Resources > Feature Articles

Systems Engineering

Systems engineering is like putting together a puzzle, matching varied pieces together to make one cohesive whole. Engineers in this field interact with others in a variety of disciplines, depending on their particular industry, and strive to ensure that the individual parts can work together to perform a desired function.

By the GECC editorial staff

Systems engineering is like putting together a puzzle, matching varied pieces together to make one cohesive whole. Engineers in this field interact with others in a variety of disciplines, depending on their particular industry, and strive to ensure that the individual parts can work together to perform a desired function.

Systems engineers are concerned with the "big picture" of a project in addition to technical aspects and must consider details like cost, schedules and social issues that may be associated with a project. Elizabeth Johnson, a systems engineer at TRW Inc., in Redondo Beach, Calif., says that the variety inherent in systems engineering is what drew her to the field. "I wasn't sure what I wanted to study in detail, if anything. In systems engineering I can see what the different disciplines are like and then maybe choose a few years down the road."


The exposure to a broad range of disciplines also brings a great deal of responsibility, especially with the current prevalence of complex systems and emphasis on a global economy. The International Council on Systems Engineering reports that some of the key areas systems engineers must consider when working on a project include operations, performance, testing, manufacturing, cost and schedule, training and support, and disposal.

The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) cites the famous Hubble Space Telescope as an example of the importance of systems engineering. Highly anticipated, the $1.6 billion telescope was launched in April 1990, but disappointment soon followed. Due to a problem with its primary mirror, the telescope was "capable of projecting images at only one-third of its anticipated resolution." ASEE reports that "before launching the Hubble, to save money, NASA had decided not to conduct a total system test, and thus never detected the flaw."

Not every systems engineer works on high-profile projects like the Hubble. Those working in areas such as digital signal processing and biomedical devices are impacting the future of communication, entertainment, transportation and medicine.

Elizabeth D. Johnson

Elizabeth D. Johnson, Systems Engineer
Title: Systems Engineer
Company: TRW Space & Electronics Group, Redondo Beach, Calif.
Education: B.S. in engineering and applied science, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif.

Job Description: "The areas I work on are primarily space science projects. I go to customer meetings and work on requirements documents and performance modeling. Those three tasks encompass what I do day to day."

Current Projects: "Right now, I'm working on the SIM (Space Interferometry Mission) project with JPL (NASA'sJet Propulsion Laboratory) and Lockheed Martin. I've been on SIM for over a year now, and have been going to meetings at JPL where we discuss interfaces with the instrument, the spacecraft and the mission design of the space system. The SIM mission is scheduled for launch in 2005, and the goal is to determine the accurate position of the stars to 100 times greater accuracy than currently known. Right now I'm putting together a document that points out the interfaces with the spacecraft and the instruments and what performance requirements are needed from the spacecraft to meet the mission.

"Another project I'm working on is some research for an interferometry mission called Terrestrial Planet Finder; that has a scheduled launch date about five to eight years after SIM. It's a 300-ft. long interferometer (an instrument that determines distance or wavelength using light interference) so we're looking for some innovative solutions on how to get something 300 feet long into space."

How She Knew This Was the Field for Her: "I was interested in going into aerospace engineering. Having a big picture perspective was appealing to me. I wanted to see the outreach side of things, getting other people interested in what you're working on. Especially in the space industry, it's important because a lot of people think it's so esoteric that it doesn't even deserve to be studied. So I feel as a systems engineer I have a better perspective on how to encourage other people to get into it because I see all different disciplines and different types of people. What actually made me interested in systems engineering is the complicated interactions of all these different areas."

Biggest Problem Encountered: "Well, when you've got a spacecraft with eight different systems interacting with an instrument that is being provided by another organization or company, the interfaces have to match up correctly. But managing schedule and cost through the project are the primary challenges I see in all space projects. The challenges are getting all these different systems to work together."

