Project Management Becomes Another Path for Engineers

Engineers seeking to advance incomes and responsibilities within the same company typically have had two options: advance in technical knowledge or become part of management. With management running leaner than in the past, these opportunities may be fewer, or more competitive, for engineers.A third option exists in many settings—project management.

03/01/1998


Engineers seeking to advance incomes and responsibilities within the same company typically have had two options: advance in technical knowledge or become part of management. With management running leaner than in the past, these opportunities may be fewer, or more competitive, for engineers.

A third option exists in many settings—project management.

"Historically, there have been only two ways for engineers to earn larger salaries," according to Dr. Harold Kerzner, professor of Systems Management at Baldwin-Wallace College (Berea, O.).

"They can show that their efforts directly contribute to corporate profits, or that they control vast resources within the company. Both are very, very hard to do in today's world. But if companies give project managers responsibilities for profits and losses, they can show their efforts directly contribute to profitability."

Higher risks, rewards

That means bringing product managers on board earlier in the automated process to do cost feasibility studies and cost-benefit analyses. In the past, Dr. Kerzner says, accountants had performed those functions, consulting with engineers often too late in the process, and requiring them to live with the results. Having the experts—the engineers—do the analysis can result in the project being treated as a profit source, rather than just an expense. This can translate into higher profiles, higher risks, and higher rewards for project managers.

"At many technology companies, engineers were locked behind closed doors, and not allowed to interact with customers," says Dr. Kerzner. Now, he explains, cultural changes are creating project management responsibilities for engineers, who are making critical business decisions earlier in the process, and interacting with sales, customers, management, and other engineers.

Twenty years ago engineers' successes were based solely on technical expertise—did the product work or not. Today, many engineers are also taking the lead to ensure the project is delivered on time, within cost, within quality parameters, and accepted by the ultimate customer or user.

"Project management, as a career path, bridges traditional management and technical ladders." Engineers advance in the project management track by demonstrating an ability to work with people and make sound business decisions, Dr. Kerzner says. A valued project manager for an automation installation, for instance, would ensure the line was properly installed, on time, within budget, and operators had the appropriate documentation and training.

Pay attention

In most companies, business knowledge, rather than all-encompassing command of the technology, is essential. Engineers that have been in a company for a while may have picked up more business knowledge than they realize. Knowing how things work and having connections within a company may be more useful than hiring or contracting with an outsider. Other key skills include risk management, integration skills, and people skills.

Getting a general sense of business can be the toughest part for some engineers used to sticking to the technology, says Dr. Kerzner, who also teaches through International Institute for Learning (New York, N.Y.). As a result, many engineers, may seek additional business-related training, but not necessarily an MBA (a masters degree in business administration). A smaller educational in-vestment, in project management, is available, from several sources. Applicable books include Dr. Kerzner's latest, "In Search of Excellence in Project Management," published in November 1997 by John Wiley Publishers (New York, N.Y.).

More formal education includes institutions, like Baldwin-Wallace College, or seminars, videos, and even satellite broadcasts. Also, certification is available for project managers via a national exam. The Project Management Institute (Upper Darby, Pa.) has a 13-year history of project management professional (PMP) certification, Dr. Kerzner says; membership exceeds 30,000, which "just scratches the surface."

For more information visit www.controleng.com/info .


Author Information

Mark T. Hoske, managing editor, mhoske@cahners.com


PROJECT MANAGEMENT BASICS

Define objectives: What's the project's history and evolution? What constitutes success or failure? What are the risks?

What resources are available? Who's allocating them? Can the project be handled informally?

Evaluate team members' expertise/skills/styles and decide who's accountable for what.

Establish authority and job descriptions.

Consider corporate culture and how it may influence project goals.

Define the level of management support: Do project team members have management's sponsorship or just its trust?

Is additional education/training needed for team members, or for others in the organization?

Develop scope of decision-making ability and decide how problems will be resolved.

When is the project finished?

Source: International Institute for Learning, New York, N.Y., and Control Engineering



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