What Does a Systems Engineer Do?

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Systems engineers play an integral role in the success of businesses in many industries.

In short, systems engineers lay the foundation or blueprint for systems to begin the 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 (the 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 can produce efficient and effective results by applying an interdisciplinary approach to ensure technical needs are translated into step-by-step processes. For example, 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. As a result, systems engineering overlaps into several engineering fields, which is projected to grow 6 percent from 2020 to 2030, about as fast as the national average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). For example, in May 2020, the median annual wage for architects and engineers was $83,160, and the BLS predicts that 146,000 new engineering jobs will be in demand for the same decade.

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 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 gratifying 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 developing and maintaining efficient systems and processes. The ultimate goal of a systems engineer is to eliminate inefficiencies in a specific method 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 sequential 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, despite 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 developing and optimizing existing systems to help avoid inefficiencies and waste. However, systems engineering is considered its 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 designing and facilitating 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 developing food processing systems, and other related industry jobs.

The University of Minnesota’s Department of Bioproducts and Bioengineering Systems offers online courses to current and non-enrolled students. Current students can take these courses online and earn liberal education credits that count toward their undergraduate degree programs. Topics include renewable energy, renewable resources, materials, food sustainability, water sustainability, and recycling.

  • Location: Minneapolis, MN
  • Duration: One or more semesters
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Tuition: $520.50 per credit (in-state); $1,235.50 per credit (out-of-state)

For more information about systems engineering, a field related to biosystems engineering, please see our online master’s degree programs in systems engineering.

Logistics & Industrial Engineering

At its most basic level, this industrial engineering field 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.

University of Southern Mississippi offers an online bachelor of science in industrial engineering technology (logistics). This 120-credit program prepares graduates for work in logistics, supply chain management, distribution, transportation, operations management, and other similar engineering specializations. Students must complete an undergraduate admissions application, pay a $45 fee, submit official transcripts, SAT or ACT scores, and prove measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) immunization documentation.

  • Location: Hattiesburg, MS
  • Duration: Two to four years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET)
  • Tuition: $383.59 per credit

Please visit our online industrial engineering master’s degree programs page for more information about industrial engineering.

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. For example, these engineers may be responsible for developing traffic maintenance methods, creating evacuation planning processes during an emergency; or even an alert system notifying travelers of upcoming issues with transportation.

The University of Louisville features an online graduate certificate in transportation engineering. Designed for engineering professionals with bachelor’s degrees in civil engineering, this 12-credit program teaches advanced technical knowledge related to highway design, traffic engineering, and transportation systems.

Credits earned in this program can be transferred to a master’s degree program or used as career enhancement and possibly a tool to negotiate higher salaries. Students take three core courses in geometric highway design, traffic engineering, and fundamentals of intelligent transportation systems. Elective courses include transportation planning and urban development, airport planning and design, and pavement design.

  • Location: Louisville, KY
  • Duration: Less than one year
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Tuition: $752 per credit; $250 per credit (active duty members)

To learn more about degree programs in transportation engineering, please visit our online civil engineering degree programs page.

Software Systems Engineering

This field of engineering is concerned with the design and development of complex software systems. A software systems engineer must take into consideration a multitude of factors during 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.

Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering ranks #3 on the U.S. News & World Report’s list of best online industrial and system engineering schools. It offers multiple degrees in software systems engineering. Students can decide to earn a master’s degree, a graduate certificate, or a post-master’s certificate entirely online or via hybrid learning (a combination of on-campus and online).

In this program, students learn and apply technical knowledge in mathematics, science, and engineering to evaluate complex systems on a macro and micro level. In addition, software systems is one of five specialization areas that enables graduates to focus on systems efficiencies with databases and other software-based systems.

  • Location: Baltimore, MD
  • Duration: One to two years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET)
  • Tuition: $47,440 per year

Please visit our online information technology (IT) programs page for more information on online software engineering.

Product Development Systems Engineering

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

University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering offers a fully online and on-campus master of science in product development engineering. This program can be completed part- or full-time and integrates art, management, and engineering disciplines. Students in this program learn innovation related to modern theories and practical experiences.

Graduates go on to find work in industries such as aerospace and defense, automotive, manufacturing, robotics, and refrigeration systems. This is a joint degree program offered by the aerospace and mechanical engineering and the Daniel J. Epstein industrial and systems engineering departments.

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA
  • Duration: 1.5 to three years
  • Accreditation: Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
  • Tuition: $2,199 per unit

Please see our online materials engineering degree programs page to learn more about product development degree programs.

While the list above outlines the most popular specializations within systems engineering, it is essential 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 multinational business that is aiming to deliver products to consumers nationwide; a municipal agency that is seeking 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.

The BLS lists the following industries as the top five employers of civil engineers (BLS 2021):

  • Engineering services: 50 percent
  • State government (excluding education and hospitals): 12 percent
  • Local government (excluding education and hospitals): 10 percent
  • Nonresidential building construction: 6 percent
  • Federal government: 3 percent

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 and the stage or cycle of a specific project. However, many system engineers will likely take on similar responsibilities throughout 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 guide 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 highly varied, so too might the work environment or even location. Systems engineers may work in:

  • Office setting within an engineering team
  • Factories or other manufacturing plants, analyzing the current processes in use
  • 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 that can be tweaked or optimized to deliver better results by a systems engineer.

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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.