The path to project manager and beyond: Tips for a successful engineering career

Craig Johnson walks through the steps required in building a successful career as an engineer.

By Craig Johnson, Dewberry May 22, 2018

I have spent all 36 years of my career at Dewberry, which makes my path to leadership very unique for this day and age. I have been fortunate because I have been tasked with challenging projects with increasing responsibility and exposure to clients. So, I always found that the next growth opportunity for me has been right within the firm.

From entry-level engineer to project manager, department head, branch manager, and, finally, president of the Northeast division, each role has been unique and has required me to hone and develop new skills. Whether you hope to move into management someday, or just want to be the best problem-solver and colleague you can be, read on for some lessons I have learned through building my career at Dewberry.

Build a solid technical foundation

I always tell young engineers to use their first six to eight years getting a sound technical base before deciding what path to pursue. As a manager, you need to have a good overall view and solid technical understanding of all of the different disciplines that go into a project.

At the same time, I caution young engineers about getting pigeonholed. If you notice that you are doing a similar project over and over and losing the ability to find creative solutions, then it might be time to speak up to your supervisor. Repeating the same thing means you are not learning what you should.

Learn from your mistakes – Everyone makes some

As a young engineer, I accidentally designed a roadway profile that would impact a large box culvert. This mistake never made it out the door into the field, thankfully, but, everyone makes mistakes. The key is to ask questions, listen, and learn from a mistake so that you only make it once.

Learn from your supervisors and peers

Every supervisor is a little different, and each one has their strengths and weaknesses. Some are stronger technically, some are adept managers or skilled in business development. Identify the strengths from various people that fit your personality. But also realize even though someone may be a great supervisor, they do still have some weaknesses. Don’t repeat those weaknesses — you can learn from them and act differently.

Develop relationships with clients

Develop relationships with as many clients as you can early on. When I was an eight-year engineer, I got to know some clients that I ended up submitting proposals to as a project manager ten years later. Today’s junior staff will be tomorrow’s decision-makers. The client contact you meet today could become the commissioner of the department of transportation one day.

Once you earn the client’s business, stay focused on good client service. This means being responsive and turning out a quality product. Even as a project manager, I reviewed every plan sheet in detail to make sure we were putting out top-notch work. Without happy clients and winning work, we don’t have repeat business. And, trust me, it is much easier to have repeat business than going out and doing cold calls.

Communication is paramount

Finally, good communication internally and with the client is of utmost importance. Within project teams, it is important to be transparent and inclusive. Make sure all of your different players know what the others are doing and give people the ability to speak up and make suggestions.

Clients can vary widely in their preferred method of communication. Some like to talk daily, some like email. It’s about really learning your client and knowing when to communicate with them. And, I think bad news – like that your construction budget went up by $10 million – always needs to be said in person. Don’t put something like that in an email and miss the opportunity to mitigate the impact.

Craig Johnson is president of the Northeast division at Dewberry. This article originally appeared on Dewberry’s blog. Dewberry is a CFE Media content partner.

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