The “Engineering” Side of Engineering Management

By Rose-Hulman Engineering Manager Jon Nibert

When I first signed out to be the engineering manager of Rose-Hulman’s EcoCAR 2 team, I was admittedly a little apprehensive.  I had served as the lead electrical engineer for the EcoCAR: The NeXt Challenge team during years two and three of the competition, so I had seen the extraordinary amount of work that was required in the project.  I also knew that such a large, long and complex project wasn’t going to be easy to balance.  This isn’t some typical academic team project that involved four people working on a group assignment for a few weeks.  No, this is multiple people, multiple years and cutting-edge technology.  Oddly enough, however, nothing I’ve mentioned made me really nervous.

What had me worried the most when I started my Engineering Management studies and took up the mantle of the EcoCAR 2 “team leader” wasn’t the sheer difficulty of the tasks ahead, but the nature of these tasks.  My main fear was that I would lose my technical standing, that I would become an administrative manager that was relegated to bureaucratic duties and paperwork, and that I would become out-of-touch with technical aspects of the project.  In short, I was afraid of somehow becoming the pointy-haired boss from Dilbert or Bill Lumbergh.  Much to my surprise (and sometimes also to my chagrin), this was not at all the case.

When I told my advisor that I wanted to stay technical, he didn’t look at me funny, or even skip a beat in telling me the job would be easily doable.  I was a little skeptical, at least until I started learning more about engineering management and the actual duties I would need to perform.  For an engineering manager in charge of a complex project such as an EcoCAR 2 team, being technically well-versed is an absolute requirement, and from a managerial standpoint, understanding that those working with you are technically-minded comes to bear in how they view problems, interact with one another, and how their personal goals might align with those of the project.

My initial fear that I would start losing out on using my engineering knowledge was completely turned on its head.  I have, in fact, experienced just the opposite.  While I have not drilled as deep in individual subjects as I did in my previous studies, the breadth of knowledge I need to command has vastly expanded.  Rather than just focusing on one area of the project, I have to understand the electrical, mechanical, controls and all other pertinent technical aspects.  While far from being an expert in any one of those fields, I have found myself learning more about each of them than expected.  This has moved me outside of my comfort zone on more than one occasion, but in the end has proven to be an invaluable experience in steering decisions.

Beyond the technical diversity encountered, management itself has quite a few technical aspects that I would not have anticipated.  In essence “Engineering Management” could quite easily be thought of as “Managerial Engineering.”  The application of systems engineering, model-based approaches and the quantitative and qualitative use of metrics has led me to realize that I still use the wonderful process of applying tools and logic to solve problems. And that’s what makes engineering so intriguing and fun!