A Wider Scope: How to Move from Engineer to Manager

With a little bit of refocusing, medical device engineers can learn the skills needed to be a good manager.

Jay Goldberg

May 1, 2007

13 Min Read
A Wider Scope: How to Move from Engineer to Manager


Key to managerial success is the ability to develop interpersonal skills and to establish an environment of creativity and innovation.

The career paths of many engineers and scientists working for medical device companies often involve a promotion to a management position. The reasons engineers choose to pursue this path can range from taking on new challenges to being able to contribute to a company's goals. Sometimes it is simply to make more money or gain prestige.

The difficulty is that many engineers are inadequately prepared for the transition from engineering to management. Because they lack the necessary management skills, the move can result in their failure as technical managers.

By taking the initiative to change attitudes and behaviors and acquire new skills and knowledge, engineers can increase the probability of a successful transition. To ensure a transition is smooth, it is essential that engineers become aware of the differences in responsibilities and day-to-day activities between technical and management positions.

What Do Managers Do?

Management can be defined as “organization, coordination, direction, allocation, and control of resources” to accomplish the goals of the organization. Other definitions might include “getting things done through other people,” and “providing subordinates with the tools and resources needed for success.”

Managers have administrative responsibilities (planning, organization, budgeting, and resource allocation) and spend a significant amount of time on personnel management activities such as motivation, coaching, performance appraisal, and conflict management.

Significant differences exist between technical and managerial positions. Most engineers and scientists are specialists who focus on specific technical activities, tasks, and problems associated with projects for which they are responsible. In technical positions, career success depends on individual performance of these specific tasks. Conversely, managers focus on the broader picture, including oversight of people and resources. They are responsible for the outcomes of all activities under their direction, including those assigned to their subordinates. Much of their career success depends upon the success of their subordinates to whom they delegate work.

Skills Required for Management Positions

Technical management requires specific technical, administrative, and interpersonal skills that engineers and scientists may lack.1 For example, managers must be able to process information, identify alternatives, and make and defend decisions. It is a manager's job to generate budgets, forecasts, and schedules. Most medical device engineers acquire these particular skills and abilities in their technical positions.

But managers must also possess project, time, and conflict management skills, as well as written and verbal communication skills. The ability to coach, motivate, and influence people, and to explain technical issues to nontechnical personnel, is also important. In the medical device industry, managers need to create and maintain effective multidisciplinary teams. Such teams usually consist of engineering, marketing, sales, production, operations, financial, and regulatory personnel. Sometimes they must also coordinate teams that include physicians, nurses, surgeons, and patients or other end-users. They must be good negotiators and must be able to delegate work to subordinates.

Managers must be able to tackle the conflicts that commonly occur within firms, such as between R&D and marketing, R&D and production, and other departmental interfaces. They must also deal with the political issues associated with management positions. And they must be able to provide and maintain a nurturing work environment that is conducive to creativity and innovation.

Good interpersonal and communication skills are required of managers to conduct effective performance evaluations of subordinates. Managers are responsible for succession planning, which involves developing subordinates to a level where they become proficient at their managers' job and can eventually replace them. Such planning ensures that there will be someone who can fill the manager's position if it is vacated.

In some device companies, managers cannot be promoted unless there is someone trained and ready to take their place. Succession planning allows a manager to be promoted into a new position and protects the company by preventing the loss of expertise, skills, and job function in a particular area within the organization. It requires managers to possess a variety of skills needed to develop the capabilities of their subordinates.

Figure 1. (click to enlarge) As managers rise in levels, their technical skills become less critical, but they often need to refine their administrative and conceptual skills.

As engineers advance in their careers into higher levels of management, the required mix of skills changes. Technical skills become less important, the need for interpersonal skills remains high, and the importance of administrative skills increases (see Figure 1).1 A mix of technical and interpersonal skills is required for low-level management positions consisting mostly of supervisory responsibilities. Translating plans and policies into departmental goals comprises the bulk of the middle manager's responsibilities, requiring less technical and more administrative skills, with a continuing need for interpersonal skills. Goal setting, strategic planning, and policymaking are the main focus of upper management positions, making technical skills far less important.

