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Tech update

Systems engineers are the "big picture" people

The growth path for systems engineers in many industries involves technical leadership on large and complex development projects

A lot of the work is involved with defense contracting and national security


At General Atomics ASI, Jesse Padilla is in top-level planning and helping to create a new systems integration lab.

At General Dynamics C4 Systems, David Hinojosa directs a team of systems engineers building an upgraded satellite-based military communications system.

At General Dynamics C4 Systems, David Hinojosa directs a team of systems engineers building an upgraded satellite-based military communications system.

The amazing mobilization of American industry during World War II was the genesis of the systems engineer. This multi-disciplined techie was dedicated to managing the life cycle of complex undertakings composed of many interrelated parts and systems.

As today's technology piles complexity on complexity, students are preparing themselves for careers in the field and colleges are expanding their offerings. It seems clear enough that the demand for systems engineers is continuing to grow. But it's difficult to get a fix on just how much and how fast the field is growing.

"Systems engineering is done under a variety of job descriptions," notes Celeste Haskins, director of public relations for the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE, www.incose.org). "There's no good way to collect reliable statistics, and so INCOSE does not try to track the job market at this time."

She adds, however, that, "based on the increased interest in INCOSE shown by recent increases in our membership and corporate advisory board, we can safely conclude that interest in systems engineering is growing."

Systems: the heart of the project
As INCOSE and its members see it, systems engineering is absolutely essential to much of what industry, government and research organizations are working on. Systems engineers do more than pull various technical tasks together. They are often at the heart of an entire project: the "big picture" people. Meeting such challenges requires a blend of experience, education and drive.

INCOSE, says Haskins, finds that the best candidates combine "a deep knowledge in some hard science or engineering specialization, and a broad knowledge of technology and how projects work." In the course of acquiring these attributes, many of today's systems engineers have amassed complex and colorful resumes.

Loretta Kestler is a fleet support team leader for NAVAIR

Loretta Kestler

Loretta Kestler is Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) H2/H3 fleet support team leader for the U.S. Naval Air Depot in Cherry Point, NC, working at the Marine Corps Air Station there. Although she's a civilian, she's worked in military aviation throughout her career.

Kestler earned her 1992 BSEE at North Carolina State University. In school she was part of a co-op program working on the Electronic Product Code (EPC) platform for NAVAIR at the Patuxent River Naval Test Center in Maryland.

After graduation she continued that focus at the Naval Air Depot in Cherry Point. At first she was involved with avionics for a Harrier series aircraft, working with lighting, cockpit instrumentation, weapons and computer controls on a team of a dozen techies.

"I'd never done hands-on before," she says. And now she was walking under the aircraft and crawling over it. It was a wonderful initiation.

In 2003 Kestler joined the avionics test equipment/test program as a sub-team leader. She was overseeing the support equipment used to test the avionics, and the work of the engineers on her team.

Two years later she transferred to helicopter technology. As team leader in the H2/H3 program, she manages the overall effort of the fleet support team, which interfaces with the organization group, an intermediate group for troubleshooting, and a depot group for further testing.

She's also responsible for staying on budget and on time. "I'm enjoying myself immensely," she reports.

Success in this, as in many careers, depends not only on your own skills but also on your team. "You have to have good people around you," she says. "If I'm not making a good decision I want someone to tell me." You get that kind of cooperation, she notes, "by talking to people and listening to them."

Kestler is part of NAVAIR's senior executive management development program. Staying up to date on technology and management opportunities has helped her throughout her career.

David Hinojosa: principal systems engineer with General Dynamics C4

David Hinojosa

Today David Hinojosa is a principal systems engineer with General Dynamics C4 Systems, directing a team of systems engineers responsible for building an upgraded satellite-based communications system for the U.S. military. He's been aiming for a post like this since he graduated from college in 1981.

At General Dynamics C4, systems engineers are the architects of a project, Hinojosa says. They define its design, requirements and specs and are responsible for integration and test. Hinojosa has oversight of planning, budgets and management of his team's technical responsibilities.