Non-Technical Skills Needed to Succeed: "I'd say writing skills. I've had the opportunity to learn and practice and the more you have to write the better you get. Technical people oftentimes lose sight of the people they're interacting with and will talk about something in detail without giving any background on it. I am still guilty of this, but I try to make things clear and succinct."

Advice to Future Systems Engineers: "Going into systems engineering right out of school is not the traditional approach. Most people have worked in a specific subsystem area or technology area before becoming systems engineers. I think it's a common perception that you need years of experience in a subsystem before you can move into systems engineering.

"But the advice I would give is don't be intimidated by that. If you work hard enough and have the right types of challenges, when you start working you can benefit in other areas. So just do something that's at a higher level and touches on everything so you can learn more about what kind of areas you want to go into later."

What the Future Might Hold for Her: "My future plans include going to UCLA for a master's this fall in controls, which is one of the areas in spacecraft engineering."

Name: Rebecca Ma

Rebecca Ma, Systems Engineer

Rebecca Ma

Title: Application Engineer
Company: Texas Instruments, Houston
Education: B.S. in electrical and computer engineering from Rice University, Houston

Job Description: "My priorities are always my external customers" needs, followed by my internal customers" needs, but I do a wide range of projects--hardware board design, software programming, working with the DSP (Digital Signal Processing) design team, working with marketing, writing application reports, etc. At times, I participate in team meetings or conference calls, which are related to the projects I'm assigned. During the day, I sometimes support questions from our technical hotline. I also attend different conferences whenever opportunities come up."

Why She Took the Job: "I decided to work for Texas Instruments because I wanted to work for a leader in the industry and be proud of the company's products. I can see great and exciting opportunities here. However, what really helped me decide was the co-op program. I interned at TI the summer before I came in full-time. Through the co-op program, I gained firsthand experience with the company culture and work environment. I enjoyed the relaxing and friendly environment and met many friends through some organized co-op activities. When I was a co-op, I was able to talk to people in different groups at TI. This helped me understand the different positions in the company. When I joined the company full-time, I felt that I could leverage my education and co-op experiences and immediately contribute to the success of Texas Instruments."

Current Projects: "Currently, I am writing a design specification for future DSP devices. I need to research possible applications of the device and decide what is crucial to add to the specification. I need to do a lot of Web surfing to learn about all the new products in the market that customers may use with our device. After people have reviewed my spec, I will hand the spec to the design team for hardware implementation."

Biggest Job Surprise: "I was surprised by how much I need to know in application engineering. I feel that what I learned at school was very theoretical. At work, I need to draw from my school knowledge and all the theories and somehow apply them. I need to continually keep up with the industry and read engineering magazines to get updated."

Non-Technical Skills Needed to Succeed: "Time management skills, because I always have several projects concurrently. I need to learn how to use time wisely and efficiently. Also communication skills; as an application engineer, I need to interface with customers. I need to know the right questions to ask to understand what our customers want. Finally, I must be resourceful and know where to get help."

How She Knew This Was the Field for Her: "Being in the co-op program helped me understand what a systems engineer actually does. I like systems/application engineering because it is challenging. And most importantly, as an application engineer, I can interface with customers, field engineers and people from other groups. I can learn a lot through meeting these talented people. Also, application engineering is exciting because you get to do many projects at the same time and new assignments come up frequently—even daily!"

Advice to Future Systems Engineers: "I would highly recommend participating in a co-op program so you can get real-world experience to apply to your theoretical educational experience. This will strongly motivate you to learn better in school—and classes will start to make more sense. You also need to keep up with the engineering news. This will give you insight that helps tremendously in your work. To be a successful application engineer, you need to have multi-tasking ability. Additionally, you should enjoy helping others and have good communication skills."

