Unsystematic Engineering


Through the years I’ve often participated on panels convened to study some particular problem, usually at the behest of the government. Typically, these concern some program, project, or issue that involves engineering and science, and one that is not seen to be doing as well as was desired or anticipated. The panel, composed of scientists and engineers, gets numerous briefings from people directly involved and from outside experts. Finally, a report is prepared with recommendations about how to fix the trouble.

In my own experience, these final reports almost always contain at least one of the following three recommendations:

1. Provide more money.

2. Put someone in charge.

3. Do some systems engineering.

Such reports are invariably received courteously by the ­panel’s sponsors, but often with muted enthusiasm. I can see the wheels turning behind their eyes. ”We knew this stuff,” they are thinking. ”You people are supposed to give us a technical solution, not tell us how to manage this. You’re engineers, not management experts.”

Each time I have the feeling that the study’s sponsors believe or hope that there is some great new technology that will fix whatever the problem is, but that never seems to be the case. Almost always those involved with the problem are already perfectly aware of every applicable technology. Things run astray when their efforts are poorly coordinated, responsibility is diffuse, and management oversight and systems engineering or architecture at the top level are insufficient.

This brings up a conundrum that has long puzzled me. If systems engineering is so valuable, why is it so seldom practiced? I have my own opinions—based not on fact or special knowledge of the systems engineering field but simply on my engineering instincts, which I know can be dangerously misleading. So bearing that caveat in mind, let me tell you what I think.

First, academic prestige is based on expertise and reputation in narrow disciplines. Our engineering teachers have gained their authority by knowing a great deal about some special subject, rather than having broad general knowledge—they have depth, rather than breadth. This is the culture in which we engineers are trained.

Perhaps because of this cultural indoctrination, we instinctively admire a world expert in something so esoteric as to be inconsequential, while disdaining the generalist who lacks the prestige of specialist knowledge. I admit that I myself have often thought that I could admire a generalist only after he or she had demonstrated expertise in some special domain. Thus, the problem—can a systems engineer be created from whole cloth in college, or must the person first be brought up through a specific discipline?

The education problem for systems engineering is exacerbated by a nagging worry about its mathematical foundation. In short, is there a ”there” there? We engineers are used to building on the foundation of a relatively small set of mathematical rules—Maxwell’s Laws are the proto­typical example—where everything can be reduced to the application of a few equations. This kind of ordered world fits very nicely into textbooks and test questions.

In contrast, systems engineering is often based on experience and common sense, and we know where common sense fits in the hierarchy of things that justify a high salary. Perhaps it is also true that systems engineering is more of an art form and thus harder to teach than the traditional disciplines.

Then there is the way we go about engineering large systems. Divide and conquer is the usual approach. Pieces of the system are parceled out to different engineers, different organizations, and different companies. Any possibility of a holistic approach is forgone from the very start. Even systems integrators often have to deal with existing or preplanned piece parts. So even if everyone does his or her job right, the resultant system can still become a suboptimal kludge.

Through the years various universities have offered programs and degrees in systems engineering, but the results have been mixed. Even some famous engineers, realizing the need to educate new professionals, have gone to academic institutions to teach what they have learned about systems engineering. Unfortunately, there, too, the results have not been as good as hoped for.

In recent years, a number of well-known universities have begun new programs in systems engineering. Maybe now is the time for these programs to become successful. If not, we can always call for a panel to study the program. I wonder what it would say.

About the Author

ROBERT W. LUCKY (IEEE Fellow), now retired, was vice president for applied research at Telcordia Technology in Red Bank, N.J. ( rlucky@telcordia.com ).