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A Different Type of Engineer

Thatís the way many describe engineers who also have skills in management. And those engineers are more likely to find a job, get promoted and be successful

By Dr. Pamela Palmer

When the deans of engineering and business administration at the University of Vermont in Burlington describe students in their undergraduate Engineering Management Program, they use the same phrase: a different type of engineer. “It seems to be a different type of engineer who wants this kind of degree,” says Robert Jenkins, Ph.D. and head of the College of Engineering. “Obviously the advantages are that they have an extremely strong technical background in engineering and can deliver on that side. On the other side, they have the skill sets that come with management courses. That’s something I think you can really sell today to an employer.”

What engineers and computer scientists don’t know about management can hurt them. Trouble is, many engineering students don’t realize this until they’re already on the job. Simply by expanding their studies to include finance, planning and communication skills central to management, students can increase their opportunities for career success.

Skill myopia is characteristic of many professionals in technical fields. “When engineers and computer scientists finish their undergraduate degrees, most don’t have any idea there is a problem,” says Jerry D. Westbook, Ph.D., P.E. “They think they are God’s gift to whatever,” he adds.

Westbrook, the immediate past president of the American Society of Engineering Management (ASEM) and faculty member in the Industrial Systems Engineering Department of the University of Alabama in Huntsville notes, “Ego is not their problem.”


On the job, the lack of managerial ability surfaces quickly, especially when strong engineering or computer science abilities lead to a quick promotion. “This can be a big problem for an organization when people are promoted for their technical skills but have little talent for handling their new positions. It is a design for failure unless they plug the gap in their knowledge base,” says Westbrook. “They need to get management know-how to succeed.”

Though most engineering management degrees are at the graduate level, hybrid degrees in a variety of forms are available to undergraduates. Some are housed in engineering schools; others are in colleges of business, so finding the right combination can take some investigation. But those who recognize the need to learn the elements of management early can incorporate vital skills into their program and graduate with an advantage.

When Stanley Eng wanted a career that combined electrical engineering with management information systems, the University of Texas in Austin was ready. They offered a degree in Engineering Route to the Bachelor of Business Administration (ERB). “The ERB program allows students to combine engineering and business classes in a customized manner,” says Eng, now a consultant with Arthur Andersen in Houston. “A student can choose from different engineering concentrations and combine it with a selected business concentration.”

Eng quickly found that his degree was in synch with the demands of his job. “Many of the skills I learned in the program are directly applicable to my current job,” he says. “From the engineering side, I use problem solving skills. Many of the analytical techniques and methods I learned in electrical engineering help me to isolate problems, analyze them and provide a solution for my clients.”

“On the business side, I use the interpersonal and communications skills (I learned in my management classes.) At Arthur Andersen, I am in a business intelligence role and do a lot of database design and modeling. Having a thorough background in systems design has been very helpful. Combining the two disciplines has been extremely advantageous to me.”

Eng finds his background gives him a balance that is valuable. “Working for a consulting company requires someone who is capable of solving problems and presenting those solutions to a client. Being able to provide a technical solution and present it in a manner that a non-technical person can understand is highly desirable in the business world,” he says. Eng says he has not really used much of the electrical engineering knowledge he gained in school, but his knowledge of its lingo is helpful when working with high-tech companies. “Understanding a company’s core competencies and their underlying technology lends a lot of credibility to yourself,” he says.

“Overall, I’d say the combination of engineering and business knowledge has been a great asset to me. The engineering background has helped me hone my problem solving abilities while the business side has enabled me to present those solutions effectively.”

“Communication skills are absolutely critical for engineers and computer scientists,” says J. Winston Porter, Ph.D. “If you cannot communicate your ideas and explain them simply and knowledgably to the public, as well as to others in your field, you are limited. It is one thing to talk to others with technical skills and it is another thing entirely to talk to the public.”

Porter, president of the Waste Policy Center in Leesburg, Va., honed his personal communication skills before tough audiences. When he was with Bechtel, a large global engineering and construction firm, he made frequent presentations to management. “They had little time so you had to focus quickly and be able to explain clearly and briefly.”

His skills were further tested when, as an assistant administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he testified before Congress 60 to 70 times. “The people who get ahead tend to be good communicators,” he says. “If you want to move up, you need communication skills.”


