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The term Systems Engineer has always interested me as it generally involves many different fields of engineering.

Systems Engineer - Interdisciplinary

The definition I'm familiar with is usually defined as an interdisciplinary profession of engineering, where the engineer has experience in a number of fields and uses this during the design of a system.

Systems Engineer - IT related

After searching for jobs here in Australia, I've found many systems engineer positions. However almost all of them are relating to IT jobs, referring to the programming of computer systems at the system level.

Question

  1. Why is there a conflict of these two definitions?
  2. Which one was first?
  3. And is Systems Engineer no longer valid in the interdisciplinary sense?

Notes

Please forgive any mistakes and assumptions I have made, I'm new and ready to learn.

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  • $\begingroup$ Your question would be stronger if you were able to provide specific quotes or instances showing the conflicting usage of terminology. That said, I think your question is okay without it. $\endgroup$ – user16 May 13 '15 at 0:07
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks I will remember to include specific examples next time, to strengthen my question. $\endgroup$ – Ben Winding May 13 '15 at 1:31
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    $\begingroup$ I had "Systems Engineer" as my job title for years, as an Australian working for an American multinational, and it seemed to mean "analyst". I was aware that no two companies seemed to define it the same way. $\endgroup$ – Oddthinking May 13 '15 at 3:51
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Yes, you are correct that there are different definitions of Systems Engineer that vary by company. In fact, different business units of the same company may even use the term differently.

  • A job posting on Stack Overflow Careers from Booking.com has a Senior Systems Engineer - Systems Architecture role. This role has responsibilities such as taking "ownership of IT objectives set from business priorities and strategic IT development areas", providing "technical leadership for end-to-end development and implementation", "research, test, and implement prototype systems", "conduct hand-over to operational technical teams for further development and systems integration", and "design and architect E-commerce and business support systems".
  • A job posting on Stack Overflow Careers from Sauce Labs Inc has a Senior Systems Engineer, Operations role with responsibilities that include maintaining "a close working relationship with the other engineering teams", "systems administration, engineering, and design", "working with real hardware" (and an enumeration of networking and data storage hardware), "proactive R&D", creating "NOC runbooks, procedures, documentation, and diagrams of the environments you manage", and even helping "build out new data centers around the globe".
  • Liberty Mutual, an insurance company, has a job posting for a Principle Software/Systems Engineer role that is "responsible for dealing with the overall performance" of one of their systems, functions "as a technical lead in program design, coding, testing, debugging, and documentation related to automation capabilities", is "directly responsible for projects or sub-projects" and "may lead projects", and is "responsible for quality assurance review and the evaluation of new and existing software products".
  • UTC Aerospace Systems has a job posting for a Systems Engineer with responsibilities including the development of equipment installation layouts, interface control documents, aircraft electrical system schematics, and serving "as a technical customer liaison engineer for the design engineering staff".
  • UTC Building & Industrial Systems has a posting for a Senior Systems Engineer that is more IT-oriented, providing administration, maintaining IT policies, ensuring disaster recovery processes are "efficient and operational", and participating in on-call rotation for support.
  • Boeing Systems Engineers apply "an interdisciplinary, collaborative approach to plan, design, develop and verify a lifecycle balanced system of systems and system solutions", perform requirements development, ensure interfaces, perform analysis "to optimize system architecture" and for "ffordability, safety, reliability, maintainability, testability, human systems integration, survivability, vulnerability, susceptibility, system security, regulatory, certification, product assurance and other specialties quality factors ".

As for why there is conflict, you'd probably have to ask an HR representative or hiring manager at these companies. I do notice a trend, though. At companies that create a product that is intensive in both hardware and software, the role of a systems engineer is an interdisciplinary engineer and has involvement across the engineering product development process. However, at companies that are software-intensive or provide a service, the term tends to be used more for network engineering or system administration roles, but it does appear that there is a multidisciplinary approach between some combination of software engineering, network engineering, system administration, database administration, or project management. In both cases, knowledge stretching across two or more domains or fields is common, but those fields may not be typically thought of as engineering fields. I can't say that this is a guarantee, but in about 10-15 minutes of searching, that's what I've noticed.

