4 Steps to Start Your Journey as a Systems Engineer

Note: We are republishing this blog post from our archives. We believe it is appropriate for today, as companies and organizations look for systems engineers to help them achieve digital transformation. Becoming a systems engineer is a journey. There may be no straightforward path, but there are things we can do along the way to help make the journey easier.

As I took the first steps in my systems engineering career 28 years ago, there was only one recognized path towards systems engineering: earn a degree in engineering, physics, or possibly math; work in your discipline for 10+ years to build a depth of knowledge and experience; then transfer onto a systems engineering team as dictated by corporate needs and personal interests. If you were lucky, you had the chance to attend a brief commercial training course or maybe even pursue a Master’s Degree at one of a handful of universities. You worked side-by-side with systems engineers of varying expertise, and your systems journey had begun.

Today’s world is much different. The traditional path of “experienced engineering practitioner evolving into systems engineering” still exists, but there are other paths as well—direct entry to the field with a Master’s or even a Bachelor’s degree; backgrounds far beyond the traditional foundations of engineering, physics, and mathematics to include software, social sciences, and business. Better yet, there are countless resources of all types available to serve the novice and the expert.

To begin your systems journey—whether simply to explore the field, complement your domain experience with a systems perspective, or make the leap into systems engineering—there are four steps that will start you down the path.

Step 1: Read
Sometimes that first step is a tentative one, when you are unsure of whether you will continue forward or quickly step back. Other times, that first step is decisive, backed by the knowledge that this is the path you wish to pursue. Either way, simply picking up a book and reading it on your schedule is a great first step. This helps establish the vocabulary, frame the systems perspective, and build the foundation for any steps to follow.

There are books of all shapes and sizes with which to start. Vitech’s Primer for Model-Based Systems Engineering is accessible regardless of your technical background, freely available, and provides a good overview of systems, systems engineering, and today’s model-based techniques. IBM’s Systems Engineering for Dummies is a lightweight piece written in the classic Dummies style. If you are looking for something with more weight, consider two textbooks widely used in academic courses: Systems Engineering and Analysis by Ben Blanchard and Wolter Fabrycky, and The Engineering Design of Systems: Models and Methods by Dennis Buede.

Step 2: Join
After taking that first step and deciding you want to take a second, there is no better choice than joining the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE). INCOSE is the world’s leading professional body for systems engineering. It serves to connect systems practitioners around the world; create, advance, and broker information on systems approaches; and champion the systems perspective, the unique value of systems engineering, and those who apply it.

For someone beginning their journey, the products and publications alone are worth far more than the price of admission. Members have free access to key products and guides such as the INCOSE Systems Engineering Handbook and the Guide for Writing Requirements. Members receive INSIGHT (a quarterly newsletter and practitioner magazine) and Systems Engineering (a refereed scholarly journal published quarterly) plus access to the entire history of symposium proceedings with a wealth of papers to draw upon. In addition, INCOSE has multiple monthly webinar series including a free training program on the INCOSE Systems Engineering Handbook which serves as a wonderful introduction to the body of knowledge. Best of all, joining INCOSE provides the opportunity to connect with other practitioners around the world, practitioners from multiple domains and of differing experience levels who regularly contribute to working groups and eagerly share their knowledge via discussion threads and more.

Step 3: Study
With foundational knowledge in hand and access to INCOSE’s breadth of resources, now it’s time to study in earnest. Today’s world offers a wealth of academic and commercial courses to meet your needs.

A quick review of INCOSE’s recent communications highlights systems programs at leading institutions such as Stevens Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, and WPI. These universities offer traditional graduate courses of study leading to degrees as well as certificate programs in systems engineering. Some courses are offered in traditional classroom environments, but many are available online to serve students around the world.

If you are looking for a shorter course and don’t want the academic flavor, simply search “systems engineering training.” You will find courses from experienced organizations such as Project Performance International, Applied Technology Institute, Strategy Bridge, Sysnovation, and SE Scholar.

Today you can also find open courseware from organizations such as MIT. Or, check out the massively open online course (MOOC) at UNSW—Introduction to Systems Engineering.

Step 4: Identify
With the first three steps complete, you are ready to put your new knowledge to use. What you will quickly learn is that systems engineering remains as much of an art as it is a science. Knowing what to do is easy. Doing it well is hard. So to begin the practice phase of your journey, identify a good mentor. A mentor (or a series of mentors as I have been lucky to have) will be key throughout your systems journey.

Systems engineering is a contact sport, a practical practice in which you learn and grow through experience—and often mistakes. You can make those mistakes yourself with all the expense that comes with them, or you can leverage the experience base and wisdom of a good mentor. You will still make mistakes, but far fewer and hopefully ones which are far less painful.

Where do you find a good mentor? If your organization has a systems engineering group or if there are systems practitioners on your project, look there for experience. As you start your journey, having a mentor nearby who understands your project is priceless. If you are the only systems practitioner on your team or in your organization, look back to the senior practitioners you met as part of your studies or reach out within INCOSE. Both environments are rich with seasoned individuals looking to share their experiences across domains and across generations.

Whether you are one of the few who choose systems engineering as your career path or one of the many for whom systems is an aspect of what you do, this journey is one of lifelong learning and practice. These four simple steps won’t move you to the expert stage of your career, but taken one step after another, they will ensure that you begin on the right track.

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