, this means being clear in expectations and making sure feedback is actionable. Poor direction can have a rippling effect that sets projects back.
When it comes to broader company leadership, the ability to talk comfortably to stakeholders is a must. An engineering manager needs to be savvy enough to translate technical aspects into layman’s terms. Being this Rosetta Stone of sorts can go a long way in advocating for your team.
The final piece in the work parameters for engineering leadership is working with clients. Being the in-between for the team and those writing the checks is a delicate position. The engineering manager works to ensure feedback is clear and addressed to meet the client’s expectations. And most importantly, being a good communicator keeps everyone happy with how things are progressing.
Engineering Leadership Skills Keep Things Running Smoothly
Managing people is a big part of the role, but there are also other tasks that guide the project. As the leader, the engineering manager must also take on these additional aspects of the position. One important factor is that company culture starts from the top. A true leader understands their behavior sets the tone for how the team operates.
Another important aspect of being in an engineering leadership role is shielding the team. For many projects, emotions can run high. On top of that, clients and higher-ups don’t always know how to give feedback. A good engineering manager understands how to take the brunt of the unpleasantness. They then filter it in a way that leaves the team energized and ready to address the comments.
Leaders are also expected to make the tough decisions. Some situations are unpleasant and require someone to deal with it. It takes experience to manage bad news, but when done right it can limit negative effects in a meaningful way.
The Path to Becoming an Engineering Manager
The skills required to enter this engineering leadership role are not always developed in the positions leading up to it. Earning a master’s in engineering management can build up your expertise to give you confidence when stepping into the role.
Stevens has designed the curriculum to enhance and hone the necessary skills for entering a leadership position. Courses in data exploration, systems modeling & simulation, and logistics sharpen technical skills. Management is nurtured through classes like project management of complex systems and operations research.
We also make sure to bolster your mastery of communication skills in our visualization techniques for decision-making course. Leader development and decision & risk analysis are also subjects of study to develop engineering leadership skills. Of course, these are only a few of the courses among other important topics are also covered as well.
The program at Stevens has been carefully constructed to drive results. Recognized as the No. 12 Online Master’s in Engineering Management program in the country by U.S. News & World Report (2023). The Princeton Review listed Stevens as one of the Top 20 U.S. Private Schools for Best Career Placement (2022). We’re most proud of the fact that 100% of MEM graduates in the Class of 2021 accepted job offers within three months of graduating. (Based on data from 63% of spring 2021 graduates who attended full time).
Advancing your career in engineering leadership comes with many important decisions to make. It’s an exciting position to be in as you take charge of what comes next professionally. Whether it’s a technical role or a managerial one, pursuing an advanced degree puts you on the path towards success.
With a master’s in engineering management, the courses equip you to handle all the facets of being a leader. Developing these skills before entering the position sets you up and your team for success. It’s said that all ships rise with the tide. Elevating your performance in an engineering leadership role by earning your advanced degree doesn’t just benefit you, those around benefit as well.