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Engineering and Project Management

Engineering management and project management are linked in many ways. Learn the key PM methodologies and skills required of each occupation.

Engineer working in Agile or Scrum project management methodology

Because engineering projects are often so complex and expensive, engineering project management is in high-demand amongst employers and requires a solid grasp of skills not typically covered in an engineer's bachelor's or associate's education. Effective engineering project management is ultimately about influencing people at all levels and ensuring that all the separate workstreams are delivered to specification, completed in a timely manner, meet or are below designated budgets, and follow regulatory or legal mandates and requirements. Project management in engineering is typically of interest to engineers who want to develop broader skills to advance their careers by learning the holistic aspects of bringing a product or program to market successfully. This broader perspective and demonstrated use of soft skills like communication and collaboration can set engineers up for future leadership positions.

The roles and responsibilities of an engineering project manager include designating team leads and setting up workstreams, planning, directing, and coordinating the development of new largescale projects (for example, infrastructure or R&D), products or services. The engineering project manager is responsible for coordinating and overseeing a cross-functional working group, with representatives from multiple areas, such as finance, market research, technical engineering, and quality assurance. The project manager would then draft a plan with workstreams, milestones, and an overall target timeline for the project's completion. Project management skills can be an asset to any engineer, even if you do not want to pursue an engineering project management role.

This article will explore the requirements and opportunities for engineering project managers. We will also look at engineering management vs project management, and the skills required for each. If you are not sure which is right for you, it may be helpful to review the MEML@Rice curriculum, which includes a course in Engineering Project Management that allows students to earn PMP project management education/training hours in pursuit of taking the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification test.

Engineering Management vs. Project Management

Engineering management and project management are fundamentally different roles with some similarities. An engineering manager is responsible for managing employees who work across areas of engineering. The main difference between an engineering manager and a project manager is that a project manager often influences people to meet the project goals and key outcomes, but may not manage them directly. Another important difference is that a project manager is not necessarily an engineer by training.

Engineering managers can work in any engineering field, managing projects of any type. Some examples include:

  • Aerospace Engineer Project Manager: Develops aircraft external and internal in-flight loads and specifications to assess aircraft structural integrity, develops short- and long-term resource requirements, and conducts running system engineering tasks.
  • Biomedical Engineer Project Manager: Manages designs and development for filtration devices including customer needs translation, product design, process development, prototyping, testing, and documentation.
  • Chemical Engineer Project Manager: Manages emissions projects from proposals, scheduling, engineering calculations, and simulations on gas and oil samples.
  • Civil Engineer Project Manager: Defines pre-construction requirements, establishes project deliverables and target metrics, analyzes the potential for safety issues, and coordinates client feedback on restoration and infrastructure projects.
  • Environmental Engineer Project Manager: Manages the design, implementation, and operation of remediation systems for contaminated soil and groundwater, including preparation of work plans, data management, and reporting. Wind, solar, and hydrogen power also fall within this concentration.
  • Mechanical Engineer Project Manager: Procures equipment and subcontracts, monitors and projects job costs, maintains billing and schedules, and provides technical support and leadership to the field.
  • Petroleum Engineer Project Manager: Analyzes market, competition, business model, and economic and financial appraisals for greenfield and brownfield oil- and gas-related projects.

The educational requirements for engineering managers and project managers are rather different. A project manager does not necessarily require an advanced degree. It is possible to qualify for PMP certification with a high school diploma or an associate’s degree. An engineering project manager needs education and experience in engineering. In addition, earning a master's in engineering project management will help you advance your engineering career to become an engineering project manager.

Engineering Project Management Methodologies

Engineering project managers use common project management methodologies like Agile, Scrum, and Waterfall, among others, to complete engineering projects. Implementing the right style for each project requires companies and engineering managers to be flexible and strategic. For example, Agile and Scrum are commonly used by Digital Engineering teams, such as software engineers, data engineers, and data scientists.

Agile

Agile is an approach to project management that focuses on incremental deliverables. The project workflow is constantly evaluated and improved based on new information gained during the process. Using the Agile methodology, a team can quickly respond to changes in the scope or direction of the project. Agile can be described as a mindset for delivering value to the customer.

A mechanical engineer project manager in the automotive industry may use the Agile method of project management when developing ideas for concept cars. This method allows them to work through ideas while managing feedback from the engineering teams who would design the car and the people who would purchase it.

Scrum

Like Agile, Scrum also incorporates continuous improvement into the process to complete a project. Scrum assigns roles on the project team without hierarchy and attempts to keep the workflow simple and transparent. Scrum teams are meant to learn from experience and use set tools and meetings to self-organize. Proponents of Scrum believe it can be applied to any type of organization.

