System Engineering Basics

Key Points

  • System engineers get everyone working towards the same goals, help people share information, and tend to do most of the paperwork.

  • Different companies have system engineers doing different things. You could be running a research project, managing requirements, filing government paperwork, or coming up with new mission concepts.

  • Most spacecraft failures happen at the interfaces of things. For instance, the structures team and the thermal team forgot to update an important number so the design fails. System engineers are the ones making sure everyone has the right numbers.

A Bit More Detail

system chart

System engineers think about how things work together. Some engineers are excellent at being technical masters of things like structures or software. They don’t have time to think about how other teams are doing, they just need the information to get their part done. System engineers help build experts like that into a team.

That simple theme can turn into almost anything. Some example tasks include:

  1. Managing requirements: Teams of all sizes have to know what they’re trying to do. System engineers develop requirements and help everyone else check them off.

  2. Working with vendors: Programs of all sizes buy things from other companies. Making sure you get quality products on time takes work from both supply chain and system engineers.

  3. Managing teams: The teams can be a few people to over a thousand people. System engineers tend to be in charge because they are the ones thinking about how everything works together.

  4. Creating schedules: Big programs have a program planning office. Smaller programs have system engineers make schedules that the team works to.

  5. Work with customers: Customers have their own system engineers that want to make sure they’re getting their money’s worth. Programs assign system engineers to talk with the customer and keep them happy.

Those are just a few example tasks and those tasks can turn into many different things. For instance, a requirements engineer could be the lead over a dozen other requirements engineers or they could work on the mission operations team or only on electrical engineering teams. Another example is a system engineer could work with one big vendor with tens of millions of dollars changing hands or they could have a dozen smaller vendors they work with. Each of those would require a different skillset and set of priorities.


Curated Videos

    NASA co-produced this video with Saylor. This series of videos is a wonderful introduction to system engineering with real-world examples.

    Inmarsat put together a little promo video following one of their young system engineers around. It’s short and snappy, showing you how diverse their job is.

    This pseudo-lecture is a little slow-paced, but has good information if you stick with it (or skip around).


Curated Links

    INCOSE is the “International Council on Systems Engineering”. They maintain all sorts of documents, processes, and standards related to systems engineering. You can also get certified by them and participate in working groups.

    NASA maintains an entire textbook on system engineering. It’s an incredible resource that’s worth having at your fingertips when working on NASA or government contracts.