Your first definition tends to be the one I associate with the title of Systems Engineer. In fact, there is a Guide to the Systems Engineering Body of Knowledge that says that systems engineering " is an interdisciplinary approach and means to enable the full life cycle of successful systems, including problem formulation, solution development and operational sustainment and use". They have a page that provides a deeper definition and short discussion, as well.

As far as which one comes first, I think it's also your interdisciplinary definition. At least, according to Wikipedia, the term "systems engineering" dates to the 1940s. In fact, the whole page on Wikipedia appears to generally align with the SEBOK definition and your definition.

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  • $\begingroup$ when the job posting are removed you links will no longer be valid. Is their a way to address this in your post? $\endgroup$ – Mahendra Gunawardena May 13 '15 at 1:08
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    $\begingroup$ @MahendraGunawardena - You raise a good point, but I think the relevant portions from each posting have been captured in each description. The posting itself isn't important, rather the terminology used. 6 examples amply demonstrates a varied usage of the "Systems Engineering" term. $\endgroup$ – user16 May 13 '15 at 1:10
  • $\begingroup$ It seems there are similarities between all the job postings. However it appears software relating job listings, focuses more on specific IT related skills, rather than multiple engineering disciplines. Thanks for the response Thomas. $\endgroup$ – Ben Winding May 13 '15 at 1:40
  • $\begingroup$ @TylerDurden I was thinking that, yes. There's usually some level of multidisciplinary knowledge - it could be multiple engineering disciplines or maybe it's database administration and software engineering or something else. $\endgroup$ – Thomas Owens May 13 '15 at 1:41
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I don't believe there is any conflict but variation in how Human Resource choose to define system engineer positions within specific organizations.

It is my opinion that System Engineer has a broad definition mostly related to the specific industry. In my experience system engineer is an interdisciplinary professional of engineering as describe in your question. Depending on the industry the interdisciplinary knowledge will widely vary. But in almost all case apart from engineering skills a system engineering is expected to have some knowledge in project management and other business related functions. In my experience systems engineers in all cases work closely with customers, vendor and is the glue between other engineering disciplines. A solid understanding of product life cycle management is essential for a System Engineer. Following are few examples:

System Engineer – Healthcare industry - Medical Devices

System Engineer was expected have some knowledge of biomedical, software, electrical, and mechanical engineering. More importantly the systems engineer was expected to have deep understanding of regulatory requirements, project management (Scope, Cost and Schedule Management), quality systems and medical device manufacturing system. The system engineer was the primary contact with the customer and vendors on technical issues.

System Engineer – Automotive industry

System engineer was expected have some knowledge in electrical, mechanical and embedded software engineering. In this industry the system engineer was expected to have deep understanding of project management (Scope, Cost and Schedule Management), federal regulatory requirements, quality systems, test system and manufacturing system. System engineer oversaw all engineering change request (ECN), project design reviews and was the primary contact for both customer and vendors on technical issues.

System Engineer – IT

Based on my limited knowledge in this field I believe the system engineer - Information Technology might be required to have some knowledge in computer hardware (networking, peripherals, etc ), computer software (operating systems, programming languages, etc), and some level project management (Scope, Cost and Schedule Management). It is most likely that the system engineer is the primary contact to the customer and vendors on technical issues.

Finally system engineers in other industries might have similar interdisciplinary responsibilities some of which @Thomas Owens has captured in his response.

References:

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  • $\begingroup$ It appears that; project management, a broad knowledge and client relations, are common qualities in all these descriptions of a System Engineer. Interesting, thank you for your response. $\endgroup$ – Ben Winding May 13 '15 at 1:31
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Systems Engineering pre-dates IT.

The classical Systems Engineering has roots in aerospace industry (for better, or for worse). Projects were were getting multidisciplinary, and complex, and required multiple contractors to complete. So appeared a need for a kind of engineer to keep track of various aspects (such as weight, for example) on a relatively high level.

