MSCE, PE, AIA? Not always

Aug 06, 2018

AEC credentials are necessary for the work of designing and building, but that’s not the case regarding firm management and ownership.

You don’t need to be an engineer to help engineers run their business. You don’t even need to be an architect or engineer to run or lead in an AEC firm.

When we at Zweig Group write these articles, we write from what we see and experience when working with you, our clients, in your AEC firms. We also write from a management perspective. We draw parallels between our experience in our firm and what you experience working in your firm.

There are a lot of parallels. Like an AEC firm, Zweig Group sells services. We sell time and expertise. Like many of you, I manage people, I have clients, projects, and deadlines. I’m also an owner. I work in marketing and market an organization that has a section of people who work primarily with clients and don’t always understand what is going on back in my department. I know many of you who work in AEC firms can relate to all of those things. I know we share many of the same struggles and challenges – something that helps me help you.

We work so closely with AEC firms it’s easy for us, as well as our clients, to sometimes forget that we aren’t the same. Zweig Group is NOT an AEC firm – and thank goodness for that!

Zweig Group does not give advice on how to design more attractive buildings, or better streets. I can’t tell you how to build a suspension bridge or use cross-laminated timber in construction – and that’s OK, because it doesn’t make me any less able to help you structure your marketing department, motivate your employees, or create a great website. Because I don’t make money as an architect or engineer, I’ve had other experiences.

In addition to working in quite a few unrelated industries, I’ve toured a hundred different AEC firms. I’ve looked at and analyzed thousands of industry websites, marketing materials, marketing campaigns, and proposals. I’ve read more than 36,000 employee responses to surveys. I’ve conducted client interviews and client perception studies with hundreds of different firms working in nearly every market sector and geographic region in North America (and internationally). I’ve worked in email marketing platforms, CRMs, and e-commerce websites. I’ve participated in dozens of strategic planning retreats. I’m Mark Zweig’s daughter – I literally grew up talking about engineering, architecture, and business management at the dinner table every night. I still have that to this day, too, as I married a registered landscape architect who works at an engineering firm.

I work with some incredible professionals from a variety of backgrounds, everything from journalism and graphic design, to business and law. Their own experiences, expertise, and passion for the industry make them highly qualified for the roles they hold. Unfortunately, not everyone in the AEC industry feels that way.

I spoke with a business manager at an engineering firm on the West Coast. She recently became a shareholder in the firm. Here’s what she told me: “Building my career in the A/E industry, I have experienced being taken for granted. Starting as a temporary file clerk 11 years ago and working my way to the role of business manager, I have faced many challenges – one of them being I do not have a degree in engineering. Not having an engineering degree hasn’t prevented me from fulfilling my responsibilities, but it has caused others to treat me as if I was less ‘smart.’”

How often do those without engineering or architecture degrees, or professional registrations, end up in ownership and leadership roles in the AEC industry? Zweig Group’s recently released Principals, Partners & Owners Survey found that 14 percent of owners describe their background as “business management” instead of “engineer/architect,” or other technical professional. The survey also found that just a little less than half, at 46 percent of firms, have “professional registration/licensure” as one of the criteria necessary to be eligible to become an owner.

Obviously being licensed is not a negative, that's a wonderful thing, and there are some professional corporations and other legal forms that do require all or majority of owners to be professionals. These are not the situations I am referring to, and they do not make up 46% of the industry.

We tell any new hires at Zweig Group that it takes two years of working in the industry to understand it. Unequivocally, you need industry expertise to do well – but expertise and experience do not necessarily mean letters after your name. Being a registered engineer or architect does not make someone any better at managing an AEC firm than someone who does not have this professional designation, but experience does. Not everyone in every role in an AEC firm needs to be working on billable, technical projects. I would argue that NOT having to do these kinds of activities may make certain people even better at doing the jobs they do – jobs that are extremely important in firms just like yours.

Christina Zweig Niehues is Zweig Group’s director of marketing. Contact her at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.