What is Project Management in Engineering?

Engineering management and project management are linked in many ways. Learn the key PM methodologies and skills required for engineering PMs.

Engineer project manager working in Agile or Scrum project management methodology

Engineering Project Management Terminology

Engineering Management vs. Project Management

Engineering Project Management Skills

Engineering Project Manager: Market Outlook and Careers

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Because engineering projects are often so complex, expensive and high-stakes, 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 work streams 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. A broader perspective, business skills and demonstrated use of soft skills like communications and collaboration can set engineers up for future leadership positions.

The engineering project manager not only understands ‘engineer speak’ and the technical work and context of the engineering teams, he/she is responsible for coordinating and overseeing a cross-functional working group, with representatives from multiple areas, such as finance, market research, technical engineering, IT, manufacturing, and quality assurance. Project managers plan, direct, and coordinate the development and implementation of small and large-scale projects, products or services. These projects have a defined scope, budget and schedule. Project management skills and concepts can be an asset to any engineer, even if you do not want to pursue an engineering project management role.

Engineering project management skills are broadly applicable and in high demand. We saw this during the pandemic when the world changed around us overnight and what had previously been successful no longer worked. Engineering and project management skills helped people to identify new approaches based on the underlying engineering and economic principles.

--Claudia Zettner, Ph.D, Professor in the Practice, Engineering Project Management

This article will explore the requirements and opportunities for engineering project managers. We will also look at project management terms and methodologies, engineering management vs project management, and the skills required for each.

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Engineering Project Management Methodologies and Terminology

Engineering project managers use common project management methodologies such as Agile, Scrum, and Waterfall, among others, to complete engineering projects. Implementing the right approach for each project requires companies and engineering managers to be flexible and strategic.

A methodology is an approach or set of processes to organizing your work. In project management, waterfall or predictive and Agile are common methodologies. Some projects are better suited to one or the other. Increasingly, more projects are a hybrid of both predictive and agile. The methodology doesn’t change the work the project delivers, but it does affect the sequence and timing, especially for the project planning phase.

--Claudia Zettner, Ph.D, Professor in the Practice, Engineering Project Management

Waterfall, or Predictive Method

The waterfall or predictive method is the traditional approach to project management. It is best suited for projects where the requirements are well understood and the technology is straightforward. A significant effort is spent to create a project plan and define the scope, cost and schedule. The waterfall project management system is used by engineering project managers who have clear processes, designs, and deadlines in place for their projects.

Projects with a large cost of change, like construction projects, are best suited to a waterfall methodology.

Agile Method

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.

Engineering Example

A mechanical engineering project manager in the electric car 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 customers who would purchase it.

Scrum Method

Scrum is a type of Agile. 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.

For example, computer engineers 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.

PMBOK Method

PMBOK is the overarching book of knowledge for project management and strategies such as 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 and principles along with other methods to execute a project.

PMBOK includes five process steps of project management:

  • Initiating
  • Planning
  • Executing
  • Controlling
  • Closing

Six Sigma Method

Six Sigma identifies and removes the causes of input defects and process waste to improve the quality of the output in an operation. 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; it may be the project management style most often applied to fields outside of engineering.

Six Sigma’s statistical tools are often used by biomedical engineering project managers who are responsible for reducing cost and cycle times as well as product defects in components such as orthopedic joints and other biotechnologies. 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.

Lean Method

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. Lean tools can be applied in the office as well as the factory.

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Engineering Management vs. Project Management

Engineering management and engineering project management are different roles but leverage many of the same skills and experience. Many engineers will hold both of these roles over their careers.

An engineering manager is responsible for managing groups of engineers, while an engineering project manager leads a cross-functional project team. The project manager’s focus is on the business value that will be delivered by the project. The engineering manager is focused on the professional development of their engineers.

Both the engineering manager and the engineering project manager need education and work experience in engineering. Engineering managers and engineering project managers can come from any engineering field. Engineering managers manage engineers from many different disciplines. Engineering project managers lead projects in every industry.

Engineering project manager roles can happen at many different levels of an organization's hierarchy or reporting structure, whereas engineering managers are typically found between mid-management and executive-levels. For example, project managers for small, short-term projects can be early career individual contributors where the project manager role is an opportunity to lead a team and develop additional leadership skills. As an engineer has success in project management, s/he will be trusted and rewarded with larger and more complex projects. Conversely, project managers for large, mega-projects can be at an executive level in the organization and have a team of hundreds.

