Frequently Asked Questions – Systems Engineering

What is a “system”?

A system is a collection of different elements that together produce results not obtainable by the elements alone. The elements, or parts, can include people, hardware, software, facilities, policies, and documents (INCOSE). From this definition, we understand that, a “system” can be anything that consists of smaller parts that work together to form that system. And a system can be very small or very large. Some examples of systems:

  • The engine of a car is a system that consists of the cylinder, spark plug, valves, etc.
  • A car is a system that consists of different parts such as the engine, the windshield, the seats, etc.
  • A car production line is a system that consists of different production equipment, operators that run the equipment, etc., to manufacture that car.
  • A company is a system that consists of elements such as people, different (engineering and non-engineering) departments, policies, etc.
  • A multi-national corporation is a system, including smaller systems in the form of several branches in different countries. And all those branches have their smaller parts that any company would have (see the company example above).
What is “systems engineering”?

As you can see from the definition and examples above, systems include different parts that do not belong to only one engineering discipline or only one business definition. Now we know what a system can be. What is engineering? Engineering, in general, is the application of science and math to solve problems. Based on the definitions of a system and engineering, we can say that systems engineering is the application of science, math, and management knowledge to solve problems related to any system (however large or small). 

Systems engineering is like putting together a puzzle, matching varied pieces together to make one cohesive wholeTherefore, it is a multi-disciplinary field that incorporates engineering, management, systems thinking (the ability to see the big picture) and business topics. Its main goal is to understand how a system works, and design, improve and manage that system. That means you will be exposed to systems, management, business and engineering concepts, and will have the necessary understanding and skills to work on interdisciplinary projects.

What does a systems engineer do?

Due to the wide definition of a system and all the different aspects involved in it, a systems engineer can do numerous things and work in various industries. Here is a simple definition: A systems engineer oversees the engineering, business and management aspects of a project or a system, and makes sure that all the parts properly work together. Systems engineers are concerned with the “big picture” of a project in addition to engineering aspects and must consider details like cost, schedules and social issues that may be associated with a project.

For example, let’s talk about a cell phone design project. A cell phone includes both mechanical and electrical parts, so both mechanical and electrical engineers work on it. A systems engineer, let’s call her Jane, can work as the project manager who organizes the resources and the schedule needed for that project. Or, she can work as a quality engineer to ensure the quality of the parts and the end product (the cell phone). Or, she can be the marketing person who understands what the customer wants and ensures that the cell phone will meet customer needs and so on.

A systems engineer knows how to support her/his decisions by using appropriate methods at every level of an organization. Those decisions often involve an understanding of risks and uncertainties related to the future of a project. So, a systems engineer should know how to identify and analyze those risks and uncertainties, and make decisions (or support his/her boss in making certain decisions) based on that understanding.

Here are some more things our friend Jane can do: She can predict when customer expectations could shift in the future and what new technologies would emerge (see the business and engineering connection?). Based on that knowledge, she can propose technical updates for that cell phone, when to provide those updates, how to design the new version of that cell phone and when to release it to the market. What she does here is that she sees the “big picture” and works on how to make it better for the company she works for.

Overall, our graduates will have the knowledge to do the things listed below:

  • Solve complex engineering problems using systems engineering skills.
  • Manage units with technical / engineering functions.
  • Handle interdisciplinary issues and problems.
  • Make tactical and strategic decisions at every level of an organization from the entry level engineer position to top management (we sincerely hope you get there fast!).
  • Understand future trends in global markets and economy.
  • Find the best (optimum) solutions to problems (save time and money).
  • Manage multinational units, project and global supply chains.
Which industries can a systems engineer work in?

Because systems engineers have various engineering and business skills, they can have more choices than usual. Systems engineers are employed in a wide variety of industries including:

  • Energy
  • Telecommunications
  • Construction
  • Manufacturing
  • Transportation and distribution
  • Information technology
  • Financial services, banking
  • Automotive
  • Retail
  • Healthcare
  • Airlines and Aerospace
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Homeland Security
  • Environmental systems
  • The list goes on….
Please tell me about the career outlook and how much a systems engineer can earn.

During the last decade more and more companies have started to look for individuals who are educated in interdisciplinary fields such as systems engineering (For example, a lot of energy companies are looking for interdisciplinary engineers right now. Studies show that this search is likely to expand noticeably in the near future). It is a fact that traditional engineers are given an ever-increasing amount of management responsibilities after a few years working as a pure engineer. If you are not trained in certain business and management areas, the transition from traditional engineering to management can become difficult. Systems engineering also provides a unique engineering perspective that only business and management training may not. In this sense, systems engineering education prepares you to take management responsibilities and higher level positions effectively.

In 2008, reported a total of 519,597 jobs available in systems engineering (one of the highest). Starting salaries range from $54,000 to $95,000 per year.

What are the advantages of being a student at the Industrial and Systems Engineering at UNC Charlotte?

There are many. But here are some of them:

  • Since we’ve just started to offer this program, you can expect fewer students per professor compared to the other departments. That means you can take better advantage of your interaction with the accomplished faculty here.
  • The systems engineering field is rapidly growing, but it is still a moderately new discipline. For that reason, the national and international markets are NOT saturated with systems engineers yet. If you plan to work in the Charlotte region, you are in luck as well. Charlotte area is home to the headquarters of many Fortune 500 companies (such as Bank of America, Duke Energy, Nucor Corp., Sonic Automotive, Goodrich Corp., Lowe’s, etc). In addition, 306 other Fortune 500 companies are represented in the Charlotte area covering a variety of industries. All this fits our goal perfectly since our graduates will be prepared to work in a wide variety of industries.
  • Employers are looking for multi-disciplinary people who understand both engineering and business issues (so that new employees can hit the ground running). This is an application-oriented program. Our main purpose is to graduate systems engineers who will be the bridge between engineering and business in whatever company they work for, starting with the first day at work.  
  • You are going to be among the first students and the first graduates of this program. That means you will be extra special! You will have a place in the growth of this program. And, you will always be the ones who originated the systems engineering team spirit in this campus!