Barriers to a Smooth Transition

Several factors may present barriers to a smooth transition from engineering to management. First, the focus of most undergraduate engineering programs is on technical courses that expand a student's knowledge base and help to develop design and analytical skills. Little emphasis is placed on the development of communication, teamwork, and decision-making skills. Students learn to make decisions after using mathematical formulas to analyze physical measurements and other quantitative data. This approach is often inappropriate for management decisions, which are often quickly made with incomplete and sometimes qualitative data. Engineering curricula rarely include courses in business and management and do not prepare students to manage people.

Second, the management policies of many organizations often use technical competence as a criterion for promoting an engineer into a technical management position. If companies do not offer promotions to their technical employees, then engineers seeking opportunities for career advancement may be forced to move into management positions for which they lack the required managerial competency. A well- performing engineer then becomes a poorly performing manager.

Third, engineers who become managers of their department or work group may be unwilling to let go of their previous projects or favorite technical activities and may be unable to delegate that work to subordinates. By not delegating, new managers add to their work demands and fail to focus on their managerial responsibilities.

Preparing for the Transition to Management

Several changes are needed to adequately prepare engineers for the transition to management and increase the probability of success.

First, changes in some behaviors and thought processes are needed. For example, engineers who design and develop medical devices are used to conducting experiments, bench tests, and clinical studies with adequate sample sizes and control groups. They analyze data using various analytical tools and draw conclusions from the data to help them make defendable design decisions. As managers, however, they often will not have a large set of data points or analytical tools with which to evaluate the data. They must become comfortable making decisions based on incomplete information and, in some cases, they must rely on intuition.

Second, engineers must further develop and strengthen their interpersonal, communication, conflict management, and negotiation skills to prepare for their new management responsibilities. Administrative, time management, and delegation skills must be developed, too.

Most engineers do not have the option to delegate work to others and have learned to complete assigned tasks and projects with minimal assistance. They may spend more time on tasks or projects that they find more interesting. When they become managers, however, they are required to focus on a variety of managerial tasks such as department goal setting, budgeting, and performance evaluations, which drastically reduces time to participate in technical activities such as design, prototype construction, or testing of new medical devices. New managers may have difficulty giving up these activities. Delegating them to subordinates can be difficult (see the sidebar, “Excuses for not Delegating”).2 Such inability to effectively delegate technical tasks creates additional demands on a new manager's time and distracts from managerial tasks and issues.

Third, engineers need to learn basic management principles and concepts. Most relevant is how to form effective multidisciplinary teams, motivate and coach technical employees, and create an environment conducive to creativity and innovation. Other critical concepts include management of interdepartmental interfaces, succession planning, and development of employees' abilities.

Developing the Required Skills and Knowledge Base

It is critical that medical device engineers on a management track understand certain principles and concepts. Ideally, training would be completed before a promotion, so that the new manager is prepared for the challenges of the management position. Although not essential, postgraduate degrees such as a master of business administration (MBA) or a master of engineering management (MEM) can ease a transition to management. A master of science in healthcare technologies management degree is a specialized graduate management degree that combines business, healthcare, and technology. It focuses on the skills and knowledge needed for positions involving the management of technology in medical device companies, hospitals, and healthcare consulting organizations.3

Most graduate management programs allow working engineers to attend school at night as part-time students while they work full-time for medical device companies. Many medical device companies offer tuition reimbursement as an employee benefit and will pay for the expenses associated with earning the degree (e.g., tuition, fees, and books).

Many colleges, universities, and professional societies offer additional continuing educational opportunities through professional development courses and nondegree programs designed for working engineers. Additionally, many medical device companies offer in-house training seminars to prepare their engineers for advancement into technical management positions within the company.

Practical experience is a good way to develop managerial skills. Engineers interested in developing these skills can ask to supervise the work of a lower-level engineer or technician. Such a role could include assigning work to and assisting with the performance evaluation of their supervisee. The experience can further develop interpersonal and communication skills and provide engineers with valuable on-the-job training in the art of managing people. Engineers can also ask to be assigned managerial tasks such as preparing all or part of a budget, creating work schedules for employees, or assisting with department goal setting.

