Civil Engineer to Manager

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Stepping into Project Management

  • 1.  Stepping into Project Management

    Posted 04-02-2019 10:53 AM
    Project Management is probably the biggest goal for most junior engineers after passing their P.E. and maybe even before.  But, obviously there's more to getting into project management than just earning your PE Stamp.  As a young engineer, that recently became a P.E., I am curious what the path to project management looked like for others in the industry.  While my sector is highway design, I get the sense this is something that applies to most all Civil Engineers.

    I realize most of it is developing experience and then a good reputation, desire to advance your career, and potentially also the needs of your employer.  That said, I was curious if there was anything in particular that others found moved their career in the direction of Project Management?  How long you worked before you were first listed as a Project Manager for a project? How long before you were a/the regular project manager for your team/employer?

    Any other tips/suggestions?  Thank you!

    James Smith P.E.,P.E.,M.ASCE
    Grand Rapids MI

  • 2.  RE: Stepping into Project Management

    Posted 04-03-2019 01:15 PM

    I'm in structural, and most engineers where I've worked were "officially" given beginning project management responsibilities as soon as they earned their PE license.   These were firms or departments with less than 40 engineers where you typically got to see any project you were working on from start to finish from your first day on the job, and interact directly with clients (supervised) from very early in your career.

    It's been my experience in structural that, if an employer gets very busy, an ambitious engineer with about 3 -4 years progressive experience can often get a small project (especially if it's very similar to a past project) where they may be doing many of the things a project manager does.  That happened to me, and I've seen it happen time after time to others. In none of these cases did I or the others "ask" for a project management role........we kind of just stepped into it because things had to get done. This route to project management seems fairly commonplace at small firms.  

    Large firms are going to have more robust training and processes to go into management, and if you're at a firm that has a management "path", the first thing to do would be to make sure your direct supervisor knows that's where you see yourself, and craft a plan with him/her to start learning the skill sets you'll need. 

    I'd also suggest that you make sure you are personally clear on why you want to be a project manager before you jump in. Ask yourself:
    1. Do you want to go into project management because you love the idea of managing people, budgets, and projects, instead of becoming an expert in an area of design? Are you going to be OK with not actually doing engineering work, but instead being responsible to put out fires, deal with conflict, and give the people you are leading the resources to succeed?
    2. Or, is the real reason you are interested in project management is <g class="gr_ gr_9592 gr-alert gr_gramm gr_inline_cards gr_run_anim Grammar multiReplace" id="9592" data-gr-id="9592">because in</g> many engineering firms project management is the only way to advance?

    Stephanie Slocum P.E.
    Engineers Rising LLC

  • 3.  RE: Stepping into Project Management

    Posted 04-03-2019 01:58 PM
    James - 

    I probably worked for about 5 years before I was listed as the official "project manager" for a project, and probably 10 years before I was an official "project manager." Really, it was out of necessity as well as relationships with clients that I found myself in that position. 

    Some tips - take some basic accounting, legal, and business courses.   I find it interesting how many engineers want to be a PM, but have no basic training on how to financially run a project or understand the limits of liability in a contract.  The amount of bad contracts we sign as engineers tells me that our educational background isn't really preparing us for this type of work.  

    Also, work on your public speaking skills.  Even you are comfortable in that position, you may find you are doing some things that are off-putting to potential clients.  Often, we find that out the hard way.  

    Lastly, and to second what Stephanie said as well, you need to be comfortable not doing all of the engineering work on a project.  You won't have time for it.  The arts of conflict resolution, delegation, and leadership will likely be what makes you a successful project manager.

    Hope this helps!

    Jason Fuehne M.ASCE
    Burns & McDonnell
    Kansas City MO

  • 4.  RE: Stepping into Project Management

    Posted 04-03-2019 09:56 PM

    Highway engineering is its own animal. Often the projects can be enormous, requiring a much more senior project manager. I worked at two companies, in Municipal Engineering and in Transportation Engineering (smaller streetscape, road widening and sidewalk projects), before starting my own company.

    Because I switched jobs shortly after getting my PE, I had to earn my way to Project Manager twice. I was able to accelerate the process both times by deliberately getting in front of the client and delivering on what I/we said. It made the client trust me and built that relationship, which in turn made my boss comfortable handing over more and more responsibility. Then one day, one of my clients asked how my boss was and noted that they hadn't seen him in a year. Success!

