System Engineering in the Information Technology Trenches


Remember when camping out in the back yard was an adventure?   Some of you do and others have repressed the memory for reasons as varied as poison ivy and other grim realities of the great outdoors.   Older system engineers remember the good old days, too, when budgets were plentiful and programs were unquestionably complex enough to demand a disciplined approach to managing across the individual segments.  A space launch, a nuclear reactor, a nuclear airplane[1] or submarine- all of these exuded complexity of an order that required complete integration of the technical effort across diverse fields of expertise and technology. 

Failure of these systems carried serious repercussions that included injury and loss of life on a scale guaranteed to make the news.  For this and other solid reasons, risk management was taken very seriously. 

 System engineering’s role was so obvious and perhaps successful in those days that there appeared to be no need to codify it beyond the standard practices developed within a company or industry.   Things changed when information technology (IT) projects moved out of the dedicated functional environment of independent systems.  These projects became increasingly complex due to the demand for more interoperability, integration, and other desirable characteristics that promised a new age of prosperity and achievement.  Even more significant the budget for some IT projects began routinely matching that of a bomber fleet.

 It would appear logical that systems engineering concepts would be especially important to manage the complexity of those IT projects that involved multiple systems, served large organizations, had huge costs and long delivery schedules. 

 As logical as that may be, the appreciation of how to manage complexity seems to be lagging in the development and operation of IT technology.  It appears that the system engineer in the IT world is increasingly being removed from process oversight and relegated to running errands for the crisis of the day crowd.  This crowd all too frequently has dubious credentials for making decisions and may well be a force for change that is far less than what is desired or even expected.

 Fortunately this, condition will not survive long and when cost overruns and program failures touch the customers, a new age of systems engineering will emerge.  It might not be called systems engineering and there might not even be a specific job title associated, but the management of complexity will always be needed and appreciated by those in the crowd who ultimately achieve success. 

[1] The Air Force used the B-36  as a test bed in the early 1950’s to develop an unsuccessful nuclear powerplant.