Sunday, December 13, 2009

Systems Engineering

The New Hampshire Business Review is reporting that the University of New Hampshire will begin offering a certificate in Software Systems Engineering. From the article:

“Engineers who are successful at this ‘big picture’ work are rare, yet the demand for these skills is high...”

I think this is exactly correct, and not just in software design. Systems Engineering is one of the few academic disciplines, and the only engineering discipline, that is moving toward greater generalism. The increasing depth of technological knowledge has driven specialization at an increasing rate, and at a heavy cost to technical breadth. Additionally, the increasing specialization has tended to drive natural-born generalists from the ranks of those who pursue engineering degrees. The result is a serious lack of interdisciplinary competence and large world view that is essential to the complex engineering projects that are driving civilization's next big developments. Think of the projects to re-engineer energy production, to redesign cities and transportation at a conceptual level, and even to engineer society and government for the improved welfare of all citizens (we desperately need Economists to start thinking of themselves as Engineers - specifically Systems Engineers - and not as Scientists). 

The emergence of Systems Engineering is a direct and deliberate response to all of these trends. It got its start in the space program, but it has applications far beyond.

Addendum: The University of Illionis is offering a new Master of Science in Finacial Engineering degree through their Systems Engineering department. It's fascinating to me to see a university marrying its Business and Engineering departments in this way.


  1. Robert, I can't do this post justice. I just don't have the time. But I want to say that I am completely on board and I appreciate your recognition of this need. I find the lack of the combination of big-picture thinking with detail-orientation absolutely everywhere I go. I hear consistently that it's that "our brains are wired" to be one way or the other, but I'm unconvinced. It's great to see that programs are making an effort to train people to broaden their perspectives.

    Now, add good communication and other "soft" skills to the requirements, and you're looking at a really small set of folks.

  2. Bob,

    Good point about soft skills.

    On a purely personal note, I often feel alienated from most other people, maybe particularly from other engineers, because most people don't seem to have wide interests. Most people seem to take the approach that they like and identify with a small set of things, and find everything else to be boring.

    Do you observe anything similar to that? That viewpoint kind of drives me nuts because, to me, everything seems so connected that I don't see how it's possible to be interested in THIS particular thing, but not in this other thing that's really similar to it. Opinion?

  3. This resonates strongly with me. Not that I don't fall into the same trap of picking some interests that I "identify with", but I am continually astounded by how narrow some people's interests are, and how some people will go out of there way to be uninteresting, which to them means being "normal".

  4. Justin,

    So you consider it to be (in some cases) a deliberate thing? I grew up outside of Sacramento, and there was definitely an anti-intellectualism in the culture there (I hated it) that I think provoked some people to consciously turn away from diverse interests. I'm dismayed to think that happens other places too.

    I guess the desire to fit in can be powerful...

  5. I used to see a lot more of the narrow focus than I do now. I think the change has to do with a couple of things: 1) Getting out of a pretty narrowly focused industry so that now I interact with people from multiple disciplines, and 2) Living in a place that's generally pretty eclectic. I know folks who are interested in kayaking, gardening, baking bread, making clothing, sculpture, music, philosophy, medicine, you name it; and in various combinations. It's always exciting when they'll bring something "weird" into a work-related problem-solving discussion.

    I guess part of it comes down to what you want/need from your workplace. Creativity and connecting the dots isn't always part of the picture for a lot of folks. In those cases, all I ask is that they stay out of the way of the ones who want to do something innovative.

    But yeah, it's disappointing.

  6. I do think in many cases it is a deliberate thing. My theory is, exactly as you said, that it comes down to the "need" to fit in.

  7. I should add that, by this theory, I am optimistic about human nature in that I do not think people are inherently uninteresting -- I think most people are incredibly interesting if you can dig through their protective barriers.

  8. Justin,

    I am completely with you on optimism about human nature. That's why it's so frustrating! I want to connect on a more fundamental level.