This is a question I get often from civil engineering professionals, usually from those on the early side of their career. It’s in reference to that proverbial fork in the road that all civil engineering professionals come to at some point: Will you stay on the technical track in your career, or will you go down the path of management?
First of all, does this fork in the road exist at all?
In my opinion, yes it does. There will come a time in every civil engineer’s career where he or she needs to make this decision. The reason for this decision at all is that it’s almost impossible to remain highly active in technical work while you are managing people and projects.
That being said, with regard to when you need to make that decision in your own career, I believe the answer to this question is different for everyone. However, I would like to make a few recommendations here to help you prepare for that decisive forking of paths.
Focus intently on developing your technical skills early on in your career
Taking this step early will make it easier to choose either of the two paths at this crucial juncture between the technical and managerial. Plus, most of the really successful engineering managers that I know have a really good grasp of the technical work their staff is engaged in.
Try out different disciplines early in your career, if possible
Finding the best technical discipline for yourself will help you build your confidence while better understanding where you should be practicing. Any uncertainty in your career makes critical career decisions much more difficult. Therefore, if you are not even sure if you are in the right technical field, how can you decide on whether or not to move up into management?
Volunteer to be a leader wherever possible outside of work
How will you have any idea if you would be a good engineering manager when you approach the fork in the road? You won’t, unless you practice somewhere else.
Try to gain management and leadership experience through other avenues in your life to gauge whether it’s something you’re good at. For example, this could mean coaching a sports team, serving on the board of a local association, or volunteering at your church. Management isn’t for everyone, and trying to figure out if you like it early on will make for easier career decisions later.
Don’t think that once you choose a path, your decision is irreversible
I don’t care what anyone says, you can always change your mind in your career, regardless of your age. If you decide to become an engineering manager and it doesn’t work out, you can go back to focusing on technical design. Don’t think otherwise.
Try to figure out which career path will make you happier
People who enjoy what they do are usually pretty successful. As you take the steps laid out in this post, pay attention to how you feel about what you’re doing. The word feelings is a word that is rarely used by us engineers, but it’s an important one. If, after trying several managerial roles, you still aren’t comfortable, then management may not be for you. Listen to yourself.
So, whether you’ve already passed that fork in your career road or it’s still up ahead, I hope that my thoughts in this post will help you make the decision that’s best for you.
Anthony Fasano, P.E., M.ASCE, is the founder of the Engineering Career Coach website, which has helped thousands of engineers develop their business and leadership skills. He hosts the Civil Engineering Podcast, and he is the author of a bestselling book for engineers, Engineer Your Own Success. You can download a free video series on his website that will give you the tools needed to immediately improve your networking and communication skills by clicking here.
Anthony has also recently started the Engineering Management Accelerator to help engineers become more entrepreneurial: www.EngineerToManager.com.