What the Future Might Hold for Her: "I am in the first year of my career, so my primary focus is to excel in my current assignment and to contribute to the success of DSP at Texas Instruments. As for my next two to three years, I am still trying to decide. It's great being a systems engineer because you get exposed to people in different positions. Systems engineering is technical, and yet you get to interface with many people with various assignments. Through my job, I've learned that the part I enjoy most about work is meeting customers and helping them technically. Eventually I may move on to a job that concentrates on that. But at this point, I enjoy application engineering and I'm building a great skill set (both technical and people skills) that allows me to move on to practically anything in the future."

Name: Protagoras Cutchis

Protagoras Cutchis
Title: Senior Engineer
Company: Institute for Advanced Science-CMI, Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University, Laurel, Md.
Education: B.S. in physics, B.S. in electrical engineering, M.S. in electrical engineering, from the University of Maryland, College Park; M.D. from the University of Maryland, Baltimore

Job Description: "I run the gamut of doing detailed electronic design of microprocessor-based systems, including some of the software for those systems. I also do some fluidic and mechanical design, control panels and fluid pumps, and I'm involved in program proposal generation. Basically, I do some program management, some program generation and some detailed engineering."

Why He Took the Job: "I'd always planned on being an electrical engineer from the time I was about 12 or 13 and in college I realized I could be an M.D. I just thought it would be a good combination.

"I did think about practicing clinical medicine. I actually did one year of surgical residency and decided that I didn't want to spend all my time in the hospital. I missed the design aspects of things. And when I first started here, they were developing an implantable insulin pump, which I'd heard about in some local newspapers. I was really interested in getting involved with it."

Current Projects: "There are a couple of projects. One is a portable ventilator for the U.S. Army. It's a lightweight (20 pounds or less), portable suitcase that can be used if a troop is injured. You can intubate them and it'll have enough battery power for at least one hour, maybe two, and will monitor some vital signs and basically provide them with ventilation until a helicopter or Humvee can extricate them from the scene. There's nothing like that at all right now.

"Another project we're working on is in a very early stage. It's a system to measure the constituents and the amount of salts, sodium, potassium and creatinine in astronauts" urine. Right now those samples are all frozen and brought back down to earth for analysis. But now that they're going to be up there for a long time on the space station, they have to have the results before they come back down, so we're working on a device to do that."

Biggest Job Surprise: "The biggest surprise I had, and I don't have a good feel for how much of the world operates this way, is that you're never working at the pace you want to be. It seems like there's either not enough to do or just way too much to do on any particular day, and it never seems like it's at the rate you'd like it to be. It's been that way almost the whole time I've been here."

Biggest Problems Encountered: "I'd say that the biggest problem I have in the biomedical field, since it's a small part of what we do here, is that it often doesn't get a lot of attention from, say, our fabrication facilities. [The lab] builds multimillion-dollar spacecraft, but [the biomedical] projects are typically $50,000 to $100,000. With these other things going on it's very hard to get the priority, the scheduling and the manpower devoted to having the people that do circuit board design, etc., assigned to our projects.

"There are also issues of picking the right materials, meaning biocompatible materials. There are a lot of issues related to safety, making sure the design can't cause any harm if it malfunctions, and now, more so than there used to be, there's a real issue on keeping the cost reasonable. That's because insurance ends up paying for it, and it used to be that [a device] could just give the patient a better quality of life, but now it almost has to help reduce the cost of overall medical care at the same time."

Advice to Future Systems Engineers: "This applies not only to people in systems engineering, but to anybody going onto the biomedical area: What they should think about as early as possible is whether they want to go into academics or work for private industry. I think that the course makeup that they take should vary a little bit depending on which of those two they do. I'd go further to say that in either case I think getting at least a master's degree is probably a good idea."

What the Future Might Hold for Him: "I've reapplied to the astronaut training corps down in Houston. They only take about 20 people every two years out of about 2,000 applicants, so if I'm really lucky, that's what I'm hoping for."

systems engineeringcareer profileswomen in technology

Resources > Feature Articles

newletter