    Great Project Management requires a really diverse skill set. The other commenters have great points. It's an organic process of growth into the role over time. It can be overwhelming if we list all the skills a great Project Manager has after years of training, failures and continual learning. To keep things simple, I believe if you keep the public's interest at heart and the client's experience at top of mind, you can acquire the other skills as necessary and succeed. It's important to note that giving the customer a good experience encompasses lots of things and by no means involves being a "yes" woman/man. When in doubt on a decision or action, ask yourself "Does this positively impact the public?" and then "Will this deliver a lasting positive experience for the client?"

    Good luck! You'll do great!

    Christopher Sunde, PE, A.M.ASCE
    Charlotte NC

  • 5.  RE: Stepping into Project Management

    Posted 04-05-2019 05:49 PM

    My early career experience is from another engineering field (aviation) but project management happens everywhere so this will hopefully be helpful to you. I worked as a technical engineer for 10 years in 3 different jobs after college. As I gained more appreciation for "systems thinking" in industry, I realized that technical matters, while complex and challenging, are actually one factor among many others that all have to work together in order for projects to be successful. With a desire to have more responsibility and impact, that's when I decided I wanted to get more involved in budgets, schedules, business development, and overall project planning and execution. Enter project management!

    In my case, I wanted to move to a different city so I used that motivation to find a different job which was a dedicated project engineering role. I did that job for 9 years, gaining valuable experience and additional responsibilities along the way. After leaving that job I gained a PMP certification - Project Management Professional. This requires a few years of documented project management experience before you can take the exam. (They have a lower level certification if you have little to no formal work experience). The PMP opened up many doors for other career opportunities in other industries, including civil engineering. More surprising was how much more I learned from obtaining the PMP itself. I wish I had taken a dedicated project management training and certification path sooner.

    Now I believe that project management skills are 1 of 3 "legs" in an essential trifecta of skillsets for every modern professional: technical, project management, and entrepreneurism / business. Everybody needs a basic competency in all of them to be a viable and sustainable professional. You can focus on one to be your primary role and career path. But the more you can combine 2 (even 3) of these skill sets you will carve a highly unique and valuable niche for yourself. (And you'll have the attitude and skill sets to learn and adapt along the way - also essential!)

    For those who happened to have read my book published last year about drones in civil engineering, it's no accident that there are 3 sections of the book. Those 3 sections correspond to the trifecta of skill sets above. There are many great books and free online resources about project management available to you. If this is a career interest to you, I encourage you to set a goal to learn more, build a learning plan, then have fun soaking up some of the knowledge that is out there.  It's a fun and rewarding journey!  No matter what happens in the world, there will always be projects with teams of people that need to work together to get meaningful things done. Brett

    Brett Hoffstadt EIT, PMP, A.M.ASCE
    Folsom CA
    (210) 735-0843

  • 6.  RE: Stepping into Project Management

    Posted 04-08-2019 10:59 AM
    I think it's interesting seeing how project management evolved depending on what field the work is being done in.  I'm in the environmental engineering field in the NYC area, I think I started being listed as a project manager after about 4 to 5-years before I had my PE?  There wasn't that much design work, but it did require a lot of planning/management for Brownfields jobs with clients and regulators.  So there would always be a principal listed as well as a PM, who was usually junior staff and handled pretty much everything but bringing in the work and/or any catastrophic items.  Most of the project design work that was completed, like an air sparge system or SSDS was designed by me, but I would have another engineer stamp following review.

    I didn't really ask for the PM role and, to tell the truth, I wish I was allowed to have more of a technical/design capacity than I have now.  Once I started completing more PM work, it has become more difficult to ask for design work since you end up handling more project reporting and client relationships.  You have to also realize that some of the people working under you might not have the same caliber of deliverable you usually perform (which brings down billable hours for consulting if you have to go in as PM to fix things to make the final submittal perfect).

    Lastly, a big part of PM work is being able to know who wants what: does your client really want to know all the nitty-gritty details, or do they just want a 'things are moving on schedule' response?  Does the lawyer reviewing files require additional time to review due to the technical breath, or maybe they need further breakdown outside of the report via email/call, or are they literally just looking over the report to make sure there are more "potentials" than "definites" in the language. Will your relationship with a regulator make things get reviewed quicker, or did you mess something up and now they review everything you send in with a fine-toothed comb.

