By Howard Birnberg

 Why did you become an engineer? This is a fundamental question many engineers can readily answer. Typically, they say they became engineers because they were interested in construction, liked to solve problems, or enjoyed seeing their work turned into a reality. Rarely, however, would they say they became an engineer because they wanted to be a project manager!

Those who are managing projects typically ended up in the role because of management skills they acquired (often by accident, not because of a plan). A rare few have the most important skill of all: They are good communicators — able to write well, have good public speaking skills, and are excellent at listening. For engineers who become project managers, technical skills are important, but these are needed to support, not replace, their ability to be effective project managers.


Engineering project managers do not operate in a vacuum. There are many concepts that need to operate in tandem for project managers to be effective.

Their firm must have a structured, organized, and supportive project management system in place. This system must be regularly improved and adapted as client needs change, the economy varies, the skills of engineers evolve, etc.

Their firm must have all necessary tools, forms, software, and training processes in place. A manual defining project management in your firm should be developed and regularly updated.

(Note: The Association for Project Managers has a 34-page Prototypical Project Management Manual available free. To request a copy, email me at:

Appropriate technology must exist and be maintained to provide necessary tools. Given the rapid change in technology today, this is a particular challenge for firm management.

Communication processes, tools, systems, and procedures must be in use and regularly revised. Much of this depends on software, but personal skills must also be developed. For example, public speaking skills can be developed and expanded through participation in Toastmasters or similar programs.

Project managers must understand who is on their team. This team isn’t just the handful of people in your office with whom you work each day. Project teams are very broad even on small projects, encompassing other consultants (architects, specialists, other engineering disciplines), contractors, subcontractors, regulators, code officials, suppliers, vendors, and a myriad list of others. Most importantly, it is the client/end user who is the centerpiece of the team. All team members supply you with information and require information from you.

Cross training is essential. Learn what others do and teach them what you do. This enhances communication and an understanding of each other’s needs. Cross training also builds a cadre of staff who can assist you when workloads increase and provide trained individuals to replace those who leave the firm, become ill, or are unavailable for other reasons.

A project manager’s authority must be reasonably equivalent with their level of responsibility. Weak or ineffective project managers are those who have a great deal of project responsibility but lack significant authority over staff assignments, workflow planning, project budgeting, or other essential activities. Additionally, project managers whose decisions are regularly countermanded by more senior staff will quickly become ineffective.

Who is a project manager?

Too often, inappropriate individuals are appointed as project managers. The selected individuals may have strong technical skills but lack people skills. They may become project managers because of their long-standing employment with your firm. Or, they may be individuals with the mindset that no one else can do the job as well as they can.

In too many cases, senior managers/principals want the authority on projects without the responsibility for actually dealing with the day-to-day headaches that projects encounter. As a result, they may select someone else to deal with these problems, in effect, selecting a victim, not a project manager.

An effective project manager must have a wide range of characteristics. Some of these include:

• Strong personal organizational skills are vital to effectiveness as a project manager. It is also essential that your firm provide an organizational structure, including a clear project management process and system, necessary tools for managing projects, and needed support staff.

• Project managers must have the training, experience, and understanding of preparing and monitoring a project’s scope of design services, the project’s design and construction schedule, and your design fee/budget.

• Effective project managers must also have the skill and willingness to take corrective actions once it is clear that deviations from a project’s scope, schedule, and/or budget have occurred. Inactivity on the part of a project manager is rarely a solution to project problems, nor is waiting for a more senior manager to step in.

• It is clear that the primary skill and responsibility of project managers is to communicate with the entire project team on a timely and effective basis. All team members suffer from information overload, requiring project managers to focus on essentials while ensuring that necessary data is conveyed. Short, effective forms and processes must be developed particularly to manage scope creep.

• The experience of on-the-job training is a great teacher, but a good mentoring program is even better. Learning from people who have greater experience can quickly make individuals more effective project managers. Unfortunately, in engineering firms this process is haphazard and often ineffectual. Aspiring project managers should seek out experienced mentors.

How many effective project managers does a firm need?

It is important to offer continual project management training for younger or less experienced individuals. This provides a cadre of people who can effectively step into the role of project manager as workload and other conditions change. While there have been published surveys attempting to quantify the number of project managers to the number of projects or other similar ratios, these often are of little use. For firm managers, there is, unfortunately, no fixed answer for a number of reasons.

The experience level of your project managers is an important factor. Generally, more-experienced project managers should be able to handle more projects. They should also be capable of managing projects of greater complexity than managers with less experience. In many cases, firms employing less-experienced managers may require a greater number of individuals to handle the workload.

The experience level of your technical staff is a factor. Staff experienced in a particular project type can make the project manager’s job a great deal easier. Their familiarity with the workings of the firm’s project management system is also important.

The quality of your support and management information systems will impact the ability of project managers to perform. Effective project management requires a wide array of tools and systems. When managers lack all or part of these systems, more time is required to complete their project responsibilities. This may mean the organization will need a greater number of project managers.

The complexity of the specific project that a manager handles will affect his or her ability to manage additional projects. Managing complicated medical or manufacturing facilities will likely require greater effort and attention than basic speculative office buildings or retail spaces. Increased time demands may be placed on a project manager to administer a complex project.

A major factor determining the number of required project managers is the general staff experience level with the current projects of the firm. When a one-of-a-kind, rarely handled project type is encountered, the learning curve is steeper for all. Increased levels of research will be required, as will increased levels of team interaction. This will usually require greater time commitments for the project manager.

There are many other factors influencing how many project managers a firm needs. Most importantly, your firm’s system must continually evolve, be flexible, and regularly seek methods to make your project managers more effective. Ongoing project management training is essential and must be a regular part of an engineering firm’s operation.

Howard Birnberg is executive director of the Association for Project Managers ( He may be reached at 312-664-2300 or