Engineer or manager, do you really have a choice?

The volatile and uncertain economic context of the past ten years has increasingly required that engineers acquire or demonstrate managerial skills.

In order to cover their backs and secure their future, companies are betting on versatile candidates who can adapt to highly changeable working conditions.

The ability to manage a team or prove that one is capable of doing so has become an important selection criterion for predominantly technical positions. This approach is in line with the development of soft skills, which are neither technical nor academic, but which relate to our ability to understand others and to grasp the real issues at stake in a situation.

Why be a manager as well as an engineer – and how? Can – or even should – everyone do it?

Why would anyone want to become an engineer/manager?

A most relevant question indeed! Why on earth would a scientist want to become a leader? 

By definition, an engineer is someone who uses their mastery of scientific tools that allow them to take a logical look at the world around them and find solutions to complex problems in order to engage in invention and research.

Well, yes, but – with apologies to all technical purists – academic competencies are no longer enough, at least not all the time. Large companies are now seeking engineers with an overall vision of their business or sector and who fit in well with their strategy.

“HR managers are far more demanding in terms of values and human and leadership qualities than in terms of technical skills,” says Claire Lecoq, Deputy Training Manager at Télécom SudParis.

It is therefore a safe bet that any engineer, whatever their speciality or activity sector, will one day be required to lead a team and wear two hats: engineer and manager. 

However, there is no such thing as a born team leader who only needs to activate their hidden skill when the time comes.

So, like the good engineer you are, why not prepare and/or train for the management professions so that you can face the future with all the trump cards you will need?

How to prepare yourself to become an engineer/manager

There are two potential scenarios: either you are still a student and have all your options, or you are already working and the struggle will be harder.

Dual qualifications

By the end of the 1990s, most engineering colleges had understood that scientific training spiced with a dose of management skills would be a formidable asset for their graduates… and considerably add to their attractiveness.

For this reason, many partnerships were forged with business schools, leading to ‘dual qualifications’ that are highly prized by recruiters.

“These days, business-development projects have to combine technical, marketing and management. Training experts who combine technical and people skills, who have both a creative and sales-oriented approach, gives them a dual skill set that is very attractive to recruiters,” says French business college ICN Business School.

Such courses include a full engineering curriculum and specialist training, combined with marketing, internal communication, human resources, management and, finally, external relations courses.

Back to school

After a few years in the workplace, engineers who wish to move to or train in management can do so.

This will largely depends on the company, its requirements and your ability to design a project that is consistent with what you can contribute to the organisation. There are many specialised Master’s degrees or MBAs that will ensure plenty of sleepless nights – but it’s truly worth it.

When changing employers, management training can be negotiated as well as remuneration.

What are the career options for engineer/managers?

According to Futura Sciences, 21% of engineers hold managerial positions and one in ten beginners supervises a small team. Young dual graduates immediately become managers, just like business-school graduates.

Young people with dual qualifications usually don’t regret it. They usually find jobs soon after graduating.

For engineers who are already working, acquired or proven managerial skills open up positions such as CTO, R&D Manager or VP Engineering, positions that require obvious leadership qualities.

A managerial background is also ideal for moving into consultancy. You rise from being a project manager to the position of senior consultant, and then why not buy shares in the company if the opportunity arises? Engineer/managers will find it easier to join an EXCOM if that is what they want!

Another way of seeing the world?

The new ways of organising work, silo-free and with mixed and agile teams, should make an increasing number of engineers keen to embrace change and acquire managerial skills that will serve them throughout their career.

However, as we said earlier, the genuine or imagined opposition between technical and managerial skills can make some people reluctant. Not to worry – there are many engineering careers in which purely academic knowledge is highly valued.

For despite all their good will, some scientist types can still be puzzled by situations involving human factors. Above all, management is about managing other people’s problems and being accountable to your superiors! Technical specialists who feel increasingly in touch with their inner manager should know that letting go of a purely rational worldview – whether inborn or acquired during their studies – can be a very difficult process, however ready and willing they

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