What Do Systems Engineers Do?

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Systems engineers play an integral role in the success of businesses in many industries.
They lay the foundation or blueprint for systems to begin conception, production, and realization of valuable operations. The International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) dates the origin of systems engineering back to World War II (1940s) at Bell Telephone Laboratories. Today, systems engineering is a process that includes identifying a problem based on consumer needs and developing a solution that is constantly re-evaluated throughout its execution. In short, systems engineers monitor the performance of systems and continually assess all stages of operations to ensure that a problem is solved.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers reported that systems engineers’ possess an in-demand ability to apply an interdisciplinary approach to ensure technical needs are translated into step-by-step processes—in effect, producing efficient and effective results. A systems engineer will often collaborate with a project manager and the engineering team, and take the lead to translate between the two to facilitate the achievement of a successful system. The systems engineer will also work throughout each stage of the given system or process, from design and development to validation and operation, onto quantitative risk assessment, often focusing on performance, testing, scheduling, and costs. Due to the broad nature of the work, a systems engineer may work in virtually any industry, from software development and robotics, to nanotechnology or civil engineering.

Because of the type of work involved, not surprisingly, those who hope to pursue a career as a systems engineer should be highly proficient in math and science-related topics. Additionally, many systems engineers will be in near constant communication with engineering teams, project managers, and other stakeholders in the project. Ultimately, aspiring systems engineers should have highly developed interpersonal skills.

Systems engineering can be a truly rewarding field. Read on to discover what it means to be in systems engineering, including the common everyday tasks, typical employers, specializations, and the work environment.

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Systems Engineer Job Overview

Generally, systems engineers are responsible for the development and maintenance of efficient systems and processes. The ultimate goal of a systems engineer is to eliminate inefficiencies in a specific process for the benefit of everyone involved, from those participating in the system to the eventual stakeholders who will reap the benefits. The following lists the scope of responsibilities in systems engineering:

  • Systems operations
  • Systems performance
  • Testing, analysis, and retesting
  • Manufacturing
  • Training and supporting
  • Scheduling
  • Cost analysis
  • Proper disposal of inefficiencies

While systems engineers may find work in almost any industry, in spite of the differences, the process outlined above represents the practice of systems engineering that these professionals utilize day-to-day.

Systems Engineering Specializations

In many institutions, systems engineering may be considered an extension of the industrial engineering program, which is also concerned with the development and optimization of existing systems to help avoid inefficiencies and waste. However, systems engineering is considered its own discipline with additional specializations within the field itself. Systems engineers who wish to focus on a specialization may be able to choose from the following options.

Biosystems Engineering

A biosystems engineer is often tasked with the design and facilitation of efficient systems as they relate to the natural environment. This could include responsibilities such as managing resource conservation practices, analyzing waste treatment systems, assisting in the development of food processing systems, and other related industry jobs.

Logistics Engineering

This field of engineering, at its most basic level, handles all actions related to the distribution of finished goods. Logistics engineers may design and implement new methods in all stages of the distribution process, from storage and transport, to eventual distribution of the goods to consumers. Ultimately, logistics engineers could potentially find work in any industry where goods are manufactured and sold to others.

Transportation Systems Engineering

Transportation systems engineers often share similar tasks with civil engineers. In addition, transportation systems engineers work on the design, development, and engineering maintenance of transportation systems in all stages. These engineers may be responsible for the development of traffic maintenance methods; the creation of evacuation planning processes during an emergency; or even an alert system notifying travelers of upcoming issues with transportation.

Software Systems Engineering

This field of engineering is concerned with the design and development of complex systems of software. A software systems engineer must take into consideration a multitude of factors during the course of their projects, including the real-world application of the software system, as well as the current restraints on the project; the type of the software; analysis methods to ensure the software system is functioning as intended; and, finally, a process to utilize developments in technology that continuously arise over time.

Product Development Systems Engineering

Rapid and constant changes in the world force businesses to consistently analyze and update their systems regarding product development in order to remain competitive in the marketplace. Herein lie the responsibilities of product development systems engineers who are tasked with facilitating systems meant to eliminate inefficiency and allow for the most productive method available to the specific business.

While the list above outlines the most popular specializations within systems engineering, it is important to note that this is only a sample of specialties that systems engineers can pursue.

Common Employers for Systems Engineers

Any business hoping to eliminate ineffective processes and develop efficient and functioning systems could benefit from the assistance of systems engineers. As an example, a systems engineer could likely find work with a multi-national business that is aiming to deliver products to consumers nationwide; a municipal agency that is aiming to develop a new transportation system throughout the city; or a local software company that needs to monitor and adjust a current program that is under development. In addition, local, state and federal government agencies may also employ systems engineers to spearhead an operation. Since systems engineers manage and coordinate the overall process of a system, there are vast and promising opportunities available to them.

Daily Tasks in Systems Engineering

The daily responsibilities of a systems engineer will depend on the industry, as well as the stage or cycle of a specific project. However, many system engineers will likely take on similar responsibilities throughout the course of their careers. Below is a list of general employment responsibilities systems engineers might encounter within various occupations:

Information Technology Systems Engineer

  • Manage, support, troubleshoot and optimize wireless technologies and network protocols
  • Deploy, manage, and support software ecosystem platforms
  • Manage and support desktop workstation environments
  • Manage and update customer documentation

Systems Engineer for Data Center Networking Organization

  • Understand current economic and technology trends as related to the business and information technology
  • Lead and articulate an organizational structure at a business level
  • Educate and provide guidance to original equipment manufacturers
  • Design outcome-based and integrated offerings within customer existing technology ecosystem

Software Systems Engineer

  • Develop operational scenarios for a program based on customer objectives
  • Lead the development of the functional, architectural, and detailed designs
  • Critically evaluate designs
  • Write and execute test plans and procedures
  • Investigate, troubleshoot, and assist in design solutions to complex engineering problems

As can be gleaned from the list above, systems engineers may encounter a wide array of responsibilities depending on the type of career they pursue.

Systems Engineer Work Environment

Just as the tasks of a systems engineer might be extremely varied, so too might the work environment, or even location. Systems engineers may work in an office setting within an engineering team; in a factory or other manufacturing plant, analyzing the current processes in use; in the great outdoors, working on the development of a water delivery system; or even on a transportation system. In sum, all major industries have systems which can be tweaked or optimized to deliver better results.

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Systems Engineering Professors to Know

Meet several top professors of systems engineering who teach at well-regarded universities, and who contribute both to the field of systems engineering and to the knowledge of students in their respective programs.