Last week, I gave a talk to a group of about 20 local engineers and engineering students at NC State about project management, based on what I learned for my feature in Naturejobs about the career path.
My piece was about management in the life sciences, but engineering projects face many of the same common pitfalls. It's easy for timelines and budgets to get out of control, for clients to have unreasonable expectations about the end results, for the people you're managing to lose interest and 'buy-in.'
It felt strange and somewhat scary to get up in front of experienced project managers and talk about these issues as an outsider, but the audience was super friendly and interactive. Afterwards, people shared their 'war stories' in management, namely about how easily things can get out of control.
Being a good project manager means being able to motivate and inspire the right people from the very beginning of the project, the audience told me. A student asked whether it means you need to be a "people pleaser," and the veterans responded that's not quite it: you're not going to make everyone happy, but you need to respect them and keep them involved.
Some students asked questions about how they can get into management, and we talked about the variety of ways you can build your knowledge in this area, by for example, getting an MBA or a MEM (Master of Engineering Management) or Project Management Professional certification. It doesn't seem like there's a single right answer for how much or what sort of training you should get -- rather, it'll depend on the company you work for and how much technical knowledge your job requires.
Many people learn on the job, and that's okay too (though it can be stressful). It seems like aspects of project management come naturally to some people. (Kind of like how good bedside manners might come more easily to some doctors than others.) In management, I think that the ability to motivate others may be one of those skills that's hard to teach.
The students in the audience seemed eager to pick up these soft skills, though. Many students I've interacted with are focused on having their careers planned out. I think that's great, but I would just say that it's all too common for people to take unexpected paths, for the better. As one audience member said, if you find a person whose job you hope to have one day, ask her how she got to that position. More often than not, you'll find that she took the scenic route.