Project management in engineering is as vital as it is potentially misunderstood. Like it or not, many project managers have had to learn the hard way that their job is less about frontline engineering work and more about taking a mindful, deliberate, top-down approach to directing projects of all kinds and sizes.
If it sounds like a dusty office job, it’s anything but. Like a project engineer, project managers oftentimes find themselves on jobsites or in the coding trenches if their work has taken them into IT or software development. For the most part, though, project managers have to understand human nature and know how to apply it to the process of solving a problem or getting a product to market. This includes developing some of the internal processes being used, ensuring clients’ needs are top-of-mind and generally making sure all the moving pieces work well together.
Let’s find out what that looks like in practice.W
What Is Project Management in Engineering?
The importance of competent and confident project managers in engineering is an easy thing to overlook. Although they’re often the point person attached to major projects, their role is largely seen between the lines. They’re responsible for ensuring budgetary requirements have been upheld, projects are delivered to clients on schedule, materials are secured in time, and clients feel valued.
That’s a lot of hats to wear. What are some things project managers need to be aware of while pursuing a career track in this industry — or while sharpening their skills to broaden an already challenging workload or take on additional responsibilities?
The world of engineering is vast, challenging and constantly changing. It’s a field that, by its very nature, seems to require men and women with vision at the helm. In other words, it needs project managers who know how to get results.
Here are a few things you should know about project management in engineering.
1. Part of Your Job Is Putting Together Frameworks for Duplicable Processes
That might sound like a mouthful, but it’s actually pretty simple — and lots of great minds have arrived here already. You’re probably familiar with the concepts of Kanban and Scrum methodology, for example. They’re not prescriptions for how to think. Rather, they provide a structured, yet flexible, way to organize multistep workflows, attain transparency throughout lengthy processes and keep team members on the same page throughout a complex project’s duration.
You’re not responsible for cracking the whip and enforcing one of these methodologies straight off the shelf. Instead, your job as a project manager is to figure out a duplicable process that works for your unique team. You can use Scrum as a starting point, but from there, your internal processes will depend on the work you do and your rhythms and strengths as a team.
2. Duplicable Processes Mean Higher Product Quality and Lower Risk
Understanding how the minds on your teams work, and putting together expectations they can rely on for internal project chronology and quality, is one of the more nuanced and difficult-to-quantify parts of project management in engineering. It’s a vital one, though. Building working protocols and sets of expectations help uphold a higher minimum quality standard and keep your teams working toward measurable, incremental, attainable goals.
It’s worth exploring why this type of mindset is important, beyond helping employees develop reliable expectations and repeatable workflows. In engineering, standards of all kinds — including those designed to minimize risk during product development and after products are in consumers’ hands — are hugely important.
Building duplicable processes for your engineering team communicates your dedication to high internal quality standards, but it also serves a secondary function in the larger field of engineering industries. With consumer protections and other regulations reliably used as political footballs, it falls on engineers and the companies they represent to minimize and eliminate small blunders that can end up costing millions of dollars and even human lives.
Building repeatable processes means having reliability prediction and failure rate models baked right into your company and team culture. Some of this sounds fairly abstract until you place a job like this into perspective in the engineering fields and the industries that rely on them. As a project manager, it’s a matter of measuring twice and cutting once. It also means challenging your team to sweat even the smallest of procedural details, because you never know when the shape of windows or last-minute design changes could cost you.
3. The Right Skills Could Get You a Job Almost Anywhere
Project management, especially in engineering, is a large and growing field with lots of opportunities. Having an interest and an aptitude in mathematics and engineering is a big step already. If you have a particular interest in a branch of engineering, type of science or emerging technology field, there’s likely an opportunity for you out there — provided you have the credentials the company is looking for.
A cursory glance of opportunities in project management in engineering yields results in industries like:
- Chemical engineering
- Information technology
- Financial services
- Consumer technologies
- Big data and business analytics
- Material handling, shipping and logistics
This is a fascinating and exciting time to get involved in the field of project management in engineering. Industries of all kinds are witnessing the confluence of hardware and software like never before, in the form of next-generation wireless technologies, connected manufacturing equipment, digital twin and other advanced inventory systems, more advanced building materials for general construction and infrastructure development.
Technology is changing the very heart of the industries the world relies on most. Engineers are right at the center of it all, ensuring every major innovation begins back on the shop floor or the office. They’re stressing a strong foundation of solid creative principles and deliberate and iterative improvement, with openness, transparency, collaboration and accessibility in mind.
Project Managers vs. Project Engineers
There might be some occasions where you’ll hear these terms used interchangeably, but they’re worth elaborating on briefly, because they can sometimes come with very different expectations. While the daily responsibilities, venues and some of the processes might differ between them, both roles serve as project manager to various degrees.
You’ll typically see project engineers on a jobsite or out in the field. Theirs is a hands-on role — you’ll often find them personally directing a construction project, for example. By being directly on the premises, they can react quickly to changing conditions and needs and make changes to portions of the project as required, with a continuing mindfulness of deadlines, safety and compliance.
Rather than the more obvious, on-site role of a project engineer, a project manager tends to drive a lot of the behind-the-scenes decision-making that can make or break a project. They draw up schedules and work out repeatable workflows, but they also manage budgets, resources, personnel and materials, and ensure the goals of the business and the client are front-of-mind throughout the project.
As you can see, the difference between these roles is mostly semantic and might be used differently from company to company. Suffice it to say, the two roles complement each other. A brand-new office building project that was completed perfectly and according to the specifications, but months after the required deadline, likely had a gifted project engineer but a lackluster project manager.
Vital to Engineering-Centric Industries Far and Wide
No matter which of these two hats you wear, and whether you’re breaking ground on a high-rise or putting together a user-friendly web app, it’s clear that any project is only as good as the men and women managing it. Endeavors both great and small if they’re worth the time and effort, are also worth doing well — especially with calls from across the world for higher standards and more transparency in every industry and organization.
One more thing project managers need to know about the engineering industry? It requires mindfulness, but also a genuine love of what you do — and in equal measure.