How to Become An Engineering Manager or Director of Engineering

You can choose your own path to become a next-gen engineering manager and one day, a director of engineering. Here’s a 3 step-by-step guide for success.

Engineering lead reviewing her team's robotics solution

Often, becoming a next-gen engineering manager requires years of experience, education, and a particular skill set. Learn the necessary steps to be a successful engineering manager here.

If you want to become an engineering manager or a director of engineering, you should excel as an engineer first. This means applying your engineering education in the real world to get technical and business results. As a practicing engineer you should seek technical experiences along the product development lifecycle--including design, manufacturing, and customer support. This normally takes a minimum of three years but can be accelerated depending on whether or not you start with a large company or a start-up. Learning the practice of engineering will be invaluable to you on your journey to becoming an engineering manager. Your engineering experience will inform the technical and business decisions you will need to make as an engineering manager.

There are Multiple Paths to Becoming an Engineering Manager

After working as technical engineer first, you could then pursue formal management education, such as a master's in engineering management (MEM) degree followed by an engineering management role.

An alternative route to establish your engineering manager qualifications would be to focus on both engineering and management from the beginning of your education, moving from your bachelor's degree straight into a graduate program like a MEM or MBA. You would then have the confidence and credentials to pursue opportunities to demonstrate your leadership skills in your first engineering role. But make sure you do not take shortcuts with your technical education. Your technical education will support your leadership skills.

While there isn’t one single way to pursue a career as an engineering manager, there are various avenues you can explore, and each one has advantages and disadvantages. All routes to engineering management generally include education and work experience, but following that, individuals can choose the route that works best for them based on their unique situations and career aspirations.

Here is a step-by-step guide to becoming an engineering manager – and potentially a director of engineering later on in your journey – that will help you consider the best path to set yourself up for success.

1. Earn a Bachelor's Degree

After high school graduation, the next step is to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Majoring in any of these engineering disciplines – mechanical, civil and environmental, computer or software, chemical, biomedical, industrial, aerospace and aeronautical, petroleum – will help position you to get a job as an individual engineering contributor upon graduation.

Requirements for admission to an engineering degree program vary by school and program. In general, you’ll need to have a competitive high school GPA (usually 3.0 or better), an ACT or SAT score with a high score in math, and a completed application for admission which often includes a personal statement and references.

To be sure you are earning a viable degree in engineering, choose a program that is accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). ABET is a non-profit organization that evaluates engineering programs worldwide to be sure they meet essential standards for career preparation. When you apply for your professional engineering license, you will have to prove completion of an ABET-accredited program.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering or a related field, there are a few different avenues for aspiring engineering managers to take. We’ll explore these options and their advantages and disadvantages below.

Choose Your Own Route to Become an Engineering Manager

Some aspiring engineering managers choose a DIY route after completing their undergraduate degree. These individuals choose to enter the field after graduation and attempt to rise through the ranks organically. They generally don’t set out to pursue continuing education and leave training and leadership to chance or opportunities they may receive from an employer. While this may be the fastest way to break into the industry, it leaves career advancement to chance and may not enable an engineering professional to obtain higher-level positions or salaries. Further, new leadership could come in and prioritize formal education, which could put a DIY engineering manager out of the job with a stroke of the pen.

Another option is to enter the field after graduation and then seek out leadership training through free courses and continuing education. There is a wealth of free or low-cost online learning options available for professional development on platforms like Coursera and Edx, the Engineering Management Institute, and even helpful videos on YouTube. An individual who chooses this option may be more likely to pursue higher-level jobs and earn more pay, however, this can depend on the specific training and leadership opportunities. This option also won’t provide real-world training opportunities, like a Capstone project in a graduate-level program, and won’t enable an engineering manager to build a network outside of work for broader exposure and connections.

A third option is to start working as an individual engineering contributor following graduation, and then find an immersive, all-in-one program. These types of programs can help you get your PMP certification and also help you upskill and position yourself for future relevance and know-how alongside peers.

No matter which option you take, you should find opportunities outside of work to practice management and leadership skills. Research has shown that many technical managers developed their leadership skills in non-work related activities. For example, you can gain relevant management and leadership experience by serving in the military, in some volunteering settings, or by starting your own business or startup. Engineering individuals who seek leadership roles in any situation are more likely to achieve the engineering management role.

