Engineering + Science + Art + Process = “Systems Engineering”

Nancy Anderson
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Pardon Me? That all sounds like the field of project management, how does a job like that get the name of “Engineering” attached to it?

Technically, every engineering discipline includes the principles of quality project management. Whether we are designing an entire functional product or we are engaged in a piece of the puzzle, we are always designing what needs to appear first, then second, then third. Now imagine engineers who take this ordered approach to the level of a NASA space program or the launch of a world-wide software release. They need to “Engineer” an entire system around the mountain of tasks needed to “get things done”. And it’s not a new concept; it’s just become more specialized than ever.

The International Council on Systems Engineering or INCOSE handbook from 2004 gives a short and sweet definition of the field as "An interdisciplinary approach and means to enable the realization of successful systems".

NASA Systems Engineering Handbook from 1995 extends that to say "System engineering is a robust approach to the design, creation, and operation of systems. In simple terms, the approach consists of identification and quantification of system goals, creation of alternative system design concepts, performance of design trades, selection and implementation of the best design, verification that the design is properly built and integrated, and post-implementation assessment of how well the system meets the goals."

Actually my favorite definition of all the ones I found was written way back in 1957 by Harry H. Goode & Robert E. Machol. “The method is that of the team approach. On large-scale-system problems, teams of scientists and engineers, generalists as well as specialists, exert their joint efforts to find a solution and physically realize it” To my taste that sums it up quite nicely.

However under today’s specialized process-dissecting the term "System Engineer" has evolved to embrace a wider concept of "systems" and of engineering processes. This new definition has been the subject of ongoing controversy and the term continues to be applied both an approach and, more recently, a discipline in engineering. System development requires contribution from diverse technical disciplines.

By providing a systems view of the development effort, systems engineering helps mold all the technical contributors into a unified team effort, forming a structured development process that proceeds from concept to production to operation and, in some cases, to termination and disposal. Thought all that “cradle to grave” focus was just a new “green” thing, didn’t you?

This perspective is offered in well planned systems engineering educational programs where courses are taught by faculty from other engineering departments. This helps create an interdisciplinary environment or viewpoint. The aim of education in this field is to simply formalize the approach and in doing so, identify new methods and research similar to the way it occurs in other fields of engineering.

So where do you go to learn this special way of thinking? I just Googled “Systems Engineering Degree” and found 57,200,000 hits. Take some time and research your path. The courses are out there!

You can do this!

By K.B. Elliott

K. B. Elliott is a freelance writer for Working many related positions in the Detroit area for over 30 years gives him a unique perspective on the process. To read more of his blogs, please go to, and be sure to check out the postings for jobs in nearly any industry at Nexxt


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