Hinojosa earned his 1981 BS cum laude in CS and applied statistics at St. Mary's University (San Antonio, TX). On graduation he went to work as a programmer/analyst at Datapoint Corp (San Antonio, TX). He had his eye on a career path in datacom, which looked to be ready for rapid growth. While he was there, Datapoint was already doing pioneering LAN work.

In 1983 Hinojosa moved to Xerox in Dallas, TX as a telecom specialist. "I was seeing the evolution of LAN and WAN," he says. He eventually became a first line manager, supervising a datacom support team.

In 1988 he joined the tech staff of Bell Northern Research (Richardson, TX) as a senior member of scientific staff. In 1994 he moved to a section manager post at Motorola in Fort Worth, TX, where he worked in configuration management and systems integration.

Two years later he was a principal system engineer on Motorola's Iridium program, involved with satellite communications. He moved to Motorola's Scottsdale, AZ, location, managing systems integration for CDMA mobility management subsystem testing.

By 2003 the Iridium project was ramping down, Hinojosa says, so he moved to a similar systems integration post at General Dynamics C4, also in Scottsdale.

Hinojosa thinks that much of his success comes from knowing what he wants to do and remaining flexible to the shifts in the industry and technologies. "I identified my exposure area in telecom and datacom and then proceeded to follow that plan." Broad exposure, a broad background and keeping up with technology, he says, are also important for a systems engineer, and "Communications skills are critical."

Hinojosa is satisfied that the work he does is worthwhile. The safety of American troops is a personal matter for him and his team. "If we can make it safer for military personnel in combat, that's a positive thing," he says. "It's one of the reasons I'm in the defense industry. I know the products we work on will make a difference for our warfighters."

A team at General Atomics ASI standardizes processes for customers

Kim Schafer

As the engineering manager of system level projects at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI, San Diego, CA), Kim Schafer oversees nine systems engineers whose work includes process standardization for several systems.

Most of the systems engineers in her department have aerospace, mechanical, software or electrical engineering backgrounds to suit the projects they're working on, she notes. The work is done under a variety of contracts, and the team is involved in reviewing contractual requirements for completeness, accuracy and verifiability to prepare for the systems requirement review, a formal milestone for DOD contracts.

They use Telelogic's DOORS requirements management system, and interface with other subject matter experts, "working with the technical team to be sure everyone is on the same page," Schafer says.

About a third of her engineers have postgrad degrees. Even more important is being able to communicate well and "knowing enough to ask the right questions," she says.

Systems engineers should be interested in "the big picture as opposed to detailed design," she says. "It requires a certain skill set. Not everyone can or wants to do it."

Jesse Padilla is a systems/project engineer at General Atomics ASI
Jesse Padilla joined GA-ASI in 2005 as a systems/project engineer. He's well suited to the task, with a good deal of related industrial experience plus twenty years in the U.S. Navy.

He joined the Navy in 1977 and served for four years on active duty. He was assigned to acoustics analysis for anti-submarine warfare, and did duty as a helicopter crewman running an acoustics processor to track submarines. He was also a combat search-and-rescue swimmer.

When Padilla went on reserve he worked for the San Diego Unified School District and attended Mesa Junior College (San Diego, CA). In 1987 he received an associates degree in math and got a job as a technician at the Naval Under Sea Warfare Engineering Station (San Diego, CA, now called the Under Sea Systems Center). He edited electronic media files and worked with staff engineers to create technical reports.

In 1992 he completed his BSME at San Diego State University. The next year he joined Allied Signal Aerospace in Oceanside, CA as a field engineer. He moved up to manufacturing engineer, responsible for sonar systems for ballistic missile submarines.

Three years later he joined Cubic Corp (San Diego, CA). He was promoted from manufacturing engineer to project engineer, systems engineer and principal systems engineer, responsible for manufacturing engineering on DOD projects in the data communications group.

Last year Padilla moved to GA-ASI. His job involves the flow-down of requirements to various subsystems. "We are part of the link from the customer to the technician performing a test," he notes.

