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The Origins of Engineering Management and the MEM Degree

November 6, 2023

According to the American Society of Engineering Management (ASEM), engineering management is the “art and science of planning, organizing, allocating resources, and directing and controlling activities that have a technological or systems component.” As engineering projects grow more complex and challenging — as they have continually over years, decades and centuries — the need for technical leaders with business and project management expertise increases.

Engineering management, a field distinct from both technical engineering and non-technical business management, meets this need. The role requires a unique combination of knowledge and skills: Engineering managers combine technical mastery with management acumen to shepherd complex undertakings through to completion. Many aspiring engineering managers develop both by completing degree programs such as the online Master of Engineering in Engineering Management (MEM) at Stevens Institute of Technology’s School of Systems & Enterprises.

Why Do Projects Need Engineering Managers?

Engineering managers play an important role to ensure projects are delivered on time  and within budget and adhere to the required quality standards. Poor engineering management can result in project failure, cost overruns and, occasionally, tragic outcomes.

A lack of effective engineering management led to massive project delays and unexpected costs in the development of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Program development, cost overruns and customer compensation costs for this project totaled an estimated $50 billion. Additionally, delays in the project impacted product development throughout the company. According to Leeham Company analyst Scott Hamilton, “Had the 787 been delivered on time, Boeing would have easily been five to eight years ahead of Airbus. Boeing’s distraction by crisis after crisis has given Airbus a commanding lead in the heart of the narrow-body market.”

The failure of the NASA Challenger Space Shuttle in 1986 constitutes one of history’s most notorious engineering management failures. The shuttle exploded 73 seconds after launch due to a leak in one of the two solid rocket boosters caused by a faulty O-ring. An investigation into the accident found that the crisis was ultimately due to “a serious flaw in the decision-making process leading up to the launch.”

Engineers were aware that the O-ring was sensitive to cold and only effective above 53 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature on the launch pad the morning of the event was 36 degrees, which should have raised a red flag. However, this issue was absent from all flight-readiness documentation. Thus, the NASA decision-makers lacked the critical information needed to reach an informed judgment, resulting in a disastrous outcome. 

Such mishaps are hardly a recent development. The sinking of the Swedish warship Vasa in 1628 provides another powerful case study for the value of engineering management. Archeologists who studied the remains of the ship concluded that an excessively heavy gun deck caused the ship to sink within 20 minutes of setting sail. An effective engineering manager would have spotted the design flaws and prevented this catastrophe.

The Historical Origins of Engineering Management

While engineering management has only been a recognized academic discipline for the last 60 years, it is not a new concept. Evidence suggests engineering management principles have guided construction projects since antiquity. 

Archeological digs around the Great Pyramids at Giza reveal evidence of a strong central authority behind its construction and the purposeful organization of workers and resources. There is also proof of program management, detailed planning and quality control in the assembly of the Great Pyramid, built as a tomb for the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu. To accomplish such a gigantic project at a remote site in the desert within the lifespan of the pharaoh would have required organized manpower, resources and tools. 

Surveying, planning and designing are also evident in ancient Chinese construction projects, including the Great Wall and Grand Canal.

The Evolution of Engineering Management

Engineering began to take its modern form in the 18th century. The construction of the Eddystone Lighthouse in 1759 by John Smeaton, who is often considered the father of civil engineering, is a notable milestone. Using an oak tree as his model of strength and stability, Smeaton experimented with many engineering concepts to build the lighthouse, laying the foundation for the field’s professionalization.

As the 19th and 20th century unfolded, the engineering landscape continued evolving. Civil engineering gained prominence with the construction of iconic structures such as the Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883. Meanwhile, mechanical engineering found its stride with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, leading to innovations like the steam engine. Electrical engineering emerged as a distinct discipline in 1883-84, when Thomas Edison introduced the world’s first economically viable system of centrally generating and distributing electric light, heat and power.

During World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945), engineering played a pivotal role in the development of military technology, including aircraft, tanks and communication systems. 

Around this time, engineering management began its emergence, albeit under alternate names. Stevens Institute of Technology created one of the first engineering management programs. In 1903, its Department of Business Engineering began teaching complex approaches, including scientific management, administrative management and behavioral management. 

Engineering management progressed considerably in the mid-1970s in response to the energy crisis, which forced leaders and researchers to develop solutions in policymaking, technology, and architecture, all of which required coordinated engineering planning. As the discipline grew, engineering management practices, such as economic theory, strategic planning and project management, became well-known and widely adopted. 

Where Is Engineering Management Headed Next?

The onset of the big data era has precipitated a major shift in engineering management. While they once focused primarily on project and personnel management, modern engineering managers now must possess data visualization, analysis and systems thinking expertise. 

Data analytics provides a powerful tool for engineering managers to identify inefficiencies and allocate resources toward improving ineffective systems. Systems thinking encompasses the full spectrum of decision strategies, technological tools, risks and opportunities in complex businesses, and technological and policy challenges. This approach not only aids in preventing unintended consequences but also in optimizing project outcomes to achieve desired results.

As cyber threats increase and natural disasters occur more frequently, engineering managers must maintain constant vigilance. They need to be well-prepared to cope with, prepare for, and defend against a broadening range of threats. Engineering managers need to acquire the knowledge, tools and training that not only help predict and prepare for breaches and disasters but coordinate appropriate responses if they occur.

Why Present and Future Engineering Managers Need MEM Degrees

In the ever-evolving engineering management landscape, success demands specialized training that goes beyond the scope of a general business management education. Engineers looking to transition into leadership roles need to hone the business and data-driven decision-making skills required to use systems thinking. Managers lacking an engineering background need to understand the technical dimensions of engineering projects — or risk another Boeing 787 failure. 

Unlike traditional Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) programs, engineering management master’s degree programs prepare students to lead in the business of engineering. Students who complete MEM degrees, such as the one offered by Stevens, will be equipped with the tools to guide teams through the technical work that powers modern enterprises. 

The Stevens Online MEM program offers coursework that targets three areas. First, it covers project management, financial management and other foundational skills required to manage any problem or project. 

The second target area is data. When you work in complex environments, you need to rely on data. Stevens teaches students how to house, organize, model and extract insights from data.

The third is complexity. Whether you’re building an engine, an aircraft or an information system, engineering managers need to build teams with complementary skills, employ the proper computational tools, oversee meticulous documentation, and develop effective iterative processes to align and adjust goals. Mastery of modeling and risk analysis are among the advanced skills required to coordinate the many moving pieces in any engineering project.

The Stevens Online MEM can help you acquire mastery in all of these skills. To find out more about the program or for assistance with your application, reach out to our enrollment team today.