3 Questions for Accelerating your Technical Career as a Manager

Sure, you’re an engineer, developer, or technical professional, but now you’re ready to be a manager. Maybe you’ve already started the transition to management without asking for it. Whether that’s the case or not, now you need to extend beyond your previous role and take on more leadership, communication, entrepreneurship, and project management. You might even have some international travel coming up. It’s exciting and challenging, and you know you need to be prepared. Learning the skills required for management takes time and effort, thought and support.

There is a lot to learn about becoming a manager, and it’s up to you to prioritize based on your background and skillset. Managers from all backgrounds face many challenges and opportunities. Whether you’re someone who always learns on the job, or someone that prefers the advice of experienced professionals, there are 3 big questions you can ask to make sure you get started on the right foot as a manager.

Assessing Manager Traits

The following questions can help guide you as an engineering, technical, or project manager based on your previous experience, as well as based on what you will need to grow. Putting the past into perspective is key. You need to be ready to assess what your strengths are as an engineer and capitalize on them going forward. And, you need to do this without relying on them so much that you overlook your new managerial requirements. Additionally, you’ll put those strengths to use as a leader to earn mutual trust and respect with your team and your superiors.

Looking forward, you need to think about what you will need to learn to improve as a manager to achieve success both as a team and individually. You also need to be prepared to meet the challenges you’ll face as you shift from team member to team leader.

Where will you fail as a manager? (And how will you overcome it?)

Prepare, don’t plan. As you begin a role as a manager, you can’t plan every detail of what’s going to happen. Instead, you should prepare in anticipation so that you’re aware of what can go right or wrong. As Mike Tyson succinctly put it, “Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” If you make a plan that you won’t be doing any coding, what happens when things heat up? Will you be able to keep that plan in place?

There are many likely areas of failure as you become a manager for which you’ll need to be prepared. Some include inability to deliver results, loss of trust and respect of your team, overcommitting and/or under-delivering. The reasons for these breakdowns can come from a lot of areas. Did you avoid a conflict instead of addressing it? Did you make demands instead of leading your team? Maybe you expected something, but didn’t express it clearly enough, or even at all. It’s not realistic to enumerate all the possible blunders, botches, and bungles you’ll face, but you can prepare yourself by studying what makes great managers in your field.

Manager prep work

Being prepared as a manager means anticipating new challenges beyond just the technical ones. As a mentor and leader for your team, you should avoid learning everything the hard way. Instead, look for resources from experienced management professionals. Seek out best practices and put them into action. Did they work? Great. Or if not, try something else. The body of knowledge for engineering managers, technical managers, and project managers runs deep and wide. Be sure to use this body of knowledge to prepare yourself for the inevitable pitfalls you’ll run into.

How do you manage a team of engineers as an engineer?

Make no mistake, your job will change. Instead of solving problems from start to finish, you’ll be supervising others while they solve problems. Instead of feeling successful when you complete a task individually, you’ll share in the success of your team when you get measurable results. As a leader, you’ll have to be a mentor and earn mutual trust and respect through achievement and communication.

In many cases you may not be able to earn this trust based on your technical skills alone. You’ll be expected to lead based on your knowledge, interpersonal communications skills, and business acumen. These are areas of focus that require attention and dedication, as well as time and practice to improve.

Key recommendation

One of the key recommendations from management professionals is to focus on the people. Whether or not this is obvious to you right now, on a day-to-day basis, it’s easy to forget. General ideas like keeping your door open, being direct without being overbearing, being objective and fair, and asking questions instead of speaking, are a great place to start. Sometimes putting those tools into practice when things get tough can be difficult. Look to your mentors for support in those cases. Try to take a step back and assess whether you’re actively engaging these tools, and not just expecting them to come automatically.

Once you’ve had time to put these concepts into practice, it’ll be time to think about how to be a great manager, not just how to be a manager.

What path should you take?

Explore your options! Think about yourself: Do you have fundamental technical chops and are you inclined to be a manager? Or do you have an intensive technical background and are ready to try something new? Think about what you’ll be working on: are you developing a very narrow set of products, or do you frequently manage a variety of different types of projects? Think about what the position calls for: Will you need sector-specific knowledge, or do you need to have broader management and leadership skills?

UMBC’s professional programs offer degrees and certificates in engineering management, technical management, and project management to meet varying needs and levels of expertise. You can also choose pathways that fit your sector, like systems engineering, cybersecurity, or IT.

The Master’s in Engineering Management blends in-depth technical knowledge with business approaches to teach students how to manage people and complex projects. You’ll learn advanced skills specific to your technical area along with management skills for technology-based enterprises or government functions.

The Master’s in Technical Management is based on the core knowledge areas that managers need including leadership, communications, ethics, and project management. You’ll complete technically oriented courses and can pursue certificates in systems engineering or cybersecurity while you complete the degree.

Our certificate in Project Management provides foundations based on the Project Management Institute (PMI) body of knowledge. The credit courses are taught by industry practitioners and complement our other applied professional programs.

Learning from experienced professionals is a critical way to make sure that you excel as a manager. Whether you’re just starting out in management, or you’ve been in it for some time, professional and graduate education is a focused approach to gaining the skills necessary to grow. ­

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