He's also involved in top-level production and integration planning, and is helping create a systems integration lab to test new technology. "It's very exciting," he says. "It began past the border of my comfort zone, but it's a great opportunity to expand my base of knowledge.

"Working with a tight crew on a helicopter you gain team skills which translate well into the workplace environment," Padilla explains. "I came here to be on the front end."

Lourdes Howard: backend requirements at Aerojet

Lourdes Howard

Lourdes Howard got into systems engineering straight out of college. Her 1999 BSEE is from California State University-Fresno and her 2001 MSEE from the University of California-Davis. Today she's a systems engineer at Aerojet (Sacramento, CA).

But first she worked for Boeing (Seattle, WA). She was hired in 2001 as a systems engineer and put in the electronics systems group under the guidance of a mentor. She interfaced with other EEs to develop specs. Within a year she joined the systems engineering group.

Last year she moved to Northern California with her husband, and found a systems engineering position at Aerojet.

Before Aerojet her work involved "up-front requirements definition," she says. At Aerojet she took up "backend requirements verification." That means that "The requirements are already defined and we're making sure the system design complies with them."

The job involves lots of interfacing: with designers, analysts, program managers, quality managers and more. "As systems become more complex there's a need for systems engineers to glue it all together," she says.

Aerospace Corp: a diverse pool of systems engineering candidates

Walter Caldwell

Some large technology companies employ a vast number of systems engineers. At the Aerospace Corp (El Segundo, CA), Walter Caldwell is manager of staffing resources. He always tries to reach out to a diverse pool of quality systems engineering candidates.

"When we talk systems engineering here we're talking about aerospace, mechanical, electrical, chemical, physics and math," Caldwell says. Systems engineering is the core discipline at Aerospace, but the company prefers its techies to come in with a well-rounded background.

Caldwell looks for people with good presentation skills, who can not only solve problems but explain them to others. New employees are paired with mentors and taught the basics of systems engineering at Aerospace.

"We're looking for long-term commitments," Caldwell says. "Our turnover ratio never exceeds 4 percent. People are here for the long haul, and our engineers are the best."

Recruiting diversity at Applied Signal
At Applied Signal Technology (Sunnyvale, CA), senior tech recruiter Todd Penns is also seeking diversity. "We are a company that primarily has just one customer, the U.S. government," he says. "As a result, we are very cognizant of the need to reflect today's society."

"Diversity brings a wealth of information and experience into our knowledge base," Penns adds. He notes that Aerospace "has a policy of transparency when it comes to hiring."

Systems engineering staff recruiter Greg Rossow has the task of seeking out the strengths in each job candidate. "An ideal system engineer has several key attributes," he says. They include industry and technical knowledge, knowledge-in-depth of specific areas of engineering, and strong interpersonal and communications skills.

"The growth path for systems engineers in our industry involves technical leadership on large and complex development projects. Systems engineers have to be able to form and coordinate the activities of a strong team of technical personnel," Rossow says.


Claire Swedberg is a freelance writer who lives in La Conner, WA.

Check the latest openings at these diversity-minded companies.

Company and location Business area
(Sacramento, CA)
Aerospace and defense
Aerospace Corp
(El Segundo, CA)
Satellite, ground control and space systems
Alcoa Inc
(Pittsburgh, PA)
Applied Signal Technology
(Sunnyvale, CA)
Signal processing equipment
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems
(San Diego, CA)
Unmanned aircraft; high-resolution surveillance and radar imaging systems
General Dynamics C4 Systems
(Scottsdale, AZ)
Space to ground communication systems
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
(Laurel, MD)
R&D; for defense and the U.S. government
Moog, Inc
(East Aurora, NY)
Precision control components and systems
(Patuxent River, MD)
Readiness and combat systems for the Navy and Marine Corps
REMEC Defense & Space Inc
(San Diego, CA)
Millimeter and microwave products for defense and communications
Sentel Corp
(Alexandria, VA)
Engineering and software for DOD, NASA, FAA and other government agencies
Worley Parsons
(Reading PA)

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