5 Characteristics of a Great Systems Engineer

The other day, I found myself at an industry event surrounded by colleagues that I have worked with throughout my entire career. Some of these colleagues were former leads and managers that directly influenced my career path and were mentors to help shape my knowledge and understanding of systems engineering. While I was taking a short trip down memory lane, remembering the challenges that we faced, considering the wisdom they shared, and recollecting the lessons learned that they imparted, I realized that I have been fortunate to work with some of the best systems engineers in the industry. Through working with a select few great systems engineers, I observed that each of them possessed the following characteristics: [more]

1.A Good Communicator

Traditionally, within engineering disciplines, most professionals underestimate the importance of effective communication. However, I believe this is one of the most important characteristics of a great systems engineer. Systems engineers must be prolific speakers, effective writers, and active listeners, since communication is crucial to their success. They must communicate with the customer to understand needs and develop a mission for the system. They must then interpret the customer’s needs and set clear objectives with their team to ensure the vision can be transformed into an elegant solution, meeting the customer’s needs. They must also be able to persuade others to accept a point of view and often adopt an agenda that is ultimately in the best interest of the stakeholder, but often times, a more costly or seemingly unorthodox solution. A great systems engineer must do all of this in a way that establishes open and honest communication by adjusting their language, communication style, and communication channels accommodating for all stakeholders, with different project perspectives.

2.Adaptability and Embracing of Change

Alan Watts once said “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” Systems engineers understand that change is inevitable. The best systems engineers not only prepare themselves for change, but they embrace the change as well; they join the dance. There is no shortage of challenges and issues that will arise on any given systems engineering project, forcing the systems engineer to consider changes to the already proposed solution. This is especially true when dealing with complex systems with aggressive project lifecycles. Great systems engineers will embrace the challenge of the change and show their adaptability by thinking on their feet, assessing the problem, gauging the system impact, and discovering the best solution.  

3.Appreciates the Process, but Deviates when Needed

A great systems engineer knows how important processes are to enable rigor and manage complexity throughout the entire systems engineering lifecycle. They adhere and enforce process knowing that doing so is critical for imposing structure and controlling the development of the system. However, they also know that they shouldn’t follow a process for process sake. Processes are mandatory for good systems engineering, however at times, systems engineers find themselves a slave to the process instead of the process enabling good engineering. Understanding what processes are needed, knowing when to adhere to the process, and realizing when it is necessary to deviate from the process, is the sign of a great systems engineer.

4.Maintains a Systems Perspective

A great systems engineer is able to maintain a systems perspective throughout the entire lifecycle of the project. A systems perspective considers the role of the system and the environment in which it will operate, and how the whole of the system, to include its entire context, can be impacted by any change to the system elements. A great systems engineer is able to view the system vertically and horizontally, assessing how an issue or change impacts the system from end-to-end and manages the system from concept to operations. Keeping the systems perspective mitigates design issues that can cause rework and a potential reengineering of the system, ultimately resulting in catastrophic cost and schedule impacts.

5.Decisive

A great systems engineer is unafraid of stepping in and making difficult decisions. They understand the sense of urgency, but are still able to calmly make decisions in the face of uncertainty, even when challenged with seemingly impossible obstacles and constraints. When making decisions, a great systems engineer will hear all opinions, assess all options, and then determine the best solution to maintain the technical integrity of the system. When a decision is made, it will be made with confidence, authority, and will determine the next course of action for the project and possibly influence the entire system design.

Throughout the course of my career, I have had the opportunity to work with systems engineers with diverse backgrounds, technical competencies, and experiences. However, I have found that the great systems engineers all shared common characteristics. They were able to effectively communicate, be adaptable, appreciate the process while remaining agile, maintain a systems perspective, and be confidently decisive, even in an environment that oftentimes is uncertain and breeds chaos. These characteristics are what allow great systems engineers to produce elegant solutions, no matter the complexity of the system.

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