Software engineers and Product managers have used Scrum to develop software systems, particularly when the methodology incorporates existing engineering practices. The continuous-improvement focus can help teams improve quality, productivity, and estimation accuracy.

Waterfall, or Predictive

The waterfall method is a traditional approach that uses linear progression to complete each task before the next one begins. Workflow only moves in one direction, like a waterfall. The immutable project phases in the waterfall approach are: requirements, design, implementation, verification, deployment, and maintenance.

The waterfall project management system is used by engineering project managers who have clear processes, designs, and deadlines in place for their projects.

Six Sigma

Six Sigma identifies and removes the causes of defects to improve the quality of the output in a process. Focused on quality management, this methodology uses empirical and statistical approaches to analysis. Six Sigma was popularized when General Electric embraced it as a business strategy in the mid-1990s and may be the project management style most often applied to fields outside of engineering.

Six Sigma’s statistical tools are often used by biotechnology engineer project managers who are responsible for reducing cost and cycle times as well as product defects. The process’s value stream mapping and process modeling lead to improved operational efficiency. Its statistical tools identify causes for errors and give engineers an opportunity to develop process improvement strategies before a product is produced.

PMBOK

PMBOK is the overarching book of knowledge for project management and strategies like Waterfall and Agile fall within PMBOK. Unlike the strategies we covered above, PMBOK is more of a foundation or a reference guide that incorporates project management best practices along with other methods to execute a project.

PMBOK includes five process steps of project management:

  • Initiating
  • Planning
  • Executing
  • Controlling
  • Closing

Lean

The Lean project management method is an approach that focuses on maximizing value while minimizing waste. Originally developed in Japan by the Toyota company, the overall goal of the Lean method is to reduce muda, muri, and mura, collectively known as 3M.

  • Muda, meaning wastefulness: Reducing work that doesn’t add value improves efficiency
  • Muri, meaning irregularity: Adding selective capacity can help level the workload
  • Mura, meaning overworked: Minimizing overworking conditions improves morale and productivity

The Lean project management system is used by engineering project managers who want to improve resource efficiency in their processes and projects.

Engineering Project Management Skills

Engineering managers aim to influence a diverse range of people and teams toward the successful phased outcomes of a project to meet business goals and financial targets. Regardless of the PM methodology they ultimately use, engineering project managers need these essential skills:

  • Adaptability: To be successful, an engineering manager must adapt to several different work styles and personalities, always flexible to shifting timelines and requirements.
  • Leadership: Leading a team involves understanding each team member's perspectives and motivating each member to do their best work in a collaborative process to complete the project.
  • Organization: Even when using a linear methodology, an engineering project requires organization from the manager. An engineering project manager must break the project down into phases, assign tasks to different team members, help prioritize or ensure decisions are made, and keep the whole project moving forward.
  • Strategic Planning: Based on the business strategy and financial targets (or other goals) established by leadership, engineering managers are responsible for delivering on that strategic plan: ensuring all workstreams ladder up to the plan and goals, estimating work time for each task and each phase, and keeping the project on budget. To do this, an organization may use "OKRs" or other frameworks.
  • Problem Solving: Engineering managers are best positioned on the team to solve problems that arise because they see the whole picture and understand the expected outcomes of the project.
  • Communication: Engineering project managers with the ability to clearly communicate can confidently present project status, dependencies or challenges, and drive consensus among stakeholders on the best solutions.
  • Influencing Outcomes: Engineering managers require skills in influencing others, in order to approve or support new proposals, initiatives, and changes.

Engineering Project Manager Careers

The primary difference between engineering and project management is the breadth or depth of responsibilities. An engineering manager must have some project management skills, but s/he is often a generalist with broad skills and knowledge who can oversee aspects of project management, product management, business development, strategic planning, a financial business case and more. An engineering project manager does not need to be an engineering manager and is typically more specialized in the PM methodologies described above.

In the United States, there are major engineering projects underway, including infrastructure upgrades and the energy transition to renewable sources like wind, solar and hydrogen power. These companies need engineering project managers to successfully deliver major projects that are economically sustainable and help achieve net-zero carbon goals.

Globally, as more traditional industries and companies adopt the digital-first practices of leading technology companies, the demand for Agile and Scrum project management continues to grow, needed to help software engineering teams prioritize features/functionality and deliver competitive advantage.

The MEML@Rice curriculum is designed to develop well-rounded engineering managers and includes a course in engineering project management that allows students to take the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification test after completion. Rice also offers an engineering project management specialization through Coursera.

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