Related:

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting that it originated from the Aerospace industry. So Systems Engineering is high level management kind of like project management, but not as restricted. As still involved in design decisions which require interdisciplinary knowledge. $\endgroup$ – Ben Winding May 13 '15 at 1:58
  • $\begingroup$ Systems Engineering shares some responsibilities with program management: planning, risk analysis. But it's not correct to say that Systems Engineering is kind of like project management. That's a common misconception. Systems Engineers don't manage resources and schedule. $\endgroup$ – Nick Alexeev May 13 '15 at 2:23
  • $\begingroup$ I think you're correct that the term pre-dates the IT usage, and attributing it to the aerospace industry sounds plausible, but I don't see a specific citation for either claim in your related links. Is there a more relevant URL or a specific page number? $\endgroup$ – Air May 13 '15 at 20:14
  • $\begingroup$ According to Wikipedia, the term "systems engineering" originated from Bell Labs, not the aerospace industry. $\endgroup$ – Thomas Owens May 13 '15 at 20:36
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The unfortunate thing about the words engineering and engineer is that there are no universal uniform abiding standards for when they should be used and to whom they should apply. Many professional engineering bodies would like the term engineer to be reserved for people who have university qualifications in engineering. It is partly why in some parts of the world professional (university qualified) engineers need to sit and pass registration examinations for their field of engineering before they can work as engineers.

The word engineer derives from the Medieval Latin ingeniare 'contrive, devise'. The Oxford English Dictionary has the following definitions for Engineer:

A person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines, or structures.

A person qualified in a branch of engineering, especially as a professional: an aeronautical engineer

A person who controls an engine, especially on an aircraft or ship.

North American - A train driver.

A skilful contriver or originator of something: the prime engineer of the approach

So in addition to train drivers who call themselves engineers there are also automotive mechanics (people who repair and service cars and trucks) who do likewise and sound recording specialists who are called sound engineers.

So the fact that there are two different job roles that use the title Systems Engineer does occur, you just have to be more careful of what is required when you see such jobs advertised.

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sys·tem /ˈsistəm/

noun: a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole, in particular.

a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network.

plural noun: systems "the state railroad system"

synonyms: structure, organization, arrangement, complex, network;

informal: setup "a system of canals"

en·gi·neer /ˌenjəˈnir/

noun: engineer; plural noun: engineers

  1. a person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines, or public works.

synonyms: originator, deviser, designer, architect, inventor, developer, creator; mastermind

"the prime engineer of the approach"

verb: engineer; 3rd person present: engineers; past tense: engineered; past participle: engineered; gerund or present participle: engineering

  1. design and build (a machine or structure).

"the men who engineered the tunnel"

Thus, a Systems Engineer is a person who designs, builds, or maintains a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole. Doesn't matter if that complex whole is a rocket ship, an airplane, a computer network, or a waste treatment facility. The Systems Engineer is the guy that makes things work.

Think of the classic "glass half full, glass half empty" test for optimism/pessimism. Any engineer can tell you the problem isn't half full or half empty. The problem is that the volume of the glass is twice a much as it needs to be to efficiently contain the liquid. The Systems Engineer is the guy who comes up with a way to successfully reduce the volume of the glass so it works properly, with maximum efficiency.

While the liquid is still in it.

And while people (customers) continue to drink out of it.

Which is why "Freakin' Awesome" should be a perfectly acceptable job title.

LEM

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  • $\begingroup$ So what if the "system" is a "connected network of computers"? Is that the same as a "flight control computer system" that an aeronautics engineer might work with? You didn't really differentiate in your answer. $\endgroup$ – hazzey Oct 2 '15 at 23:34
  • $\begingroup$ There's nothing to differentiate. The "complex whole," the systems, can be anything. In my case, the systems are generally interconnected networks of computers, switches, routers, printers, and other devices, as well as the software running on them, making up the complex wholes that I design, build, and maintain. I might not know everything about every component of the system, but I design it and build it to accomplish goals, make it work, and keep it working. $\endgroup$ – Larry McPhail Oct 3 '15 at 23:54

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