Job Advice for New College Grads

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Career Profile – Systems Engineer

Posted by James M on December 2, 2008

Systems Engineering is a fairly new field that developed out of modern large-scale integration projects like those at Boeing and other system integrators.  System Engineers generally work across multiple teams on projects involving integration of two or more systems and often perform so-called trade studies to evaluate several possible solutions to a technical problem.

One piece of advice I would give those interested in this field is not to focus too intently on the term ‘Systems Engineer”.  For example, in my old position I was part of a software group and held the job title of Real Time Software Engineer.  Even so, I didn’t written a lick of code in 3 and a half years and my work was best described as Systems Engineering.  Instead, you should focus more on the type of work you want to do and then find job descriptions that meet that criteria.

So for example if you look online at the staffing system of a particular company you may see a lot of openings for “Systems Engineer”.  In addition to those positions try looking at more traditional engineering job titles as well and delving more into what your day-to-day activities would be as you move through the hiring process.  This will probably involve asking the employer at the interview about how much multi-disciplinary work you’ll have the opportunity to take part in.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Systems Engineers are often facilitators.  Because you work across multiple large and complex systems and teams of people, you can’t know everything about every system.  Therefore, a Systems Engineer often relies heavily on members of other teams and often acts as an intermediary to bring people from different teams together to find a solution.  Systems Engineers often end up specializing in a particular area (i.e. real-tme software) and over the course of a career eventually get to the point where they have medium depth knowledge of a wide range of technical areas.

The best Systems Engineers I know can balance not only the technical aspects of a problem but also the business aspects and the long term life-cycle impacts.  This is because the best technical solution doesn’t always imply the best solution from a cost, schedule, and risk point of view.

There are a few skills I notice good System Engineers having and they all revolve around the multi-disciplinary aspects of large-scale integration.  First, good System Engineers have a lot of experience with suppliers, subcontractors, and customers.  Knowing how to deal with a subcontractor when they are late developing a key item or negotiate with a customer when an important component doesn’t meet specifications is a very important skill.

Second, they know something about evaluation and testing and by association “selling off” a requirement to the customer.  When a contract is signed the goods or services provider signs a contract with the customer detailing the requirements of the good or service (these requirements are just one part of a larger contract structure).  At some point in time, these requirements must be tested to satisfy the customer that you are delivering what you promised (whether a requirement is well written is often defined by its testability).  Because System Engineers often work with requirements and requirements relate directly to testing, a good System Engineer is always evaluating how a particular technical solution will be tested.

Third, Systems Engineers know something about the life-cycle of a program.  When you deliver an aircraft to a customer, for example, that is not the end of the story.  The aircraft must be maintained and the parts, labor, and knowledge-base to repair an aircraft have to come from somewhere.  In addition, aircraft are often modified years after delivery as technology continues to improve.  Good System Engineers have the long term life of a product in mind as they search for the best technical solution.

Of course on top of these business oriented skills, a broad technical knowledge of a particular system is always required.  Usually this just comes with time and experience.  The best Systems Engineers I know probably have an average experience level of 15-25 years.  Of course, you have to start somewhere, so don’t feel overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge required to be successful.

As far as the type of tasks a Systems Engineer might work on, I can try to give a fictional example that demonstrates a typical situation and the issues you might deal with.  Say, for example, a supplier is suppose to deliver a hydraulic spring for use in a landing gear, however you recently discovered the spring isn’t rated to the appropriate tonnage and you get tasked with figuring out a solution.  (These sorts of disconnects happen all the time–why would you choose a supplier in the first place if their product doesn’t meet your requirements?  A variety of factors lead to these surprising sorts of problems.)  One answer might be to work with the supplier to modify the spring.  But because the spring has to be re-egineered there is a cost and schedule delay to completing the landing gear module.  Maybe the supplier offers instead to sell you a higher weight-rated spring that it already produces, but that is a slightly larger size and therefore doesn’t connect properly with the landing gear wheel housing.

So what do you do?  There are a variety of possibilities.  Perhaps you work with the current supplier and help provide resources to re-engineer the spring to meet specifications.  Perhaps there is an adapter you can buy that will help the more robust spring fit with the already fabricated wheel housing.  Perhaps your company is frustrated with the supplier’s schedule delays and you decide to risk trying to find a new supplier that already has a spring that meets your specifications.  Perhaps you conduct a study to show that, although the original spring doesn’t meet spec, it nonetheless provides a safe landing gear for the customer.  In that case you may have to rewrite the prime contract specification with the customer and try to sell them on the idea.

Other things you’ll need to consider when searching for a solution:  spares–what happens when the spring breaks, how will the spares be supplied, how easy is the spring to repair when it breaks, is the supplier in danger of going out of business soon (this happens to many small companies), if so who will supply the spring?  Testing: if you choose the more robust spring and adapter, how will you test it?  Requirements–do any requirements need to be rewritten or can they naturally be interpreted to be independent of the spring selection.  Other technical teams–if you choose the new spring does it add extra weight to the aircraft that might affect handling?  What about aerodynamic affects during take off and landing?  Will the sensor and/or software that monitors the spring’s hydraulic pressure need to be modified?

You can see that these sorts of situations get very complicated very fast and for that reason can be exciting, challenging, and frustrating all simultaneously.  And I think the complicated nature of these problems lend themselves well to people who have both a broad technical and business background.

If you like those kind of problems, you will probably like Systems Engineering.  The caveat of course is to make sure you can get on a good program with good people around you. I know some Systems Engineers who do the type of work I’ve mentioned above and others who sit at a desk working with requirements all day compiling comments other engineers made into a spreadsheet (obviously much less glamorous).  Again, I think this goes back to trying to find a job doing good work and worrying less about having the title of “Systems Engineer.”

Let me know which career profile you’d like to see next by leaving a comment below or e-mailing me at: collegegraduatejobs@gmail.com.

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