We recently sat down with Fred Highland – graduate faculty for UMBC’s Systems Engineering Graduate Programs – to chat about the field of Systems Engineering. Highland teaches System Architecture and Design; Modeling, Simulation, and Analysis; and the Systems Engineering Project.

He offered insightful career-related information on what you can expect when entering this field and why it’s a great time to be a systems engineer. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

What did your career journey look like before UMBC?

I’m a retired Lockheed Martin employee. I spent thirty-eight years with Lockheed Martin and IBM doing system development, system engineering, and system architecture. I worked on the shuttle program and artificial intelligence research. I also worked on tax programs and document processing while working with census programs around the world. Additionally, I spent some time working in medical research. Basically, I performed a wide variety of typical systems engineering jobs.

What did you enjoy most about your work as a systems engineer? 

The most enjoyable part of my work was working on new technology and ideas while trying to solve problems that needed some serious solving.

Systems engineering is all about problem-solving. People and organizations have problems to solve and they need a system to solve it. The solutions require more than a simple fix. They demand a complex solution. Many times that means employing the latest technology and state-of-the-art idea to make it affordable and effective.

What kinds of things can a person expect to do as a systems engineer?

The types of things that you might do when first starting out are based around fundamentally supporting a bigger team. This support will likely be in the technical area performing analysis, trade studies, cost analysis, performance analysis, and supporting other teams that perform the development of hardware, software, or other processes.

As you evolve through your career, you’ll likely engage in more complex analysis by looking at the bigger picture. Then, you may get into leadership roles where you’re leading small teams and then potentially larger teams as you advance.

In the case of system architecture, you would lead a whole project from a technical standpoint. This is different than engineering management where the focus of that is more honed in on schedules and budgets. Though there is a little of that, a systems architect is more concerned with the technical aspects of a project.

Does everything talk to each other? Does the whole thing fit together? Does it do what the customer wants? Then ultimately, a systems architect will glean an even wider view by potentially reviewing other people’s programs to see if they’re doing the right thing. In this role, you’d advise and educate to make sure everybody has the proper resources to perform at peak capacity.

What skills do managers look for when hiring a systems engineer?

Of course, hiring managers look for the basic engineering skills in a candidate. Do they understand different types of engineering? Do they have the math and analysis background? Most importantly, do they have competent soft skills? Hiring managers want to know if a person knows how to communicate effectively with others. Do they get along with people? Can they get their point across?

Communication is a huge part of systems engineering because often you work in teams. Members of the team rely on each other, so you must be able to communicate verbally and in writing with your peers. Systems engineers write a lot of documents and they present their ideas at meetings and conferences. So, the ability to work with a team is really important. It’s not a solo job. Working in groups has its challenges, and if you can illustrate that you work well within teams, you will stand out.

Now beyond these skills, it’s also imperative that you possess a strong curiosity. Systems Engineering is not a field with clear cut answers. Often, a team must dig deep to find solutions. You must be willing to apply a set of skills across a wide range of possible issues to solve complex problems. So you must be interested in a lot of different things and have diversity in interests in order to be successful.

What kind of qualities do hiring managers look for in candidates?

You must be able to think quantitatively. This is really about putting numbers to problems to figure out what’s best. And not just what feels best or what seems right but actually being able to put a number on it to back up your claim with the help of solid data.

A quantitative mindset means you can do the analysis, understand the mathematical modeling of systems to be able to convert numbers effectively, and use those numbers to objectively judge the viability of the program.

Aside from the quantitative ability, you must possess a collaborative, people-person personality. A systems engineer isn’t a stand-alone position. A person in this role will be working within a team. So communication skills are imperative.

How can a person stand out above the competition?

To stand out, you must have a breadth of understanding of a number of different fields. This isn’t to say you must be an expert in everything, but a solid understanding of basic engineering analysis methods is a must, as well as a good understanding of math, physics, and electronics. Being able to apply those types of methods by converting a hard problem into a model to do an analysis to successfully show better approaches will help you rise above the competition in a job search.

Are there many opportunities for a career in systems engineering?

There are plenty of opportunities in this field. It’s a field that crosses a lot of other disciplines and needs people to be able to bring many concepts together. We’re seeing systems engineers in government agencies and in various fields like medical and environment where engineers have to perform analyses to make systems work at a complex level.

There are a lot of complex problems in the world in things like the environment, health, space exploration, and alternative energy. None of these problems are going to be solved by individual people. They’re going to take teams willing to work hard. The world needs people who are curious and motivated to investigate new technology. If you like math, science, and engineering and you like working with people, systems engineering is a way to help solve the world’s problems while it takes you places you never imagined.

Ready to Claim Your Future

UMBC’s Master’s of Science and graduate certificate programs in Systems Engineering accelerate the development of systems engineers by providing practical, real-world experiences that can be immediately applied on the job. UMBC’s coursework balances theoretical understanding with practical applications, preparing students with industry-relevant skills that employers are looking for. Check it out. 

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