Degrees such as those offered by UT-Austin’s ERB program can be shaped to fit individual career goals. Students can choose from an array of business and engineering courses and combine them according to their interests. Options for engineering include chemical, mechanical, electrical/computer and architectural/civil. Business concentrations include management, management information systems, marketing and finance/accounting.

For Travis Major, the UT-ERB program is a great choice. “I’m doing half electrical engineering and half operations management,” he says. “Students in this program get the prestige of the UT engineering school, as well as that of the UT business school.”

With his plans for work in technical sales, the program is right on target. “With technical sales, you have to understand the equipment you are selling. That’s the engineering side. The business side is being a good salesman, making good contacts and having good interpersonal skills.”

Major’s sister influenced his choice. “She graduated from UT with an electrical engineering major. She said she wished she had taken business courses, but she likes the prestige and education she got from the engineering schools. I followed her advice and went for this degree, so I got the best of both worlds.”

Rose Kwok, a UT-Austin sophomore, is drawn to the ERB degree because she believes it is attractive to employers. “Companies love it,” says the publicity co-chair of the Engineering Route to Business Association. “There has been a 100% recruiting rate. Companies like Arthur Andersen, Anderson Consulting, and Siemens recruit heavily here.”

“We have the highest starting salaries in the business school,” says the ERB Association’s current president, Rebecca Allen. Because the program is housed in the business school, she takes a lot of ribbing from the engineers in her family. For her, though, the advantages are clear. The degree fits her interest in risk consulting and her long-term career goals. As she sees it, the engineering and business combination is hard to beat, “We can talk the talk and walk the walk from both sides.”


Ben Brothers wanted a degree that emphasized technical knowledge with a strong dose of management skills. He opted for combining an electrical engineering major with a minor in technology and management at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Now a candidate for the M.S. in electrical engineering, he knows he made the right choice. “The engineering degree was the standard curriculum, and the minor in technology and management brought in finance, accounting, and business administration,” he says. “My class was the first to be able to take the technology management minor.

“It was definitely worthwhile and useful,” he adds. “I would recommend it. Potentially I may use both in my career. The balance will depend on what job I decide to take.”

Sarah Vogler chose the engineering major, management minor route because it fits her career goals. “I plan to get a M.B.A. and work in a management position at a technical company,” says the senior who expects to receive her B.S. in computer science with a management minor from Radford University in Radford, Va., in May 2001. “There is a strong belief that computer science students are not personable and do not have people skills,” she says. “I think this degree will show that I know the business side as well as the technology side.”

Though professors suggested the combination, the strongest influence on Vogler’s choice was her dad. “He’s an engineer who is in business, and I saw how management skills helped him move ahead,” she says. “I want the management minor to help me stand above other tech people and show that I have people and managerial skills.”

Management minors are becoming more common among students with technical majors. At the New Jersey Institute of Technology “our engineering degree with a management minor is very popular,” reports David Wachspress, Ph.D., who serves as director of the undergraduate and e-commerce program there. “It includes courses in accounting, finance, management and operations management, so it gives students a foundation in core management skills. It supplements their engineering degree.”

Wachspress worked at AT&T for 20 years, so he was able to see skills from both sides of the table. “If I were interviewing two engineering students who had almost identical credentials, except one had a minor in management, I’d feel confident that the one with the minor [in management] had the skills he or she would ultimately need for an administrative position,” he explains.


Larry Shirland, Ph.D. and Interim Dean of the College of Business Administration at the University of Vermon, says that management skills allow students to work well with people and become team leaders. “The ability to communicate to medium and large audiences is valuable. In my experience, the students see themselves more as engineers. Many get jobs with consulting firms,” he says. “There are still relatively few engineering management programs but the number has grown over the past 10 years as firms have seen the need for both types of skills.”

The reason the dual emphasis works is simple. “Engineering and computer science are disciplines that appeal to left brain oriented people who almost always self select into these fields,” Westbrook explains. “For the most part, they are not good at dealing with people and management issues. But our experience is that they do very well when they are exposed to management theories and practices and see how these work.” And that’s why many see the tech/management combination as their key to professional success.

Dr. Pamela Palmer is a free-lance writer who specializes in career, business and information technology articles.

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