A combination of continuing education and practical experience is the best way to prepare for the transition into management. Engineers who want to be prepared to take advantage of opportunities for career advancement must take responsibility for their own professional development. They must make their managers and supervisors aware of their desire to move into management and make use of the educational resources and opportunities that medical device companies provide such as continuing education and tuition reimbursement. They must also have the drive and persistence to complete their management education.

Recommendations for Managers

The problems encountered in managing technology are human rather than technical. Research in organizational behavior has helped identify best practices for both new and experienced managers of technical personnel.4,5

Managers should immediately address issues involving people and their interactions with each other. If ignored, such issues can quickly grow into more serious problems that may be more difficult to solve.

Managers should recognize and accommodate differences in people and allow them to use their talents. Members of an organization differ in their education (level and area of specialization), life experience (professional and personal), and cultural, political, and religious background, resulting in different perspectives and opinions. This diversity of thought provides an organization with a greater variety of talents and ways to view and solve problems. It should be recognized as a valuable asset to a project team within a medical device company, which will benefit from more than one approach to problem solving.

Managers should set challenging but realistic expectations for subordinates. Setting goals that require subordinates to stretch will help them grow professionally. Meeting these goals helps build their confidence and encourages them to take on new challenges and responsibilities each year. If goals are unrealistic or out of the subordinates' control (such as the time to obtain FDA clearance to market a new medical device) then employees may become frustrated. If a goal is unrealistic, it will lead to failure, and employees may hesitate to commit to taking on new challenges and responsibilities.

Managers should provide interesting, stimulating work. If subordinates become bored, their job satisfaction level and productivity will decrease. If they feel that they are not learning new skills or advancing in their careers, then they will seek opportunities elsewhere that will allow them to grow and advance. It is important to match work assignments and projects with the skill levels and experience of subordinates. Sometimes, boring, tedious tasks need to be completed, but care should be taken not to assign too much of this type of work to one person. Wherever possible, work assignments should be matched with the employee's level of interest in the type of work being assigned.

Managers should provide appropriate and timely feedback and should communicate thoroughly, candidly, and promptly. If a performance-related issue is addressed long after a particular incident occurs, then the subordinate may not remember the original incident and the feedback will have little effect on improving performance. If negative feedback is warranted, it should be provided behind closed doors. When a new company policy or potentially controversial news is announced, managers should explain it to employees and provide honest and thorough answers to questions. To prevent the start of rumors, this should be done soon after the new policy or news is announced.

Finally, managers should reward top performance through salary increases, promotions, new work assignments, additional responsibilities, and other motivators. If subordinates associate a reward with top performance, it will increase the probability of similar performance in the future.


Preparing for the transition to management means that medical device engineers must develop a new set of skills. Among them, administrative, communication, and interpersonal skills are critical. Equally important is the need for a manager to learn to delegate. By learning management principles and concepts, a manager can become a more effective leader. This training can be accomplished through in-house management training programs, on-the-job training, or formal graduate management degree programs. These activities will help increase the probability of success among engineers making the transition into management within a medical device company.

Jay Goldberg is director of the healthcare technologies management program at Marquette University and the Medical College of Wisconsin. He can be reached at [email protected].


1. MK Badawy, Developing Managerial Skills in Engineers and Scientists: Succeeding as a Technical Manager, 2nd ed. (New York: Wiley, 1995).

2. MJ Shainis, AK Dekom, and CR McVinney, Engineering Management: People and Projects (Columbus, OH: Battelle Press, 1995).

3. JR Goldberg, “The Healthcare Technologies Management Program,” IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology 22 (2003): 49–52.

4. BM Aucoin, From Engineer to Manager: Mastering the Transition (Boston: Artech House, 2002).

5. DM Soat, Managing Engineers and Technical Employees: How to Attract, Motivate, and Retain Excellent People (Boston: Artech House, 1996).

Copyright ©2007 Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry

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