How I Explain to My Relatives What I Do as a Systems Engineer

I graduated from Temple University in 1987, and was married later that summer. So yes, I’m an old guy—before anyone feels the urge to point that out. Early in my career as a systems engineer, I worked in a highly classified environment. The facility rules didn’t allow people to bring anything into or take anything out of the facility.  When I got home, my bride would be extremely excited to see me and ask how my day was. To that question, the only answer I could give was, “Good.” I wasn’t being impudent, I just couldn’t discuss the details. Needless to say, after 30 years of marriage, we’ve gotten accustomed to not discussing my work day.

But I still need to be able to explain what I do. Every once in a while, my wife and I will be at a family party or social event and someone will ask what I do workwise, and I’ll say I’m a systems engineer. The very next question is, “Do you work on the railroad?” (See picture.) Or they may ask, “What’s a systems engineer?”

In the interest of helping my fellow systems engineers who may also have struggled to answer the question, here’s my list. You’re welcome to borrow anything you find interesting or useful to augment your daily Good response.

I’m a systems engineer;

  • I’m the guy/gal who figures out how a technical project will work. (Objectives)
  • I work with everyone involved on a complex engineering project to understand what the project has to do, how well it will do things, and who will do what. (Requirements Definition)
  • I work with business people, sales/marketing and program managers to create the architecture for a project.
  • I find ways of making really hard concepts seem easy or at least understandable by other engineers.
  • I investigate to see if I can use something someone else has already built; I look to see if something can be modified, or if a new design is required. (Analysis)
  • I think about what might go wrong with a design, what can be done to avoid a problem, and how much it might cost if a bad thing happens. (Risk)

And that’s before a project even begins.

I’m a systems engineer; when a project/program is underway,

  • I’m the primary communicator. I talk to everyone concerned. I speak to business people, engineering managers, program managers, customers, other engineers, and non-engineers, and keep the project focused and on track.
  • I communicate very technical concepts and translate engineer-ese into terms people can easily understand; I let them know why it’s important.
  • I find gaps in designs so that project managers can avoid a situation where the project needs change after it has been built, when it’s expensive to fix.
  • I analyze what a system has to do (functional analysis), how well it has to do it (performance analysis), and under what conditions (constraint analysis of all of the parts of the system and of the final assembled system) it must operate.
  • I finalize what “things” are going to be part of the system in terms of hardware pieces and software applications. (Architectural analysis)
  • I explain that:
    – There are often many ways a project could be designed, and that
    – I’m responsible to find the best way to design it.

I also have responsibility for the design actually working the way we said it would. (Testing)

  • I lay out the way we’ll prove our systems work.
  • I create the test plan.
  • I determine what the testing phases are.
  • I determine what gets tested by whom, on what, where, and how.

When a project/program design is in production, or is being used: (Life-cycle support)

  • I’m the person who answers questions when problems arise; I’m the one who explains how things are supposed to work.
  • I’m the person who knows and can find what engineering was done, by whom, and why it was done in a specific way.
  • I’m the person who figures out how to fix a problem when a broken part isn’t being manufactured any longer.
  • And I’m the person who supports the retirement of equipment after its usefulness has passed.

That’s a mouthful! My wife never imagined I did so much. She thought I drove a choo-choo train but didn’t want to admit it. (Just kidding. My wife is actually the smarter one between the two of us.)

So as a brief summary: What do I do as a systems engineer?

I’m a thought leader, a problem solver, a communicator, a planner, an analyst, and a prover. I’m the glue that binds projects and programs together. I’m the guy you ask how something works or how it’s supposed to work, and how to fix what’s broken. I’m a systems engineer.

Good luck, and happy engineering!


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