Thursday, October 17, 2013

Career Focus: System Engineer

today's engineer
November 2011

Career Focus: Systems Engineering
By John R. Platt
Are you an engineer who likes to think outside of the box, possesses leadership and communication skills, and thrives at improving the connections between greater parts of a whole? Then systems engineering might be a good next step for your career.

Back in 2009, Money magazine called Systems Engineering the best career in America based on numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics which not only showed a high median salary for the profession—over $87,000—but also predicted a 45 percent growth in systems engineering employment over the first half of this decade. By contrast, electrical engineering jobs are almost stagnant and are expected to grow just two percent in the same period.

Since then, the need for systems engineers has only grown and the job boards are full of listings calling for systems engineering experts. Why the high growth and desire for these professionals? Put simply, the world is no longer simple. "The complexity of modern systems demands systems engineering," says IEEE Fellow Robert Rassa, Director of Engineering Programs for Raytheon SAS and past president of the IEEE Systems Council.

The Systems Engineer: A Sum of His Parts

Systems engineering is an interdisciplinary engineering field that looks at complex systems—think of airplanes as a classic example—through the lens of the entire product life cycle. The systems engineering process begins with establishing a customer's needs and defining the problems that need to be overcome. It then moves to investigating alternatives, modeling the system, integrating various components (often made by multiple teams or suppliers), and launching the system. But the launch is not the end of the job: the systems engineer must then assess the performance of the product or system and re-evaluate to make sure the system will continue to operate properly.

With that in mind, what makes a good systems engineer? "First of all," says Rassa, "you need to have a broad engineering background." He recommends having both discipline experience—electrical engineering, software engineering, etc.—as well as domain experience—space, transportation, communications and the like. "Second, you need to understand a lot of the basics—mechanical engineering, software, logistics, reliability—and have an understanding of how those things play into design."

The third important quality, Rassa says, is leadership. "Leadership is essential. You have to have good communication skills. Consider all inputs from the members of your team and be able to make both good and hard decisions." He says decision-making is often influenced by what is called systems thinking, which he defined as the ability to think in systems-level attributes. "What does this system we're creating have to do in toto and how can I get there, looking at the pieces I have, the pieces I have to design and the pieces I have to change." Since this often involves components from multiple suppliers, some of which might not be changeable, a systems engineer must understand what they can influence and what they can't and then be able to integrate it all into a working system.

Communication skills and the ability to make difficult decisions are critical for all systems engineers, according to Stephanie White, Senior Professor of Computer Science and Management Engineering at Long Island University. Systems engineering, she says, means you're working with a team that can include electrical engineers, software engineers, control systems engineers, and people from any number of other fields. "You're integrating, defining a problem, working with all of the other disciplines to come up with a common understanding of the problem," she says."You have to be able to talk to all of those people and understand their conflicting requirements," then make tough decisions based on your analysis of the situation.

The Need for Systems Engineering

The defense and aerospace industries depend heavily upon systems engineers, but these professionals are also used in many other fields, sometimes under different or similar names. The automotive industry calls them product engineers, for example. But other industries might not even realize they have or need systems engineers.

"I believe it's recognized in a lot of fields," says White. "All organizations are systems. Every organization is complex. If you want to improve your organization, you need systems engineering."

So where are systems engineers needed right now? The first place to look is the job boards for companies supporting the aerospace and defense industries. "The U.S. defense industry really can use all of the system engineers they can find without question," according to Rassa, who says they are also needed by NASA, the FAA, and companies working on next-generation control systems and the smart grid.

"The smart grid is going to be reliant upon systems engineering," says Christos G. Cassandras, head of the Division of Systems Engineering at Boston University and recipient of the 2011 IEEE Control Systems Technology Award. "The grid is a dynamic system, with many pieces connecting, that needs to be optimized and with uncertainties that need to be understood. It's a very good example of why these systems engineering skills are necessary."

Systems engineers will also be highly desired in any industry that relies upon multiple contractors to build and execute large projects. "Systems engineers are responsible for subcontracts and integrating the entire project," says White. "They make sure the project is consistent across all contractors."

While some people still falsely perceive systems engineering as being solely about engineering it really is much broader than that, says Jim Manchisi, Senior Vice President at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. "When we talk about our systems engineering practice, it's not just engineering but also program management, acquisition management, and program leadership." Booz Allen's systems engineering and integration business concentrates on large government projects, helping them to come in on time and on budget and to achieve the expected levels of performance. "What we do in our group is help the government diagnose where the issues in a project might lie and help solve them."

Taking the field beyond the traditional systems, Cassandras says systems engineers will soon be working on a much more dynamic level of systems. "A system is no longer just a plane or a rocket or a chemical factory," he says. "It can be anything that can be connected through information technology." Even a city could be a system. For example, Cassandras and his systems engineering graduate students just tested a system that could theoretically ease traffic on Boston's busy streets by helping drivers to find and reserve parking spots.

Becoming a Systems Engineer

No one starts their career as a systems engineer. They begin, instead, in almost any other engineering field, where they can learn the skills they will eventually need in systems engineering. Part of that, says Cassandras, is learning to think beyond what he calls the "black boxes" of each engineering discipline. "The difficult part is not the black boxes but the arrows that connect them," he says. "The real complexity is in the arrows, and in how you make the connections."

Rassa says that many people gravitate toward systems engineering and may even find themselves doing it before they realize it. "It's almost not like a conscious decision," he says. "You've been thinking about ramifications. You've been doing out-of-the-box thinking. You can't make a systems engineer out of someone who doesn't have that innate systems thinking ability and natural leadership. If you have those, you have the critical ingredients."

That said, "You can teach people systems engineering approaches," says White. "There are ways of looking at systems to simplify them, and those can be learned."

Cassandras agrees, and says his program and others like it are trying to make systems engineering "a much more rigorous engineering discipline." He teaches three pillars of systems engineering. The first is systems theory. The second is optimization: "Once you design a system and you design how it works, you want to assess its performance, make it better, or redesign it to improve it." The third pillar is randomness and uncertainty, or stochastic process theory. "The world is not predictable, so you need to account for risk. Understand your environment and the uncertainties that affect it," he says.

Booz Allen Hamilton is just one of the many companies looking to hire quite a few systems engineers in the coming months. "For a more junior engineer," says Manchisi, "we'll look at the academic credentials and the kinds of projects that they've gotten involved with." They seek candidates that are end-mission oriented and can understand the client's mission, as well as people who can communicate and work on a team. "I've worked with some top-notch engineers, but if they don't have the ability to collaborate, that's a non-starter," he says.

For more senior positions, Manchisi says they look for natural leaders, people who have filled critical roles in all parts of the product life cycle, and candidates who work well with others. The ideal candidate, he says, "can get four people with different thoughts about solving a problem to come up with a solution that incorporates them all at the best level."

It all boils down to the mind of the engineer: "It doesn't matter what branch of engineering you come from," says Cassandras. "If you have the right philosophy, you can become a very successful systems engineer."

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