Engineering Management vs Systems Engineering - Which is Right for You?

engineering management versus systems engineering
engineering management versus systems engineering
engineering management versus systems engineering

Engineering Management vs Systems Engineering - Which is Right for You?

Many professionals in the engineering field are deciding which path to take to reach their next level of professional development. Engineering management and systems engineering management are two possible paths.

Engineering Management

Engineering management is a field for engineers, scientists, and computer scientists wanting to add management and leadership expertise to their already established technical skill-set. Engineering management lies at the intersection of applying sound engineering principles to projects and having the savvy business acumen necessary for all financial, administrative, and planning activities that support project development from conception to completion.

Engineering managers are in charge of research and development teams working on new products, processes, designs, and improvements. Their work also includes creating project budgets, hiring and managing staff, staff training, determining equipment needs, monitoring the building of and maintenance of equipment, and creating detailed plans for reaching technical goals.

Systems Engineering Management

The International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) defines systems engineering management as “an interdisciplinary approach and means to enable the realization of successful systems. It focuses on defining customer needs and required functionality early in the development cycle, documenting requirements, then proceeding with design synthesis, and system validation while considering the complete problem.”

Systems engineering management is “concerned with the overall process of defining, developing, operating, maintaining, and ultimately replacing quality systems. Where other engineering disciplines concentrate on the specifics of a system (electronics, mechanics, ergonometrics, aerodynamics, software, etc.), systems thinking allows the systems engineer to focus on the integration of all of these aspects as a coherent and effective system. Systems engineers bring a particular perspective to the engineering process that serves to organize and coordinate other engineering activities.”

Engineering Management: Areas of Responsibility

Engineering managers typically have four areas of responsibility:

1. Supervising engineers or engineering technologists

2. Project management

3. Working with clients

4. Providing advice and resources

Engineering managers split their time between supervising engineers and working with others from different departments such as: financial managers, production managers, marketing managers, contractors, and vendors. Engineering managers with an effective interpersonal skill-set including the ability to listen well, negotiate conflict, and effectively communicate are highly valued. Engineers who enjoy interacting with others and providing guidance and support would be considered a good fit for this type of position.

Systems Engineering Management: Areas of Responsibility

Systems engineer managers are the “primary interface between management, customers, suppliers, and specialty engineers in the systems development process.” Some of the responsibilities of system engineer managers include:

  • Managing system engineers’ teams to support new product development

  • Driving technical excellence for meeting technical standards and processes

  • Overseeing, measuring, and assessing global system performance

  • Planning short and long range projects to increase system efficiency

  • Driving system platform adoption and usage

  • Handling current engineering systems

  • Handling routine maintenance and troubleshoot unexpected issues

  • Managing supplier contracts, maintenance agreements, and upgrades

Those working in systems engineering management focus on how to manage complex engineering systems. They are responsible for coordinating teams, testing and evaluation, logistics, and all other things necessary for the successful development, design, and implementation of a system.

Effective Engineering Managers

A wide technical skill-set, combined with a keen understanding of business principles and stellar interpersonal communication skills, make for successful engineering managers. The following are particular abilities that identify effective engineering managers:

  • Having sound project management skills

  • Understanding how various disciplines operate both separately and together

  • Ability to communicate the objective of the project to the team

  • Ability to understand that people learn in different ways – visual, aural, logical, verbal, and tactile and being able to present information in those different ways

  • Ability to maximize financial and human resources

  • Ability to prioritize tasks

Effective System Engineering Managers

Sara Sumner, Applications Engineer with Vitech, a training, research, and development company, suggests the following abilities necessary for effective system engineering managers:

  • A Good Communicator

Systems engineers must interpret the customer’s needs and set clear objectives with their team to ensure the vision can be transformed into an elegant solution, meeting the customer’s needs.”

  • Adaptability and Embracing of Change

“Great systems engineers will embrace the challenge of the change and show their adaptability by thinking on their feet, assessing the problem, gauging the system impact, and discovering the best solution.”  

  • Appreciates the Process, but Deviates when Needed

“Understanding what processes are needed, knowing when to adhere to the process, and realizing when it is necessary to deviate from the process, is the sign of a great systems engineer.”

  • Maintains a Systems Perspective

“A great systems engineer is able to maintain a systems perspective throughout the entire lifecycle of the project. A systems perspective considers the role of the system and the environment in which it will operate, and how the whole of the system, to include its entire context, can be impacted by any change to the system elements.”

  • Decisive

“When making decisions, a great systems engineer will hear all opinions, assess all options, and then determine the best solution to maintain the technical integrity of the system. When a decision is made, it will be made with confidence, authority, and will determine the next course of action for the project and possibly influence the entire system design.”

There are many similarities between the skills, tasks, and abilities necessary for a position in either engineering or systems engineering management. Having a clear understanding of one’s personal preferences, skill-set, and career aspirations is imperative when trying to determine which next career path to take.

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