Systems engineering for a new era

This is Part VI, the concluding installment of a series of posts about the history of Vitech. Part I recounts the company’s beginnings, in 1992. Part II tells the story of an influential mentor. In Part III, Vitech helps a company weather the Y2K transition in the late 1990s. In Part IV, the company helps in the redesign of a classic infantry carrier vehicle. In Part V, Vitech contributes to thought leadership for the developing discipline of systems engineering through a university program, service to the International Council on Systems Engineering, and authorship of a defining text on model-based systems engineering.

Twenty-five years in any business is not without its ups and downs. In 2008, as the national economy suffered a downturn, business at Vitech contracted as well. Coincidentally, this was at the same time as the company was developing the model-based systems engineering software tool GENESYS. Dealing with business contraction and a development cycle that was taking longer than expected was stressful to all involved.

David Long, President of Vitech, has some advice for weathering such setbacks. “You have to be working in an area you love. It goes beyond passion.” For him, sticking with the business was not a choice. “Systems engineering is in my DNA,” he said.

By 2011, GENESYS was set to debut, and Vitech was ready with a few other changes as well. Vitech hosted a grand affair in the Washington, D.C. area to celebrate the simultaneous launch of GENESYS 1.0, CORE 8 (a landmark release in its own right), and the second edition of A Primer for Model-Based Systems Engineering.

Vitech’s efforts to evangelize about systems engineering have not been without challenges. Zane Scott, Vice President for Professional Services at Vitech, noted that this is partly because, “It’s an odd field. It didn’t evolve from a set of principles. It grew from an application. It’s as if people invented cardiology and then developed medicine from that, instead of the other way around.”

Because of this history, systems engineering picked up processes that are stamped with aerospace and defense practices and terminology. “Initially, that was all the systems engineering practice knew,” Scott said. “But systems engineering today is not constrained by any one area of application or any one type of system.” This change in landscape, Scott contends, means that the discipline of systems engineering has got to change as well.

Further, Scott says, we are at a time that demands creativity. While engineers may not commonly be thought of as creative types, Scott notes that “creativity is coming up with new ways to combine old elements. Albert Einstein called it combinatorial play.” Systems engineering provides the framework for thinking that enables just this kind of creative combining. In addition, Scott says, “You’ve got to be curious. There are no creative people who are not curious.”

Scott challenges audiences to think of additional realms where systems engineering can provide value. Transportation, healthcare, and energy, he suggests, are all industries that could benefit from systems thinking. Another example: “What about how U.S. Veteran’s Affairs delivers healthcare? We have a big bulge of demand coming,” Scott said. “We can’t take what we did for World War II vets, which was designed for them, and use it for our current veterans. Hospitals are rife with problems for systems engineers.”

But it’s not just a new way to think about process, according to Scott. “It’s a change in consciousness.”

Long concurs, and notes this about systems engineers: “We think broadly. Most classical engineers are trained to think deeply. To successfully deliver systems, you need both breadth and depth. It’s a rare mindset. It’s what makes systems engineering and Vitech’s journey a continuing pleasure and a continuing challenge.”

As the company moves into its next quarter century, Long is optimistic about its prospects and that of systems engineering more generally. “In many ways, systems engineering is just hitting its stride. We’re just beginning to see all the ways in which the practice brings value to our complex world. We are seeing the value of the systems perspective and the applicability to a diverse range of systems. And we are seeing systems engineering slowly mature from an art and practice to a true discipline.”

At Vitech, the team continues to think up new ways to expand the practice of systems engineering. “Making good systems engineering practice more accessible is what drives us every day as we advance our methodology and supporting software, and as we work with organizations to raise their systems engineering capability,” said Long. “We look forward to our next 25 years.”

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