Technical Report: The Helix Project

Report Number: Technical Report SERC-2013-TR-038-2

Report Name: Helix – Phases 1 and 2

Publication Date: December 20, 2013


Executive Summary
Helix, a project of the Systems Engineering Research Center (SERC), is a multi-year longitudinal study designed to build an understanding of the landscape of the systems engineering workforce, what enables and inhibits the effectiveness of systems engineers, and how organizations are attempting to improve their effectiveness.

Helix is exploring three research questions:

• What are the characteristics of systems engineers?

• How effective are systems engineers and why?

• What are employers doing to improve the effectiveness of their systems engineers?

Note that Helix is not studying “systems engineering” per se. Helix is focused instead on the people who perform systems engineering. The distinction is important and permeates how the research is conducted. In its first year, Helix obtained information from seven organizations within the US Department of Defense (DoD) and the US defense industrial base (DIB). That information came from a combination of institutional reports (policies, demographics, career paths, etc.) and 90-minute interviews with 112 individuals, including systems engineers and those who work with systems engineers.

1. Question 1

What are the Characteristics of Systems Engineers? Among the most important findings from the initial interviews is clarity about the mix of personal characteristics and technical competencies that are most important in a strong systems engineer. Strong characteristics in leadership, communications, big picture thinking, personal networking, organization, being comfortable with uncertainty, understanding details, balancing conflicting information, and knowing the right questions to ask are common characteristics of the best systems engineers. Several of these characteristics are in tension – e.g., big picture thinking and understanding details. A good systems engineer can balance these conflicting characteristics. The most important technical competencies include a solid understanding of least one discipline such as mechanical or electrical engineering, the ability to apply that understanding in depth within a domain such as telecommunications, and the ability to understand other engineering disciplines to the point of being able to ask insightful questions. Besides helping a systems engineer make the right technical decisions, these competencies increase the system engineer’s credibility as a technical leader. Three systems engineering-specific competencies stand out: being able to apply the overall systems engineering process, being able to work with stakeholders to develop clear, testable requirements, and understanding how all the system pieces fit together. Typically there is a transition from an engineer being a “specialty engineer” to becoming a “systems engineer”, and this can happen at any point in the career path. In this transition, it is important for the individual to focus on breadth rather than depth. Some disciplinary experts fail to make this transition well, which can make them ineffective as systems engineers. December, 2013 Helix Technical Report 8 2.

2. Question 2

How effective are systems engineers and why? Understanding the effectiveness of systems engineers is complicated. Generally, interviewees had difficulty articulating what it means for them to be effective beyond staying within cost, schedule, and required performance parameters. Many said they were effective if they were able to follow organizational processes and procedures. Others said being effective means identifying issues and anticipating risks. Most interviewees built on their views regarding important characteristics and competencies; e.g., many said they were effective if they were able to pull together the right people on their team and have them work in harmony – a direct consequence of their leadership, communications, and personal networking characteristics. Many who were interviewed emphasized being able to predict and articulate the long-range impacts of actions. The significant time lag between a systems engineer’s decision and others being able to see the results of that decision can hinder the ability of others to understand and appreciate the important role systems engineers play. Interviewees articulated several important benefits they offer, including: translating highly technical information from subject matter experts (SMEs) into common language that other stakeholders can understand; eliciting the right requirements from the customer; balancing traditional project management cost and schedule concerns with technical requirements; seeing relationships between engineering disciplines and asking the right questions to balance these disciplines; and managing changes in requirements; and understanding future implications of current decisions. Interviewees were asked what most improves their effectiveness. The two most common responses were strong mentoring and diverse experiences. Conversely, the most commonly cited inhibitors to effectiveness were confusion within the organization as to what systems engineering is and who the systems engineers are, the long time lag between when systems engineers make decisions and when the effects of those decisions are apparent, a failure of non-systems engineers to understand and appreciate the value that systems engineers bring, and compressed schedules.

3. Question 3

What are employers doing to improve their systems engineers’ effectiveness? Although the Helix team has gained some insight into initiatives being conducted to improve systems engineers, it is premature to report these findings here. First findings on employer initiatives will be described in the next report. In 2014, the Helix team will continue to analyze data collected to date and enrich that data with more interviews, institutional data, and perhaps other types of data sources as well. The next report will be published in Spring 2014. Additionally, Helix will hold one or two workshops in 2014 to explore and refine its findings with experts across the community; a primary goal of these workshops will be facilitating organizational understanding of the findings, helping organizations understand where these insights may provide keys to improving their own workforce initiatives, and helping organizations tailor their workforce initiatives based on these insights.


Helix – Developing Effective Systems Engineers