2. Gain Field Experience

Gaining engineering experience before assuming a management role will help you hone your technical and engineering manager qualifications. You’ll have a chance to put your classroom training to use in real-life situations in a specific industry, such as mechanical, civil, environmental, chemical, biomedical, biotech/pharma, industrial, aerospace, aeronautical, and petroleum specializations. Your ability to connect your skills to get results in a specific industry will generalize to other industries. A good engineering manager has a common skillset and engineering experience that can adapt to other industries and change.

Work experience will also afford you the chance to observe different management styles and meet non-technical engineering manager requirements like effective communication, project management, and internal relationship-building. As an engineering manager, you will rely on insights gained through that early field/domain experience to lead your team and gain their confidence and trust.

3. Earn Your Master’s Degree in Engineering Management

While engineers can gain a wealth of experience in the workplace and through on-the-job training, they won’t be exposed to specialized or advanced training that would put them in the best seat for management and leadership roles. If you are a working engineering professional, MEM degree programs such as the online MEML@Rice program may be the perfect fit for those looking to advance their careers, while attending graduate school in a flexible, part-time format. If you are just graduating without much work experience and want to return to graduate school full-time, the on-campus MEML degree should fit you well. Both MEML degree options will help you to achieve your engineering management goals with maximum flexibility. Students receive an immersive experience that equips them to become effective Engineering Managers and Leaders during this new era companies are in known as the fourth industrial revolution. For working professionals who enter the MEML@Rice program, students will get exposure to the following curriculum and benefits in this educational environment:

  • Unique, forward-looking curriculum that blends core engineering management concepts, human leadership skills, and emerging technology concepts, like big data and augmented reality (AR).
  • Small class sizes and 1:1 attention from Engineering Leaders (experienced faculty).
  • The ability to practice their expanded skill sets in the Capstone project.

MEML@Rice prepares engineers to excel in the coming technology revolution, Industry 4.0. By studying concepts like ethical and data-driven decision making, data science, engineering economics, and team management, MEML@Rice graduates are ready to lead Industry 4.0 teams as engineering managers.

Learn More About Becoming An Engineering Manager

Aspiring engineering managers often have questions on how difficult it can be to pursue this career path and how long it will take to become an engineering manager. We’ve answered a few frequently asked questions below.

How hard is it to be an engineering manager?

An engineering manager is part of the decision-making path of an organization. This means an engineering manager is involved in decisions that are made on behalf of the company. These decisions impact not only an individual’s career but the success of other employees and the business. This is the hardest part of becoming an engineering manager - you need to have the confidence and fortitude to lead in today’s technological complex world and business environment.

Because of today’s complex technological world, engineering managers are in demand, partly because of the different evolving technical skills required to lead people and modern organizations. To be successful, you need dedication and the right combination of education, work experience, technical knowledge, communication proficiency, project management expertise, and decision-making skills. These skills are acquired through hard work and dedication.

Completing the education required for an engineering manager takes focus and hard work. And, once your degree is earned, you’ll find that success as an engineering manager requires continued skill development and education. You will need to be a continuous learner.

How long does it take to become an engineering manager?

Engineering management will be a new career for you. For entry-level engineering management positions, many employers require engineering managers to have three years of work experience plus a Master’s in Engineering Management degree from an accredited program. If you pursue a master’s degree from a non-accredited program, it will take longer to demonstrate you’ve met the requirements for engineering management.

For higher-level engineering management positions like director or chief technology officer, it will take many years within a large company. Your path can be accelerated if you start or join a startup. Also getting a MEM degree from a well-known institution will also set you on the right accelerated path.

What does it take to stand out for top-tier engineering manager or director of engineering roles?

To best position oneself for top-tier manager or director roles, engineers should consider the engineering manager requirements of those positions. For example, organizations will look for candidates with a strong track record in engineering project management (delivering complex projects on-time and on-budget). HR and engineering hiring leaders will also probably request recommendations from peers or past managers who can speak to an engineer's collaboration skills, adaptability, and technical expertise.

Relationships built as an engineering manager will be essential when competing for director of engineering positions. Depending on the organization, internal candidates may need a sponsor or champion for promotion into high-level positions. For external positions in which an engineer is looking to join a new company as a manager or director, having a strong resume and portfolio demonstrating proven results and positive outcomes is essential.

Become An Engineering Manager With MEML@Rice

Rice MEML program becomes 1 of only 9 programs to earn distinguished ASEM Certification.

Learn More About MEML@Rice

If you’re ready to take the next step to advance your career, fill out the form to connect with a Rice Enrollment Coach.