What do Systems Engineers do?

So I’m still out in Tucson writing specifications for a pretty big integration job that’s coming up quickly. This is really not my forte’, I’m more of a design and programming sort of guy. What my days have consisted of for the last couple of weeks is talking to people from a variety of engineering disciplines about their current designs and plans for the future, writing requirements for all of these smaller machines and subsystems with the goal of creating a statement of work (SOW) that various vendors (including ourselves) can quote to. As these discussions proceed, a lot of ideas are tossed around and interesting solutions to problems are found. In general, when I’m talking to mechanical, controls or software people things move along pretty smoothly, but there seem to be a lot of middle level management people involved that somewhat complicate things.

Quite a few of the people I have been dealing with are known as Systems Engineers. So I asked one of them today what he usually does at this company, does he design, or manage projects or what? He said no, he usually spends a lot of time writing specifications and documents to make sure that those who are managing, designing or otherwise implementing are doing their jobs correctly. A lot of the mid level management people it turns out are Systems Engineers.

I am out here with a total of six people including myself to do nothing but gather all of this information and organize it into these specifications, requirements documents and SOWs. Much of the delay associated with completing our task has to do with getting information from the various Systems Engineers involved with different aspects of the project: security, safety, IT, production etc. So if we are talking to the designers and getting most of the technical information from the other engineers and designers, and we are writing all of the specifications and requirements, and Systems Engineers usually write specifications and other documents but obviously aren’t writing these requirements documents, what exactly do Systems Engineers do? They have certainly been sitting in on our discussions, but considering they have been involved in this project for at least the last couple of years and this fairly critical work hasn’t been done I have really been wondering what they typically do all day.

So far I am seeing a lot of similarities to the comic strip “Dilbert” in my recent activities. I am not sure if this is a symptom of larger companies or government-related work, but I am truly going to enjoy being back in a position where I can speak my mind again. Part of being in a larger company involves playing your role and not stepping on other’s toes, but as a technical person sometimes I’d really like to be able to apply technical solutions to business and organizational problems. The question is, will anyone listen?

And what the heck do Systems Engineers do?


Electrical Engineer and business owner from the Nashville, Tennessee area. I also play music, Chess and Go.

8 Comments on “What do Systems Engineers do?

  1. Wikipedia says that “Systems engineering is an interdisciplinary field of engineering that focuses on how complex engineering projects should be designed and managed over the life cycle of the project.”

    So basically, Systems Engineering is an approach, started in the 1950’s, to try to create a repeatable process for engineering systems, including the integration of all the sub-systems. There’s also a political side to it, too.

    Here are some good quotes from the book Engineering the F-4 Phantom II:
    “Then, as today, system engineering had more to do with institutional posturing than with actually engineering systems.” (p.56)
    “The course [in systems engineering] then placed these techniques in an idealized four-phase recipe–planning, analysis, optimization, and evaluation–for developing any technological system.” (p.57)
    “The program managers for the Atlas and Polaris ballistic missile systems, who first used program management and system engineering on a large scale, assumed, correctly, that heavily planned programs, once launched, were less prone to interference from outsiders.”
    “Much of the complexity of weapons in the 1960’s and 1970’s resulted from the belief that systems engineers could solve problems of integration on paper rather than through testing.” (p74)

    I’m a bit skeptical about approaches that try to reduce everything to a mechanized process. Yes, it’s important to plan (and an important part of what I do is write specifications, trying to make it clear what we want to do and to resolve important issues before we start work), but you have to remember that requirements are not carved in stone, requirement writers (system engineers?) are not omniscient, and that anticipating and handling change is a key challenge.

    • Love the quotes, they echo what I’ve thought during this process. There seems to be a lot of redundancy in this company’s procedures, and they are a military/government related manufacturer so your comment is right on. It filled in several blanks for me, thanks!

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    • There are some similarities though project managers typically concentrate on budget and schedule while systems engineers are more involved with specifications and compliance. I have certainly seen some overlap though.