So, as an early career employee, you may achieve your first project manager role only a few years after university. The engineering manager role is usually filled by an experienced engineer.

Which Is Right For Me: Engineering Management vs. Project Management?

If you are not sure which path is right for you, it may be helpful to review the MEML@Rice curriculum, which includes a course in Engineering Project Management (EPM) that allows students to earn their PMP project management education/training hours certification test to become a Project Management Professional (PMP). Although not required, some of the Rice MEML students treat the Rice EPM course like an embedded or "stackable" credential, where they finish the course, sit for the PMP test, and earn the PMP certification. The Rice EPM course is taught by an experienced professor with both a PhD in engineering and certified PMP credentials.

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Engineering Project Management Skills

Engineering project managers aim to influence a diverse range of people and teams toward the successful outcome of a project to meet business goals and financial targets. In Industry 4.0, collaboration and coordination have never been more important, since no one engineer or professional can acquire the full scope of technical expertise required to meet organizational goals as technology rapidly evolves.

The project management discipline is about working strategically, efficiently and effectively. It’s also about delivering change. Industry 4.0 is rapidly changing our world. As engineers, we will not be successful in the future if we keep doing the same things that work today. Project management has concepts and tools that will help us navigate this new world.

--Claudia Zettner, Ph.D, Professor in the Practice, Engineering Project Management

Regardless of the PM methodology they ultimately use, engineering project managers need these essential skills:

  • Adaptability: To be successful, an engineering project manager must adapt to several different work styles and be flexible to changing timelines and objectives.
  • Leadership: Leading a team involves 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 manager must break the project down into phases, assign tasks to different team members and keep the whole project moving forward.
  • Planning: Engineering project managers are responsible for creating a project timeline, estimating work time for each task and each phase, and keeping the project on budget.
  • Problem-Solving: Engineering project 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 their concepts and designs to decision-makers in presentations, meetings, and reports, as well as to the various teams they coordinate.
  • Influencing Outcomes: Engineering project managers require skills in influencing others, in order to approve or support new proposals, initiatives, and changes.
  • Business Acumen: Engineering project managers need to understand how their project creates business value so that they can preserve this value as they manage their projects.

What does a Great Engineering Project Manager Look Like?

Any engineering project manager will have specialized knowledge of project management tools and concepts, as well as engineering work experience.

Here are the 5 qualities of a great, highly-effective Engineering Project Manager:

  1. Engineering project managers focus on the business value that their project will deliver. It’s about more than cost and schedule. They are fluent in the project economics and understand what drives the value.
  2. Engineering project managers actively manage their projects and work hard to stay on track. It's not nearly enough to check with your team and update the schedule.
  3. Engineering project managers think strategically and plan ahead. It is much easier to find solutions to problems in advance when you have the luxury of time and access to experts. When you are reactive, it's too late for many of these solutions.
  4. Engineering project managers are comfortable with predictive and Agile projects and everything in between. They have a bias for action and don’t need a perfect plan or complete data to get started.
  5. Engineering project managers foster a learning culture in their project teams. A learning culture leads to improved performance over time but requires self awareness and honest performance assessment.

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Engineering Project Manager: Market Outlook and Careers

Engineering PM Market Outlook

In the United States, major engineering projects are underway, including infrastructure upgrades and the energy transition to renewable sources like wind, solar and hydrogen power. Companies need engineering project managers to successfully deliver major projects that are economically sustainable and help achieve net-zero carbon goals. There's also huge demand for engineering project managers in software and data engineering, industrial engineering and supply chain, bioengineering and healthcare, and more.

And 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.

Engineering Project Manager Salary

According to Glassdoor, the average total salary of an engineering project manager is $117,356, including base pay and additional pay (bonuses and other incentives). Because of the breadth of engineering disciplines, salaries will vary by technical expertise, company size and geography.

How Can I Become an Effective Engineering Project Manager, or Develop More PM Skills as an Engineer?

Even if your title is not engineering project manager, project management tools and concepts will help you be more effective and efficient in work and beyond. 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.

If you're considering a MEM or MEML degree program, find one with an engineering project management course that is taught by an engineer with advanced engineering credentials. The engineering project manager may not be an expert in all the technical areas of a project, but s/he can oversee the integration of the financial business case with the engineering, manufacturing, IT and other parts of the project. Engineering project managers can come from almost every engineering background.

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