Looking forward while remembering the past

Above: David Long, then director of product development, tends to matters at the Vitech booth at the National Council of Systems Engineering in St. Louis in 1995.

This is Part I in an occasional series on the history of Vitech Corporation. Part II recounts the contributions of an influential figure to Vitech and to systems engineering itself.

As a new year opens, Vitech Corporation anticipates celebrating a significant milestone: 25 years in business. It’s been a quarter century of growth that has paralleled the growth of systems engineering itself.

But it was a venture that almost didn’t happen. David Long, president of Vitech, founded the company in 1992. The undertaking which began as an undergraduate project has grown to become an enterprise with a product used by thousands across the globe. It all started rather by accident.

Long was a science-minded undergrad at Virginia Tech in the early 1990s, following in the footsteps of his father, a systems engineer, and majoring in engineering science and mechanics. “My father taught me to see the world through a systems lens. I knew I wanted to be a systems engineer, and engineering science and mechanics provided a solid foundation,” Long said.

In 1991, the lanky youth had, for a senior project, written software to support the design process for modeling and designing complex systems. This computer-aided system design tool was focused on the fundamentals required to capture requirements, model functions, capture physical architectures, and link the three concepts together. “Systems engineering was my field of interest. Programming was my hobby. Combining the two made for an interesting capstone design project,” Long reflected.

For a person of his interests and aptitudes, Long happened to be in the right place at the right time. Systems engineering—a field that had begun in the 1950s and 60s—while no longer in its infancy, was still an emerging discipline. And two of the biggest names in the field—Benjamin Blanchard and Wolter Fabrycky—were professors at Virginia Tech. The authors of Systems Engineering and Analysis, a book that has been called “the definitive text on systems engineering,” they had built one of the premier graduate systems engineering programs of the day. And they had a design lab focused not only on research but also on developing supporting processes, methods, and software in order to provide their students hands-on experience with tools they would encounter in the business world.

Long noted that the lab was an unusual place for the time in other ways as well. Approximately 90 percent of the students were actually practicing engineers pursuing a master’s degree in the evening. They were scattered at remote sites around the state with classes taught by TV broadcast from the Blacksburg campus. “As an undergrad, I had the opportunity to take these graduate courses because of the systems background my father had infused in me and internships I had held,” Long said. “Not only did I have the opportunity to learn from two industry pioneers, but I also partnered with Dinesh Verma (now dean of the School of Systems and Enterprises at Stevens Institute, who was then a Ph.D. student in Industrial Engineering) on the course design project. That chance collaboration began a lifelong friendship and has fostered a number of interesting systems collaborations that have continued through the years.”

While Blanchard and Fabrycky’s lab had specialty academic tools to support the “ilities” key to systems engineering analysis (reliability, maintainability, availability, etc.), they did not have an architecture tool—a way to visually conceive of a multi-faceted construct with many independent parts. An architecture tool would support the full systems engineering design process – from requirements through functional analysis to physical architecture and implementation – complementing the other engineering tools in the lab. Long thought he could build one.

He began the project his senior year, thinking of it as a tool for academic use. Then, as a master’s student, he refined it. “I was on a path to a Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering with a focus on systems, and never intended to start a company,” Long recalled.

But there was another company at the time with a tool that purported to fill the need for a systems engineering software solution. “It was Requirements Driven Design (RDD-100),” Long said. “It was a big, expensive tool that cost $50,000 a seat. It ran on Sun or HP Unix workstations.”

With RDD-100, Ascent Logic Corporation built on the pioneering work that Long’s father, Jim Long, led at TRW (now part of Northrop Grumman). In the late 60s and early 70s, working on ballistic missile defense, Jim developed a methodology and supporting government toolset for developing large systems with significant embedded software content. It embodied the concepts that today are called “model-based systems engineering.”

The U.S. Army funded continued research and development in this area, resulting in Software Requirements Engineering Methodology (SREM), Systems Engineering Requirements Engineering Methodology (SYSREM), and Distributed Computing Design Software (DCDS). Ascent Logic built upon this foundation to create RDD-100, the first commercial integrated system design environment of its kind. “It was applied to countless complex systems challenges and was incredibly powerful—including some capabilities that have yet to be replicated in modern systems engineering tools—when used by an expert. However, it was ‘expert friendly’—a euphemism for user-hostile,” Long recalled, “and inaccessible for most systems engineers.”

Long had a lighter-weight tool for desktop PCs, and he thought it would be a nice part of Ascent Logic’s product line. His program was a model-based systems engineering software tool that integrated all the key components of building a system: people, processes, data, and documentation. Although the program didn’t have a name at the time, throughout development the base capability was referred to as the “core.” The name stuck, and in 1993, the program officially became known as CORE.

“I offered Ascent Logic the chance to license the product and distribute it in parallel with RDD-100 to create a more powerful and accessible tool suite,” Long recalled. “Instead, they wanted to buy all rights for a very small sum and offered me a job as a programmer.” Long had another idea. He decided to form his own company.

It was the summer of 1992. In a few months, the fledgling company made its first sale, a DOD contract.

At that time in the mid-1990s, the systems engineering community was still a small, interconnected world. “You knew who was doing systems engineering. You understood their problems,” Long said. The U.S. professional association of systems engineers, which has since evolved to become the International Council on Systems Engineering, or INCOSE, had just been founded in 1990. At the time, systems engineering (under that name) was almost exclusively practiced in aerospace and defense. It wouldn’t be until later that it was adopted by automotive and other industries.

Now, toward the end of the second decade of the 21st century, Vitech is still working to extend and advance the practice of systems engineering. We continue the work to make good systems engineering practice more accessible – a journey which continues to grow in importance as systems engineering becomes ever-more critical to successfully address the complexity of today’s world. It is a challenge that drives us every day as we advance our methodology and supporting software and as we work with organizations to raise their systems engineering capability. We are looking forward to our next 25 years.

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