First Time Engineering Manager? 5 Errors to Avoid


Some management missteps are no brainers. Being a jerk? Yep, not a good idea. Being laissez-faire and disengaged? Probably not a smart move either. The errors to really watch out for are ones you may not even know you are making. 

This is especially true in technical positions. I earned my first technical managerial position while in my mid 20s. Being younger than all ten of my employees and with a mere single year of direct industry experience, I was completely outside of my comfort zone. That job brought me a litany of hard knock wisdom that I could have avoided with a bit more planning.

Mismanaging the Gruff Veteran

Think about the designer with 30 years of experience who worked his way up the ranks. He’s smart, battle hardened, wields a great deal of informal organizational power, and is undoubtedly cynical. Blindly deferring to his will invalidates your leadership credentials. Imposing your will to “reign this guy in” and you lose the confidence of your entire staff. The best approach is to keep this guy close. Vocalize your appreciation for his talent, seek his feedback, and paint a strong vision of the department’s future.

Not Being Technical Focused

You might not have an engineering degree or dozens of years in the field. But understand the technical nuances of how work is performed and your team’s effectiveness will soar. Spread out your research questions amongst the entire group, target a single trusted confidante for a long education session, or simply leverage search engines.

There is a such thing as a dumb question. An industry insider will see a clueless question as a lack of credentials for the position. I still recall a Vice President at my former employer, pointing a thin metal crate and inquiring “is that a skid?” From that moment on, his name amongst fabricators was used as a verb to mean clueless.

Being Too Technical Focused

The flip side of eschewing technical expertise is trying to get your fingers on everything technical. Balance is key. If you don’t trust your engineers to engineer or your designers to design, it is either time to recruit or relax your control on the organization. Effective engineering is only one piece of the puzzle. Ensuring that talent is applied to the correct problems and at the right time is why you were hired.

Running Without Metrics

This might be the easiest trap of all. “Trust your gut” is splendid advice. “Trust, but verify,” as Ronald Reagan once said is even better. Unfortunately, the generation of metrics may require manual, time consuming methods. The amount of labor to generate such metrics may even outweigh its benefit and lead to a “manage by feel” approach. Always push for metrics that are generated inside the natural flow of the business and don’t make the mistake of stopping with a single one. Touting a single metric will unbalance your technical staff (i.e. if it measures speed, they will only push for quick work; if it measures errors, you will get negligible errors but the work will take forever).

I generally like to keep a triad of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to ensure a balanced approach is taken. For instance, an engineer’s target might be utilization, hours spent versus hours projected, and error rate.

Focusing on Minutiae

One of my Engineering Managers once told me: “Charles is a great designer, but he made a design error on the Pine Forest Landfill project. It ended up costing the project $40,000. I had to write him up. He knew it was coming and I hated to do it, but it had to be done.” Actually it didn’t.

Any worthwhile professional despises making an error. And to write up a great employee for a first time error approaches epic foolishness. Early in my career, I was petrified at the potential ramifications of a $25,000 motor design error. My boss’ supportive and encouraging response won my loyalty and gratitude for years to come.