    I think PM work is really interesting/challenging, but it definitely depends on what industry you're in and what type of projects you're working on.  In my opinion, there shouldn't be a rush to be a PM.  Take your time and learn it organically.  Nobody wants to have a project thrown at them just to say they're a PM, mess things up, and then be delayed becoming a true PM because of that.  Good luck!

    Jordanna Kendrot P.E.,M.ASCE
    Project Engineer
    Riverhead NY

  • 7.  RE: Stepping into Project Management

    Posted 04-08-2019 02:52 PM

    As a civil engineer who retired a few years ago after a long career managing projects, I encountered every one of the issues the previous discussers faced. It took me several years to appreciate that technical competence does not guarantee one will be a successful project manager. In fact, as Ms. Kendrot wisely implies, to accept that my technical capabilities diminished by becoming a project manager.

    Upon retirement, I began writing a personal memoir of my career as a project manager. I soon realized I had found a way to share my experiences of facing numerous challenges transitioning from highway engineer to manager of international mega-projects. Thus, my book, The Engineering is Easy, evolved to become a self-help guide that describes the art of project management and not a cook-book or computer-based approach to managing projects. (Note I have no financial stake in the book as all royalties go to my college's civil engineering department.) One of my key findings to become a successful project manager is you will observe numerous mistakes others make and must accept you are likely to make those same mistakes yourself. Only by creating effective risk management actions will you reduce the likelihood of repeating those mistakes. By effective, I mean such actions as budgeting for the resources necessary to maintain quality and allowing adequate time to accomplish all tasks.

    Bruce Podwal F.ASCE
    New York City NY

  • 8.  RE: Stepping into Project Management

    Posted 04-14-2019 07:27 PM
    Thanks everyone for the insights!!  I knew the transportation world was a longer route to becoming a Project manager (typically), but didn't realize it was so varied across the industry.  That certainly makes sense though.  I'd never considered any certifications like PMP to help me prepare for the responsibilities I'll need outside of my technical training, that's helpful!

    In conversations with my boss, project management is definitely where they want me to move as I progress, so I appreciate all the input to help ease this transition and address any of my own weaknesses.  Thank you!

    James Smith P.E.,M.ASCE
    Grand Rapids MI

  • 9.  RE: Stepping into Project Management

    Posted 07-28-2019 09:26 AM
    The world of project management has led us to program management, and now, thought leaders are discussing the need for a CPO (Chief Project Officer) in larger organizations, for much the same purposes the roles of CFO and CIO were created. I have learned that the place to learn, share and benefit from collegial knowledge regarding these topics and more is within the Project Management Institute, at has multiple service programs for academics as well as a spinoff, that offers multiple chat sources and complimentary templates to help you setup your project as well as monitor its progress. Most major cities have local sections or chapters that meet regularly.


    William M. Hayden Jr., Ph.D., P.E., CMQ/OE, F.ASCE
    Buffalo, N.Y.

    "It is never too late to be what you might have been." -- George Eliot 1819 - 1880

  • 10.  RE: Stepping into Project Management

    Posted 08-10-2019 08:42 AM
    I find it interesting that no one has mentioned  linking an engineering degree with a MBA, which was highly touted as the route to promotion some decades back. My own school even combined the two in one building. I am glad to see that no one mentioned that option in this discussion. I have known many engineers with a MBA and most used it only as a resume enhancer and it was helpful for job offers- especially if your boss also had a MBA. Some were good managers and used it well, but they could have gained their position through other means. Some people seem to be natural managers and people skills are one of the more notable qualities needed for management.

    James Worrell
    Mostly Retired
    PE, RLS (retired)
    Raleigh NC

  • 11.  RE: Stepping into Project Management

    Posted 08-11-2019 09:55 AM
    Hi James
    I am really interested in combining both engineering and project management and I have been considering adding an MBA. Some  of my colleagues have  said that it is not necessary say if i have a Msc in Project Management and others have a different opinion. What would you recommend?

    Lydie Edith Uwantege Aff.M.ASCE
    Counterpart-Civil Engineer