3 Real Reasons Why Engineers Don’t Want To Be Managers

You may have read similar-titled articles by top execs or by practitioners claiming to know something about how the minds of engineers’ work. Well, this here is my own opinion, fuelled by my experiences so far. To set the scene, you need to know that I’m a black woman approaching my mid 30s and armed with 2 engineering qualifications. I’ve recently dipped my toes in the waters of business and management i.e. taking on non-engineering roles. I’m also completing an MBA degree. Now that we’ve gotten that “stiff” intro out of the way, let’s get down to my reasoning.

You should have seen the faces of my friends and colleagues when I opted to try a non-engineering role. They didn’t understand my motives and I didn’t understand why they didn’t understand. Over the past 18 months. I’ve enjoyed getting in touch with my creative (and sometimes “fluffy”) side. For most engineers, that’s the problem right there. And now, even I am beginning to understand why…

1. Take job descriptions for instance. An ad for an engineer is often clear. The recruiter is looking for X number of years experience in this tool or that tool. They will require sound understanding of key principles e.g. fluid mechanics or production engineering or operations research and so on. You either have these or you don’t. Ads for managers are a little less straight-forward. Requirements like “Demonstrated leadership qualities” or “Ability to manage people” are not so obvious. I mean, does the annual school play with 30 children that I direct every Christmas count? I manage people all day every day – including my 2 children and 1 husband and numerous in-laws – does this count? You get the idea.

2. Let’s look at “managing people” more closely. Most engineers I know don’t really like people (I mean that in a good way!). There’s perhaps a valid concern that managing people requires counseling skills or the likes meaning suddenly, the standard chair in your new office marked “General Manager” may be exchanged for a 3-seater sofa. You do need to tolerate people (you don’t have to like them) and you need to be willing to listen actively. Still, with all the best management skills nothing can prepare you for that employee who comes into your office on a Monday morning saying, “look! I’ve grown a horn!” There’s never a dull moment…

3. Then there’s the basic fluffiness of it all. It’s unclear what you actually do…so don’t be surprised if the word along the corridors is that you do “nothing”. Don’t take it personally. You’re probably trying to ensure positive business impact by implementing printed strategies but this is rarely obvious. You may even be forced to implement a strategy you don’t agree with, or that you think lacks logic (shhhh!). Engineers despise the illogical so forgive them if they opted out of that “game show”.

In the end, there are significant advantages to both career paths. If you are comfortable with being a specialist at what you do – and you’re bloody good at it, then I can see how that can be profoundly rewarding. But having skills that are not always clearly defined; and having to deal with people as well as finding a balance between the logical and your instincts is what makes a great manager. And let’s face it – someone has to manage the engineers. Not an easy task I would imagine.

Making the switch has come with its challenges. I recently sat in a marketing course and watched as 52.5% and 63.5% added up to 100% on a PowerPoint slide. I didn’t dare say a word…

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